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Happy Accidents - A Childhood Art Teacher & A Garage Sale Find

Q & A with Artist & MFA Program Alum Rachel Breen
September 15, 2020

"Collared" 2020, By Rachel Breen

"Collared"  2020, By Rachel Breen
"Collared," 2020, By Rachel Breen

"I see the stitch as a mark that we wear close to our skin -- it is intimate. The mark of the stitch is fundamental, symbolic and it's beautiful."

Clothes are frequently conversation starters. Whether it's "hey, I really like that shirt," said to your friend, or that friendly reminder to your kid, "don't forget to wear your hat, it's cold outside," clothes are part of our everyday lives and often express who we are. But what about the makers? Those that stitch. In MFA Program Alum and Artist Rachel Breen's newest installation, “The Labor We Wear,” the work highlights the relationship among the garment industry, garment laborers, and fashion consumers. We caught-up with Rachel to learn how her time in our MFA Program informed her artistic career, about her new show at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and virtual talk September 16, 2020.

Q: What brought you to the University MFA Program?
My story of coming to the University of Minnesota is perhaps less ‘traditional,’ something that I was working towards pursuing over time. Art, I initially thought of as a hobby and not something that could become a career for me. For undergrad, I studied at Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington, but didn't study art. When I completed school, I began my career as a community organizer, which brought me New York City. Now in New York, I had the opportunity to take continuing education classes at Parsons School of Design, as artmaking continued to be an important element in my life. As my family grew, we decided to move to Minnesota, and this is where my arts learning began to expand, engaging in classes at MCAD and re-connecting with a former childhood art teacher, Joyce Lyon, (Department of Art - Associate Professor Emerita).

I met Joyce Lyon when I was a child, I took an art class from her at the Sabes Jewish Community Center in Saint Louis Park. When I came back to Minnesota, as an adult, I took her Drawing 2 class at the U. With this re-connection, an exploration of the art educator degree at the U, and a three-week program with the Women's Art Institute, were all important factors in shaping my future. Particularly, the Women’s Art Institute program, because it gave me an in-depth taste of what it is like to be consistently working in the studio. When considering an application to the MFA program, Joyce gave me advice, which I still remember today, she said "only apply if not getting in won't derail from continuing to make art on your own." So important and thoughtful. And, I was surprised when I learned I got in! At 42 years old, I was ready to grow my artistic voice and skills. Sometimes it was challenging for me to be the oldest student, particularly among MFA students. They knew more art theory than me, but I had more life experience. Being in the MFA Program, I soaked it up and was so much the sponge, just really appreciated being in class. Through this time at U, I was feeling confident in school, understanding how to be in my studio, how to make work, and how to be consistent in my practice.

Q. How did your time as a student impact your creative approach? Or - is there a takeaway from the program that is still with you as an artist today?
The greatest takeaway for me, was understanding and developing a studio practice. We were encouraged to play and not necessarily use traditional materials; it was a very wide-open space to experiment. A happy accident at the time, was a purchase of a sewing machine at a garage sale during my first week of school. I was intrigued by the machine as a tool for artmaking. When my needle thread ran out and I discovered that the needle would create these holes – it was a spark! Drawing on paper without thread – needle holes that then could turn into a stencil. At school I had the space of not knowing where my work was going, but to eagerly keep experimenting.

I also built community among the students and professors that still feeds me today. We are lucky to have a strong arts community here. The strength of the sense of community within the MFA Program, allowed me to put down ‘art roots.’

Q: As an artist, what's your elevator speech? (AKA how do you describe your work to people?)
At the core of my practice is a sewing machine, which I use to draw, create installations and perform. Sometimes I like to think of it as my third arm. I am a maker, yet much of my work involves the opposite: I “unmake” things and “dismantle” ways of seeing and believing that have already been made. I often work with a sewing machine that is not threaded, making drawings and stencils with the punctures that a needle without its thread, makes in paper. The repetitive holes in paper become lines – creating something through the act of taking away. With gestures of sewing, 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 and repair. With my process of unmaking I seek to enact what I call “public making” – encouraging reflection about social concerns and catalyzing collective action to “undo” unjust systems.

I see the stitch as a mark that we wear close to our skin -- it is intimate. The mark of the stitch is fundamental, symbolic and it's beautiful.

Q: What do you hope is a primary concept/thought that individuals will have in exploring your artwork?
With the work I'm doing now, I really hope exhibit visitors will think more about the people that are making their clothes. Collective action is the concept that I hope my work propels forward. Not just change in how the arts patron shops, but for them to act differently. How we consume, take action, remembering that there are human beings on the other side of the objects.

Q: What inspired your current show at the Minneapolis Institute of Art?
My initial inspiration was the Rana Plaza Factories collapse in 2013, that killed over 1000 garment workers. Then I went to Bangladesh in 2015 for research for this project. I interviewed survivors of the collapse and met with union organizers. I came back from that trip with a huge sense of responsibility for making art that could create a visceral experience for the public and therefore serve as a catalyst for change. I continue to do research on this subject to this day -- which is why the exhibition is not just about the Rana Plaza Factories collapse but about the on-going exploitation of garment workers, our connection to them and the way our overconsumption also harms the environment and contributes to climate change. Even going to the Goodwill Outlet, which is where ALL of my materials in this exhibition are from inspired me. Going there on a weekly basis for months and seeing how much crap we are getting rid of on a daily basis has been such a reminder of how much we all over-consume and discard unneeded clothes and things.  

Q: How is the pandemic impacting your work? Do you have a new COVID-19 "pet" project?
The day I finished the installation of my current show at the Minneapolis Institute of Art was the last day the museum was open before closing due to the pandemic. The main impact of the pandemic on my work is not being able to do broader show elements, such as a sewing circle, special guest speakers coming to the gallery for events, and few other opportunities. However, on September 16, from 6-7 PM, the Minneapolis Institute of Art will be hosting a virtual talk about my installation. I'm thrilled that Taslima Akhter, an artist, an activist and the president of Bangladesh Garment Workers Solidarity, will join us as a special guest. She will talk about the current conditions garment workers in Bangladesh are facing. This is a free event, but tickets are required to receive an email with the Zoom link.

I don’t have a COVID-19 “pet project.” The one thing I have done during this time, is organized with other white artists to support BIPOC artists in creating murals. This will support the work of #creativesaftercurfew and their next mural which will go up in Frogtown!

Q: When you make art, do you listen to music or podcasts? If so, what's on your playlist?
I’m not a huge music person, but I enjoy several podcasts:

  • Wardrobe Crisis by Clare Press

  • Conscious Chatter by Kestral Jenkins

  • The Art of Citizenry by Manpreet Kaira

  • Solidarity is This by Deepa Iyer

  • Art and Labor by OK Fox and Lucia Love