Artists’ work puts human faces on complexities of the border

Categories: Nation/World

July 19, 2013, edition
By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

This piece features some mundane items that migrants carry with them. CNS photo / Gary O’Brien

St. Thomas More Newman Center’s walls, halls and even the water fountain in the lobby were decked out in a wide variety of artwork and found items, displayed artistically. But it was the rows of unmatched shoes that told the simplest story.

Bedraggled sneakers, boots with their soles hanging by threads, sandals with broken straps, one apparently unsuccessful attempt at making footwear out of a piece of carpet and a bit of string were carefully lined along the main aisle, one shoe next to each pew.

The shoes were a vivid part of an exhibit of work by painter Pamela Hoffmeister and mixed media artist Deborah McCullough during the Social Action Summer Institute, a five-day program for Catholic social ministers in June. McCullough’s collection of shoes gave silent, and sometimes still stinky, testimony about how hard it is to cross the desert on foot.

A detail of a piece by McCullough shows how she created it from items dropped or left along migrant trails. CNS photo/Gary O’Brien

During her regular walks in the Sonoran Desert outside Tucson, Ariz., with volunteers who look for migrants in need of assistance, McCullough collects the shoes, as well as empty tuna cans, books, notes, toothbrushes and other personal items and turns them into works of art. Many take the form of small shrines, built around a theme: A battered baby doll is surrounded by other children’s items; a weathered Bible is backed by an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and set in a well-worn shoe.

What would YOU do to save your family?

Other pieces were what McCullough refers to as collections rather than art: a bowl full of toothpaste tubes, another dish of toothbrushes, empty water bottles — some still green with slime — hung on the Newman Center’s drinking fountain, and a curtain fashioned from the hand-embroidered cloths used to wrap tortillas.

“It is my intention to have people ask themselves, ‘What would I do to take care of my family?’ ” McCullough said. “ ‘Would I drink green water to try to save my family from starving? Would I walk until the soles on my shoes fall off?’ ”

Hoffmeister stands near a display of her work. CNS photo/Gary O’Brien

For nearly a decade, she has picked up items that have been left behind by people on their trek across the desert. For McCullough, it’s a way of connecting with migrants she never sees, some no doubt picked up by the Border Patrol, others who succeed in getting to a new home in the U.S., and still others who have died of exposure to heat or cold, of dehydration or other hazards both natural and human.

“Once you encounter someone out there (in the desert) it changes you forever,” McCullough said. “You can’t go home and not be conscious of it. You want to change the situation somehow. I’m an artist. I’d be up at night, unable to sleep, so I went out and started putting things together.”


Those found dead in desert remembered

McCullough stands with her work “Angel of Mercy,” whose skirt is made up of ribbons, each bearing the name of a person who has died in the Sonoran Desert from 2011 through February 2012. CNS photo/Gary O’Brien

A couple of her pieces are dedicated to individuals such as Josseline, a 14-year-old from El Salvador whose body was found by a friend of McCullough’s. That piece, titled “Angel of Mercy,” is of a female angel, holding a simple cross in one hand. Her skirt is made of dozens of narrow fabric ribbons, each bearing the name of one of the people found dead in the desert in 2011.

McCullough explained that as she sewed the strips onto the skirt, it gave her “hours to think of the suffering of each death, the sadness of each family waiting to hear from someone who died alone, of how they think of him or her and wonder why they never hear from them, not knowing that she is listed as ‘unknown, skeletal remains’ in a morgue in Tucson. The family will never know what happened.”

Hoffmeister’s paintings are more traditional art, paintings of migrants she has encountered as they worked at farms in Oregon or stopped for meals at a charity dining room in Nogales, Mexico, just across the border from Arizona, where she sometimes volunteers. She also said her motivation is to help people see the individuals who are part of the immigration story.

“But I don’t want to make propaganda,” she said. “I want to make art.”

She got her start on the theme beginning with a conversation with a stranger at a grocery store about Arizona’s S.B. 1070, a law intended to crack down on illegal immigration. It piqued her interest.

Not long after, a friend of Hoffmeister’s asked her to give a ride to someone who was doing some work for her. As she drove the man to her friend’s house, she learned he didn’t drive because he had no immigration documents. He would send most of his money home to Chiapas each Friday so his children could afford to go to school.

“His was the first migrant portrait I painted,” she said.

McCullough and Hoffmeister display bracelets fashioned from used tuna cans found in the desert along with other belongings left by migrants. CNS photo/Gary O’Brien

Hoffmeister began reading up on immigration law and policy and its problems. She talked to scholars and looked into humanitarian organizations and read some of the work of Holy Cross Father Daniel Groody, director of the Center for Latino Spirituality and Culture at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies. He has spent many years doing pastoral work and research on migration.

McCullough stands near a portion of her work that lists the number and names of bodies found in the desert over the course of a year. CNS photo/Gary O’Brien

“Once I began it was like the scales fell from my eyes,” she said. She’s painted 116 portraits, some from people who pose for her over several days, others done from snapshots taken before the migrant moves on. She interviews the subjects and learns their stories before asking them if she can paint their portrait.

McCullough said her husband has offered to put her works in a trailer and take them wherever there’s a good opportunity to let the pieces tell their stories. She dreams of having them go on display where members of Congress would see them, for example.

Editor’s Note: Some of McCullough’s work, and the jewelry she sells, can be seen at her website: More information about Hoffmeister’s work is on her blog page: