Today’s Artists of San Miguel: Social and political issues in art

By Natalie Taylor

Art was not the first passion, nor profession for Debra Thompson; she came to her present place in life by a long, circuitous route. She was born in Miami and went to college at the University of Western Florida, where she studied marine science. Then she went on to the Virginia Commonwealth University for her Master of Fine Arts. The emphasis was on communication, and graphic design and she found a job in New York with a firm concentrating on communication strategies for Fortune 500 firms, banks, and real estate companies. Eventually she struck out on her own, offering consulting services to businesses. 

In 1998 Debra moved to Palm Springs, where she began a new phase of her life. She became involved in rehabilitating low income housing, and acquired building skills that would eventually become the tools for making her art. She transferred her communication skills to the visual arts by creating works that expressed her social and political views. She addressed issues through protest art—a way of presenting a message in a sudden, easily understood visual form, an in-your-face display. One example of protest art is Debra’s ceramic face of the former president of the US, with a cork in his mouth—a visual of “put a cork on it,” a statement that many feel should apply to this man. 

But Debra decided to move from protest art to political and social art. It is still a highly personal artistic expression, but it is a more subtle way of presenting an issue. With political-social art, the artist presents a metaphorical display that makes the viewer think deeply about the subject portrayed. It’s a visual representation of a dilemma that provokes thought, and makes you ponder alternatives to the status quo. The idea of political-social art is to stimulate dialogue, and to potentially foster a change in someone’s view. One example is her extensive series based on the American flag. One powerful work shows a child’s shoe hanging from a barbed wire, mounted upon an American flag. The work is an assemblage, where she used hot wax medium as a base, then juxtaposed objects that represent the ideas. Indeed, a complex narrative appears on the surface; stories and feelings come to the surface the longer the viewer watches. It is impossible to not be moved by the juxtaposition of materials, impossible to not confront the issues shown, impossible to walk away without experiencing some change in your thinking.

About six years ago Debra and her husband John, decided it was time for a change in their lives. San Miguel de Allende had been on John’s list of places to visit, so they decided to spend several weeks here. After a couple of weeks, he announced, “I could live here,” and Debra felt the same way. They bought an empty lot and built their house and studio. The isolation of the Covid pandemic affected Debra, making her start thinking about “attachments.” She began to evaluate her personal attachments to objects, to people, to ideas, and she transformed this into artistic expression. She began to think about the fragility of attachments, and how you can envision things in a different way when you place them in a new environment. Can you change the “thing” once you put it in a different setting? Can you reattach in a different way? A powerful philosophical thought which Debra addresses visually.

Unable to work with hot wax because of potential lung problems, Debra switched to cold wax. In her series she usually begins with a board—because a canvas would be affected by the wax—and affixes objects to it. She also uses her knowledge of building materials, such as concrete to make objects. One powerful piece, titled “Incarceration,” is a series of metal bars with black, concrete hands grasping from within. The background contains statistical data about prisons in America. Debra is currently concentrating on women’s issues and is working on several pieces, which will be part of a Women’s Exhibit at Casa de Europa in March of 2023. She wants to show how language and history have forced women into their place in society, the degradation of women in society—through traditions, through institutions like the church, through political organizations led by men, and even by culture that expects women to stay in a particular place in society. Language is a major influence because, as Debra says: “He who owns the language, rules.” Visit Debra’s website for further information:

Natalie Taylor: BA in English Lit and Journalism, Loyola University, Chicago, 1995. MFA in Creative Writing, Vermont College, Montpelier, VT, 1999. Published writer, editor, journalist. Spanish teacher in the US, English teacher in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Translator. Contact: