Not Your Mother’s Quilt

Terese Agnew has absolutely nothing in common with my 86-year-old grandmother, save for two traits: an aptitude for sewing and a deep devotion to Midwestern hospitality. When I arrive at her Milwaukee home-slash-studio on a snowy morning, Agnew immediately confiscates my coat, gloves, scarf, and boots and strategically arranges them around a warm radiator. ‘Can I get you some coffee? Some tea?’ she asks. Over the course of one visit, her offerings include cranberry-walnut toast, homemade soup, a compact fluorescent lightbulb (‘You haven’t tried these? Take one!’), and a backup supply of windshield washer fluid for the slushy drive home. Grandma herself could hardly be more gracious.

But unlike Grandma, the 47-year-old Agnew wields these homespun kindnesses alongside a worldly set of sociopolitical perspectives, activist ideals, and a reputation as one of America’s most important fabric artists. One of her quilts hangs in the Smithsonian, and she’s widely known — both inside and outside contemporary art circles — for Portrait of a Textile Worker, an eight-by-nine-foot quilt depicting a young Bangladeshi sweatshop employee, created by stitching together more than 30,000 tiny designer clothing labels that were gathered in a donation campaign. By the artist’s own account, Textile Worker is the best work she’s ever done. ‘I think process and materials have everything to do with the subject,’ she says. ‘It was just one of those moments where everything came together perfectly.’

Since being unveiled in early 2005, Textile Worker has made indelible impressions on viewers of all political stripes, not only for its symbolic content, but also for its mind-bending display of public participation and painstaking craft. Two years later, thanks to an impressive grassroots fund-raising campaign by longtime Agnew supporters, labor groups, and private donors, the piece has been officially acquired by the Museum of Art and Design in New York.

Ironically for the artist, this newfound renown comes at a time when Agnew’s hands-on crafting has come to a halt. Last year, she suffered a repetitive stress injury, forcing her to take an extended break from needle-and-thread. Her energy is currently focused on a major move with her husband and 10-year-old son from Milwaukee to rural Wisconsin. She looks forward to fewer distractions and a new ecofriendly studio to supplant the drafty attic room that has barely contained her workspace for the past decade. And after completing nearly a year of physical therapy, she hopes to return to the sewing table soon.

Agnew, who has a slight frame and slender arms, pulls back one sleeve of her fuzzy gray sweater. ‘It’s just a little tiny tendon that controls all these muscles,’ she says, drawing her finger along her left forearm. The official diagnosis is lateral epicondylitis, commonly known as tennis elbow — ‘but I don’t play tennis,’ she quips. Over the course of 15 years spent on six major quilting works, the combination of intricate sewing, cutting, and lifting heavy fabric has taken a toll. Still, when she is asked whether the injury brought her closer to her subject in Portrait of a Textile Worker, she’s quick to downplay her condition.

‘My injuries are nothing in comparison,’ she says. ‘All it did was make me even more aware of how destructive 12 to 17 hours a day of fast, repetitive work six days a week would be. The National Labor Committee has reported that in many garment factories, when the workers reach the ripe old age of 28, they get fired because they start to slow down. After 10 to 12 years of that work, it’s a wonder they can move at all.’

Such is the pattern when one is talking with Agnew about her craft. What begins as a conversation about aesthetics or materials naturally circles back to her thoughts and beliefs about community, whether it’s her friends and supporters in her native Milwaukee or the hundreds upon hundreds of strangers around the globe who donated clothing labels for Textile Worker.

‘It blew my mind,’ she says, ‘how many people took the time to go to their closets and cut labels out. I think that was the thing that kept me going through the really hard parts.’

One of seven children raised largely by her encouraging mother (‘a caring, activist citizen’), Agnew developed an early affinity for the arts. In her 20s, she worked as a sculptor with a particular interest in unique public installations — a 30-foot fiberglass dragon perched on a castlelike water tower in Milwaukee, for example. Then as now, she thrived on projects that invited community participation.

It wasn’t until 1989, driven by a fairly mundane need ‘to keep warm in Wisconsin,’ that Agnew first tried her hand at functional quilting. She quickly found herself attracted to the artistic aspects of the craft, the way her designs and choice of materials could relate more directly to her subjects. ‘I also liked the preexisting notion that all of us have about quilts,’ she says. ‘They are often made by people who care for us, so they embody the idea of care.’

