Terese Agnew:   Portrait of a Textile Worker

Interview by Glenn Adamson
from Volume7 Issue2


Terese Agnew is an artist who works in a wide variety of media. She first achieved notoriety by wrapping a huge fiberglass sculpture of a dragon around a Gothic Revival water tower on the east side of Milwaukee - an intervention that required months of legal wrangling but was only a five day installation.  The project received a great deal of press in the city and was picked up nationally by the Associated Press. This was all the way back in 1985, but she is still stopped on the street occasionally and asked about it.  The dragon project was Agnew's first major undertaking, but it introduced themes that have stayed constant in Agnew's work since:  an engagement with public space and community; a willingness to expend enormous amounts of time and effort to achieve an aesthetic effect; and a wry sense of humor, which is all the more effective for its deadpan delivery.

Agnew's current project is an art quilt with the working title: Portrait of a Textile Worker. The work is being constructed entirely out of thousands of clothing labels stitched together onto a fabric backing. The image is based on a photograph of a laborer at the Shah Makhdum Factory in Bangladesh, selected from hundreds of snapshots that the National Labor Committee sent to help with her project. An original photograph of the finished art quilt will be reproduced in prints and posters that Agnew has offered to organizations that fight sweatshop abuses.  She has resisted the temptation to acquire labels in bulk from a factory, instead using only those contributed by an ever-widening circle of individuals, labor organizations, Junior League members, students, retired and unemployed workers, friends, family and acquaintances: she has received labels from all over the U.S. (New York, California, Maryland, Alaska, Texas, North Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania, Illinois, many from Wisconsin and more).

Though the project sounds overtly political in intent, in person the quilt seems like anything but dogmatic.  It is a highly personal artifact which seems much more about the specific textile worker in the picture - a portrait -  that moves the generalities of globalization and exploitation over so that we may see one woman's daily experience. The aesthetic of particularity is enhanced by the accumulation of wear and tear on each of the labels in the image. Agnew hopes that when the piece is exhibited, it will be accompanied by one more label, this time the kind that one finds in a museum, and that this label will bear the names of everyone who contributed to the project. These proper names will exist in a sort of dialectic with the names in the quilt itself, which are of course not those of the textile worker but the companies she works for at a distance: Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, Disney, Geoffrey Beene, Anne Klein and the rest.  The repetition of these names is uncanny, as one realizes that the contents of one's own wardrobe are matched by total strangers. Ultimately the quilt is a chart of these connections, which normally lie under or outside our field of vision.


The following interview was conducted by Glenn Adamson and Terese Agnew via email, from November 2 through November 11, 2003.

Adamson: Proper names play an important role in the quilt you're making, yet you don't know and probably can't find out the name of the textile worker depicted in the image. It occurs to me that her anonymity acts as a kind of center for the work - a fulcrum between all the 'fake' names of the manufacturers on the labels, and the 'real' names of your label contributors. But then again, that anonymity could be seen as denying her agency or humanity, and rendering her into a kind of prop or symbol instead of a person. Do you feel that the work would change significantly if you did have her name, and if you had it, would you put it in the title?

Agnew: Let's get this straight: she is denied agency or humanity by the system that allows her to be driven like a machine. I intend to find her name. My idea from the start was that the title would be her name. Regardless - the larger purpose of the work is to make the unseen or hidden visible - to make it possible for us to connect the seams in our clothes with an image of one face, an identity. Though she is just one of millions of anonymous textile workers - that's really the point - every individual life is significant. I thought it was important to represent the intimate uniqueness of her as a human being-she's clearly not a wasteable drone in a productivity statistic here.

Adamson: So would you say that anonymity can be adopted purposefully (say, by a well-known author who wants to write under an assumed name), but not imposed on anyone? That's an interesting distinction, but I would have said that anyone whose name is missing in a context is anonymous in that context. And moreover, that this anonymity is its own form of tragedy - sort of like the unknown soldier. Obviously her life is just as significant as anyone else's, but if she's not tied to her own name within her system of labor, then that in itself tells us something about the system - which is exactly what you're analyzing in the work, no?

Agnew: I think workers as numbers or an appendage in production - is a widely understood feature of manufacturing since the Industrial Revolution. We don't have very many responsible discussions about that. One of the definitions of anonymous is to be without character, featureless, impersonal… the very thing I am trying to undo. So my focus is not a standard, literal application of the word anonymous. The link with proper names - on the clothing labels, the names of contributors, and possibly her name, mocks the conceit of name brands… and the quilt asserts a kind of visual equality with those giant Tommy Hilfiger signs.

Adamson: That notion of visual equality with advertising, to me, suggests that the work's power and complexity come in part from its manipulations of the tropes of propaganda. (for example, the use of slogans in agitprop art or Hilfiger ads is inverted by the use of labels in the quilt; the 'hot' issue of exploited labor, as is the case with the original source of the image, is treated in a 'cool' conceptual way, etc.)  So would you characterize your work as a political instrument?

