The Law School Magazine  ·  Spring 2011 : Alumni Profiles

Career Paths: Ellen Sheffield ’81 Book Artist

By - Spring 2011
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As an artist, Ellen Sheffield ’81 deals mostly with abstract shapes. However, with her law degree she seems to have gone a full — geometrical — circle.

Sheffield entered the Moritz College of Law as an art education graduate of Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Institute of Art and as a working artist. She graduated law school in 1981 as a lawyer practicing mainly intellectual property. In 1990, she returned to the arts. She now instructs art courses at Kenyon College and maintains her own personal studio.

“The whole intellectual property and arts-and-law movement was really just beginning in 1978,” Sheffield said, “which is why I went to law school in the first place. My interests overlapped the two fields.”

Sheffield grew up in Mount Vernon, Ohio, but has lived most of her adult life in Gambier, Ohio, where Kenyon College is located. She is married with three children, all of whom have graduated or are currently attending college. She does occasionally return to Columbus to volunteer with the Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University, most recently attending the Remix/Mashup Conference 2009. The conference was co-sponsored by Moritz’s I/S: A Journal of Law and Policy for the Information Society.

Sheffield practices a form of art called “book art,” or artist books, which is a way of integrating images and language to create a form of tangible art that is meant to be explored, Sheffield said.

“An artist book is simply a book created by an artist that incorporates all of the visual art elements as well as some aspects of the book,” Sheffield said. “So these can be very sculptural. They can be very traditional looking on the outside, but when you open them the inside is something very different than what you would think of as a book with text and illustrations.”

Sheffield is often commissioned by people who want books for specials occasions or by poets who want to bring a visual aspect to their poetry. Her work has also been purchased by libraries across the country, including the Yale University Library.

“The book in this society is an iconic object,” Sheffield said. “Everybody wants to write a book, be in a book, or publish a book. It is an object of value, and when an artist gets a hold of it and plays with it and uses it to express her own aesthetic personal history it becomes something totally unexpected.”

Although she always maintained an art studio, Sheffield began work after graduating from Moritz at the Ohio Attorney General’s office doing anti-trust and civil rights work. In 1984 she opened a solo practice to focus on art groups’ needs, such as nonprofit legalities, intellectual property, copyright and trademark. Sheffield provided legal services to artists through the Ohio Arts Council, which would later fund several of her projects after she closed her practice in 1989.

After leaving her days of litigation behind, Sheffield began her career at Kenyon College by operating the college’s art gallery. Sheffield was a curator for the gallery’s exhibits and shows and managed educational programs for grade-school children.

The gallery job was “a really good combination of the practical work I had been doing as a lawyer … and the artistic side,” Sheffield said.

After eight years of running the gallery, Sheffield worked on the Kenyon Review, a literary journal, and for several creative writing programs before becoming an instructor at Kenyon in 2007. As an instructor, she said she has an even better avenue to combine her law degree with her artistic education.

Though the main focus of her classes is teaching students about book art, Sheffield tries to integrate legal issues into all of her courses. She talks to her students about anything from copyright and how to run an art business.

“Artists in most programs and art schools are not given basic business or legal training,” Sheffield said. “I have a different take on it because of my legal background.”

Sheffield’s classes include students from many different disciplines, ranging from art and photography to creative writing and math. But this isn’t the first time that she has reached across programs in a scholastic environment. While at Moritz, Sheffield helped start the Art Law Association, which consisted of students from different disciplines throughout Ohio State.

“I had several classmates who wanted to maintain their previous lives as artists and writers like I did,” Sheffield said. “So we formed this group and put on a one-day conference in our last year of law school.”

Discussing legal principles in her classes is not the only way that Sheffield continues to use her legal training. Book art requires an understanding and mastery of language and words, and while scouring case studies might have seemed like the last thing an artist would want to do, Sheffield explained that learning the language of law helped her to hone in on her language abilities.

“I found a lot of inspiration in property law, particularly the infamous black acre-white acre examples that were always used in property law,” Sheffield said. “I find the combination of disparate things leads to some interesting outcomes; there is a synergy there. If you take a scientist and she works with an artist you are going to get a very different product, same as if you were to combine the approaches of a lawyer and a poet.”

Sheffield also said that the problem-solving practices and attention to detail that she picked up during law school has aided her in her effort to make art.

“I learned to approach things from a new perspective,” Sheffield said. “As an artist you rely on your intuition … on visual signals. But I learned as a lawyer your first impression and how you felt about something didn’t matter, just the facts. You have to be able to cut through the emotional static and analyze situations.”

She said that while artists present a visual argument and lawyers present a vocal or written argument, it is the same concept, just using different parts of the brain.

Sheffield plans to continue teaching and creating art. Her next project goal is to create a service project that will allow at-risk children to use their imagination and creativity to simultaneously better their communities.

Sheffield can be contacted at