"I hope that my work can help the public look at a problem or a situation with new perspective and in a way that is empowering. Successful community organizing requires building power -- and I believe building power begins with having new insights and believing that change is possible."
Rachel Breen is a visual artist who works at the intersection of drawing, installation and public engagement. She has exhibited her work both locally and nationally and is the recipient of four Minnesota State Arts Board grants, the Walker Art Center’s Open Field fellowship, and the 2019–2020 Jerome Hill Artist Fellowship. Rachel holds an MFA from the University of Minnesota and an undergraduate degree from The Evergreen State College. She is a Professor of Art at Anoka Ramsey Community College.
Jes: Rachel, I am excited to get to know you a bit more through this interview. I watched your artist talk recently with the Minneapolis Institute of Art and I was so drawn to how you incorporate ethics and social justice into your artistic approach. I can tell you are deeply motivated to raise awareness and create conversations with your work. Can you talk more about your background and what inspired your current show The Labor We Wear at the museum?
Rachel: My commitment to social justice through art is deeply connected to being Jewish. One of the important values I was raised with is the idea of social responsibility -- that all humans are responsible for working to make the earth a better place for all its inhabitants. The fact that I am a descendent of immigrants, a member of a people who have faced and continue to face discrmination and am white and have an enormous amount of privilege all contribute to my belief in the need to work for change and advocate for social justice. I see art as a platform for communicating about solutions, ideas and values about justice.
My current exhibition at the Mia was inspired by horror over the Rana Plaza Factory collapse and the more than a thousand lives lost. It was also inspired by a realization that the ways garment workers are exploited are not new -- that garment workers have been mistreated since the birth of the industrial revolution. I realized this in part, because I connected this disaster to a disaster I grew up knowing about -- the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire that took place in 1911 in New York City. One hundred forty six mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants died in this fire, one of the worst worker disasters in the US at that time. I wanted to make work that showed that Americans are not removed from the exploitation of garment workers -- first because this kind of exploitation has taken AND CONTINUES TO TAKE place in the US today, but also because we are connected to these kinds of disasters through the way we purchase clothing made in these factories and under these unfair conditions.
Can you describe how community organizing or building has been represented within your art practice?
It really influences how I think about what I want my work to convey. I hope that my work can help the public look at a problem or a situation with new perspective and in a way that is empowering. Successful community organizing requires building power -- and I believe building power begins with having new insights and believing that change is possible.
Shroud, 1,281 used white shirts commemorating the lives lost in the Rana Plaza Factory Collapse, Bangladesh, 2013 and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, NYC, 1911. People of the Jewish faith and the Muslim faith are both buried in white. All of the shirts were worn, discarded and purchased by the pound in Minneapolis -- showing the way consumers are complicit in the working conditions of the garment workers who made these shirts.
The Bottom Line, plackets removed from used shirts, This work draws attention to the way clothes are mass produced is inextricably linked to the bottom lines of major international brands. The color palette of this piece suggests corporate culture. The people who wear these shirts are making decisions that impact the working conditions – the pay and safety of the workers who made the same shirts.
I am so curious about your sewing machine! I know it’s so important to the art you make. Do you have one that you prefer to use, or do you use a mix of machines?
At the core of my practice is a sewing machine, which I think of as a deeply symbolic and practical object. Most humans on the planet wear clothes made by this same tool -- a symbol of our connectedness. I divert sewing's original purpose of creating and mending, toward social critique. I call attention to the stitch as a symbol of human interdependence, using it to express belief in the possibility of social change.
I have a lot of sewing machines -- people keep giving them to me! Many of my friends have mothers who have machines that they aren’t using any more so they call me up when their mothers are getting rid of them! I used many of them in a Northern Spark project I did a few years ago called Behind the Seams. I am beginning to plan another community engagement project that will involve many sewing machines so stay tuned.
My favorite one is still my Nechi, an old steel Italian machine that I bought at a garage sale for $3.00 a few days before grad school started because I thought it would be fun to play with in my studio. The rest is history.
I have heard you call the sewing machine your third arm. When did it become so instrumental to your creative voice?
In grad school I played with my sewing machine a lot but it wasn’t until the day I was sewing some fabric onto some paper and my machine ran out of thread and I noticed the beautiful punctures the needle made in the paper without the thread. That moment set a lot of things in motion for me -- I loved the mark and then I realized it also had a lot of meaning embedded in it -- which has now become embedded in my work.
COVID has put a pause on so many things. Life just isn’t the same. I am wondering how COVID has impacted you and how are you coping or doing during these times?
As a Minneapolis resident, COVID and the murder of George Floyd will forever be intertwined. They have laid bare the injustice of racism and the inhumanity of our economic and political systems that impact people of color more harshly than white people. I feel an even greater sense of responsibility in acting for change. In thinking about where my energy can be most effective I return to the community college environment -- which is where I teach -- it is such a powerful intersection of race and class and I see many opportunities for and critical need for making change.
Are there any particular challenges you face as an artist?
Time. It's always hard to find enough time to spend on making my work.
What do you love about being an artist?
I love having work that is so engaging -- physically, intellectually, creatively, and psychologically. I love that my ability to engage as an artist will continue (I hope) for a very very long time. I love being part of an amazing art community in the Twin Cities that challenges, supports and nurtures me. We are so rich with so many talented, smart and dynamic artists and it feeds and energizes me. I am proud to be an artist here!
What kind of resources have you used to help you with your art career?
I have been supported and mentored by many many other artists -- friends who have been willing to come to my studio and provide critical feedback in response to work in progress or read a grant application, for instance. Grant support has also been incomparable -- multiple state arts board grants and my recent Jerome Hill fellowship have been critical to helping me scale up my work. They have made it possible for me to accomplish ambitious projects that just would not have been possible without them. They have allowed me to think big.
I see that you teach drawing and painting at Anoka Ramsey Community College. Do you have any recommendations for other artists who are interested in exploring teaching as part of their art practice/career?
Teaching is not for everyone. If you think you might be interested in teaching I would highly recommend volunteering in a school or at a community center to see how you like it. Try working with different age groups -- each age provides special challenges and joys.
You have a variety of forthcoming exhibitions coming up. Can you share about these projects and what we might be able to expect from them?
I have an exhibition coming up at SooVAC -- it will open mid-November. We are working on the title right now. This work wil be a series of “maps” I have been working on for the last 6 years, since I returned from a research trip in Bangladesh. While in Bangladesh I collected a bag of fabric scraps taken from the many many mounds of fabric scraps piled up outside of garment factories outside of Dhaka. I have sewn these fabric scraps to paper in “map-like” configurations to show the connection between our clothes and these fabric scraps. I call these “supply chain maps.”
I’m excited to show this work because it is so different from the work that is currently being shown in my exhibition “The Labor We Wear” at the Mia -- which is installation based. The work at SooVAC is thematically connected but visually it is very different -- its works on paper and involved a lot of hand stitching. The making process is entirely different.
Thanks for answering my questions, Rachel. Do you have anything else you would like to share?
You asked a lot of questions -- I can’t think of anything else right now!
I did ask a lot of questions and you answered all of them! I so appreciate it!
All images courtesy of the artist. Interview and edited by Jes Reyes.
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