Agnew: Yes but I hope in a more expansive way - it's not as strategic as it is respectful. I want it to express something of our common humanity. Here's the problem with politics: if you don't have power or money or a sophisticated public relations firm, you usually do not get heard.  Does that mean you don't have an important point to raise? How can the powerless counter the forces that influence and manipulate public policies?  I'm just experimenting with some of the options. Artists are always looking at things from another angle, we also have other venues to speak from. Politically - this piece is a worms-eye-view enlarged enough to be seen by big guys… it addresses them directly with an image and materials of their own making.

Adamson: It struck me when I visited your studio that you must be spending at least as much time working on acquiring labels as you are making the object - maybe more so. This is an interesting change from your previous work, where I think the time actually physically invested in the quilts you were making created a kind of hovering air of extreme commitment for the viewer. Not that sewing this quilt together isn't also time-intensive! But it seems less so, at least in proportion to the overall size of the project. By displacing much of your effort into relating to your community of helpers, it seems like the 'craft' element and the sense of ethical work (which is very artist-centric, even if it is progressive) that is often associated with craft has been displaced by a more conceptual, social engagement. Would you agree with that? If so, does it mean that this is less a work of craft and more a work of conceptual art than your previous quilts, or not?

Agnew: That was at least 3 questions.

Adamson: Fair enough.

Agnew: First of all why do you say the sense of ethical work is very artist-centric? I introduced the project at a Milwaukee County Labor Council Delegates meeting last January… here's a quote from my talk: "I want to join the effort to reconnect consumers to the people that make our clothes - as an artist". People all over the planet are working on the problem of devalued labor. It's a classic global subject that's pre-feudalism, pre-pyramids. Do you mean that we define ourselves within an ethical structure of our own choosing and that's reflected in my art?  That's certainly true - but it's influenced by the people and events that surround me.

The piece is about the act of physically putting disconnected things, including the subject matter - back together. When we shop our thoughts are totally disconnected from the tangible reality of the conditions under which clothing products were made. I am spending a great deal of time trying to get people to send me their labels for the quilt. Even when I fail there is still a chance that the concept - of where and how things are made will become part of a person's thoughts.

I always liked this quote by Leon Golub: "…as artists, we're in the consciousness raising industry."  So as an artist my job is to be a good observer and get people to notice things - both visual and conceptual. Label contributors are participating in that effort too. One of the things about hundreds of people helping to realize this work is that it creates a louder sense of knowing, as in: "We see what you are doing, YOU'RE NOT FOOLING US ANYMORE."  

As to the labor-intensive nature of my work in general: we live in a 24-hour-fire-sale culture. The inevitable evolution of the economic system swept us to this point - powered by power, not the least of which was its own power - and now it's running at road burning speed: MAKE MORE FASTER. So my work, which takes years to make, resists the pragmatism that the system imposes on our daily lives. My process can't be justified in any practical way. That in itself begs the question "Why would someone bother to do this?" I think it grants greater consideration to the subject.

Adamson: I guess that last part is what I mean by a craft "ethic," which to me has always suggested the stance of a counter-culture. Getting beyond your own work for a moment, do you feel that this is the best - by which I mean the most politically, socially, artistically progressive - role for craft these days? Or do you see this as only one role for craft among many? It seems like a good time to consider the question, since the very term 'craft' is somewhat out of favor at the moment. The American Craft Museum just changed its name to the Museum of Arts and Design, for example, because they can't survive financially as a "craft museum" in New York City. Sometimes I wonder if part of the problem is that the progressive wing of the craft movement (as opposed to the crassly commercial Chihuly wing of the movement) just seems dated. It hasn't come up with a better definition for itself than "ethical commitment," which to most Americans seems like it's stuck back in the late 1960s.

Agnew: I'm in favor of multiple roles for craft. One thing I like about craft is its inherent respect for materials. It's ecological without saying so. As far as craft being used in a social or political context - here's a thought from The Madonna of the Future by Arthur C. Danto (paraphrased):

Articles of furniture would have been considered works of art in the eighteenth century, when designed by master-ébénistes. But when Jacques-Louis David, associating these objects with the aristocracy, drew a sharp line between high art and practical art, the objects became craft instead of art. The distinction remains in effect today, so that one dismisses as craft anything that carries an aura of utility, leaving behind the uncomfortable idea that works of art can have no function.

This history is all the more interesting when you think of the application of craft to class struggle. It's ironic that the rather directionless pastiche of some post modern "high art" seems just plain frivolous. All good art has craft in it. To me the term craft has more to do with an approach to medium - opening up more possibilities for the form of a work to relate to the subject in a way that is not arbitrary. That's a plus no matter what you call it.

Don't forget:  David betrayed the Revolution - so why should we listen to him?

Glenn Adamson is Curator at the Chipstone Foundation, a private organization in Fox Point, Wisconsin, that supports scholarship in the decorative arts. In that capacity, he helps to create exhibitions for the Milwaukee Art Museum and teaches at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He writes frequently on contemporary art and craft, in such publications as American Craft and in museum exhibition catalogs.

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