Whereas Portrait of a Textile Worker earns accolades for putting a human face on a marginalized population, the rest of Agnew’s oeuvre has been preoccupied with landscapes and outdoor settings. Proposed Deep Pit Mine Site, Lynne Township, Wisconsin (1994) frames a patch of unspoiled wetland on the brink of bulldozing. Cedar Waxwings at the AT&T Parking Lot (1996) shows a flock of migrating birds circling over a gridlike arrangement of cars and freshly laid-off corporate employees. (‘The workers are migrating, too,’ says Agnew.) The D.O.T. Straightens Things Out (1999) considers the stark contrast between the spontaneous green contours of a natural forest and the lifeless gray symmetry of streets and highways. Practice Bomber Range in the Mississippi Flyway (2002) — now in the permanent collection at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. — imagines curvaceous swatches of farmland as viewed alternately by passing birds and on the computer screen of an F-14 bomber.

Her environmentally conscious viewpoint ‘just has to do with how I observe the world,’ Agnew says. ‘I walk a lot. I get all my ideas walking. . . . What I love about walking is that you meet your neighbor and you say hello. When you’re driving, everybody’s an obstacle to get around. I don’t like how that changes my behavior toward other human beings. I don’t like cars very much.’

Many visual artists espouse distaste for industry and accelerated culture, producing work that is cynical, suspicious, or otherwise guarded. What separates Agnew from her more flatly reactionary peers is an earnest belief that her craft should manifest a positive sense of awareness and connection — not only in the quilts themselves, but also in the process by which they are created and displayed.

‘People give me hope,’ she says. ‘The impermanence of many of society’s ‘mistakes’ gives me hope. It’s not too late to [reconsider] a whole host of practices — driving too much, treating workers badly, starting unnecessary wars. . . . I’m staking quite a bit of hope in the ability of nature to recover. The danger we find ourselves in now with global warming is that we’ve driven changes that are happening in a lifetime, as opposed to geologic time.’

Geology is the basis for Agnew’s current work-in-progress, an ambitious three-dimensional project called The Age of Oil. Fascinated by the eons-long evolution of the earth’s oil resources — and, likewise, by present-day Americans’ flippant consumption of those resources — she conceives of a piece that’s part quilt and part sculpture. Showing off sketches and sample swatches, she grows excited as she describes the impending work: Thousands of wedge-shaped layers will be notch-cut and stacked 12 feet high, organized in groupings that represent distinctive periods of geologic history.

‘If I did the whole thing in fabric, it would be impossible for me to pay for,’ she says. ‘So I started thinking more along the lines of ‘garbology,’ doing something that’s the opposite of environmentally stupid.’ Newspaper, grocery bags, and recycled cotton batting are among the materials she’s proposing. In keeping with her passion for community participation, she may reach out to schools for help in constructing the piece; art students and science students alike, she reckons, could stand to gain from their involvement.

‘I never cared that much about science,’ she says. ‘This just came out because of thinking about oil, what it’s made out of. It’s so beautiful, and I’m really into beauty; I think politics are ugly. The only reason you’d care about anything is because you think it has some kind of beauty in it. . . . I live and breathe a certain amount of political concern, but it’s concern for things that I love and care about. You have to make things that are aimed at what you really love and care about, or it’s not going to ring anybody’s bell.’

Charles Kernaghan is the executive director of the nonprofit National Labor Committee, which illuminates and opposes unfair labor practices around the world. Some might remember Kernaghan as ‘the man who made Kathie Lee cry,’ a distinction he earned by uncovering the sweatshop conditions under which TV host Kathie Lee Gifford’s Wal-Mart clothing line was originally manufactured. He’s also the source of the photograph upon which Agnew’s Portrait of a Textile Worker is based, having snapped it covertly during an unannounced visit to a sweatshop in Bangladesh.

‘The best thing about Terese’s work is that it’s not just political,’ Kernaghan says. ‘It’s more than that. It gives people a window into the belief that they can be creative and do something significant, something out of the ordinary.’

Working with a friend, photographer Peter DiAntoni, Agnew created poster-size prints of Portrait of a Textile Worker to be sold at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts in Brookfield, Wisconsin, and on the National Labor Committee website, with proceeds going to aid garment workers in Bangladesh. Kernaghan says the posters have been as valuable as the original quilt in generating concern about the underlying labor issues. ‘You can have any opinion of the global economy, but if you look at that image, you are moved.’

For Agnew, that basic human connection is crucial: ‘I think it’s bullshit when you say you’re making political art but it’s obtuse or hermetic to the point of ‘What the hell are they talking about?’ ‘ she says. ‘Anything that’s really seriously political — meaning it’s really interested in changing the way people think or see things — has to be readily understood by anyone.’

James Diers is a writer and musician based in Madison, Wisconsin.

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