In The News
PBS crew threads Wisconsin to capture artist Agnew
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
Posted Nov. 4, 2011
In early November, a PBS crew will visit Milwaukee’s Art Museum and the downtown workers’ park to record the influences, process and personality of a Wisconsin artist who first literally leapt to public attention as a student at UWM when she flew a fabric dragon out of the castle-like water tower at North Ave. and Lake Drive.
Terese Agnew will be interviewed for the acclaimed Peabody-winning series “Craft in America,” with seven episodes already available on DVD and online.
Agnew is one of four handcraft artists featured for Episode Eight, “Threads,” which explores the visionaries of needle arts for a program being filmed for airing in spring of 2012.
She is well known to the Milwaukee community, which was her headquarters for years as a labor activist and artist, though her work is now known internationally. Pedestrians every day see some of her work at Zeidler Union Square Park where she collaborated on the design celebration of the utilitarian tools of workers, in paths leading up the gazebo, in the gazebo iteslf, in artifacts dotting the grounds.
But Agnew has also worked in quilt, sculpture, wood and fabric with a range of creations in public spaces and in museums.
Most famous, since it has been on national tour and is prominently part of a Manhattan crafts museum, is “Portrait of a Textile Worker,” inspired by a photo of a Bangladesh sweatshop woman. The photo was provided her by an international labor organization (she returned the favor by devoting proceeds from posters of her art to such organizations).
Working for years with requested donations from interested union workers, retired garment workers and general citizens – they all mailed their findings to her through the US mail in batches -- she then stitched together more than 30,000 designer clothing labels – the sort found inside your shirt or trousers.
They were sent to her by people around the world, and yes indeed, many were from Wisconsin, though exhibition visitors later were openly astounded to see how artistry could emerge from such mundane material.
The result has been acclaimed for both execution and provocative message. It led to touring exhibitions and to a recognition that allowed Agnew and her family to move to rural western Wisconsin to set up a studio where she continues to devote herself to her visions – and to outspoken advocacy for workers’ justice.
Now “Threads” puts Agnew in some fast and more veteran company. Other notable profiles in this episode will be Consuelo Jimenez Underwood, now a professor emeritus in California who built weaves out of the Huichol techniques and tradition she learned from relatives; Randall Darwall, whose contemporary multi-colored weaves with designer Brian Murphy have been acclaimed for decades, and black feminist pioneer and story quilt creator Faith Ringgold.
The larger context of Craft in America is that it is a nonprofit organization devoted to advancing original handcrafted work. The documentary series on PBS may be its most prominent face but the project has also produced a book, a traveling exhibition and a study center, all of which is detailed at its own website.
The PBS crew will visit Agnew at her studio and then bring her to the Milwaukee Art Museum for more interviews, also planning a stop at Zeidler Park and a chat with Sheila Cochran, the secretary-treasurer of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council and a long time colleague and champion of Agnew’s work. The council helped commission the park work and collaborates on maintenance.
PBS series producers, technicians and director Carol Sauvion will lead the Milwaukee team.