In The News
Crafty social insights honored on national TV May 11
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
Posted May 8, 2012
In visual and intellectual quality it is the best hour on national television. In educational kits and intellectual revelation into what makes the nation's visionaries tick, this Peabody honored series has deep influence over our schools and heritage.
In Nielsen ratings compared to "American Idol," it doesn't raise a blister.
But the next PBS "Craft in America" entitled "Threads' puts a Wisconsin artist in remarkable company, revealing why Terese Agnew's approach to quilts, colors, cloths and crafts made her the finale personality among four pioneer crafts masters, three of earlier generations. All combine the mundane and the heavenly, the human core exposed in old-fashioned hard work handwork, the highest skills to provoke the lasting meanings. Agnew, in addition, has become even more famous for marrying social insights into textile wonders.
The PBS hour -- which will air nationally and in Milwaukee Friday, May 11, at 8 p.m. (repeated on Channel 10 in Milwaukee at 3 a.m. Saturday May 26, check local listings in your own Wisconsin community) -- starts with the amazing ageless Faith Ringold, quilter, author, social activist, artist who grew up around the corner from Malcolm X. It then moves to the Massachusetts weaves of Randall Darwall and his rural associates, then to California's Consuelo Jimenez Underwood who learned from an illegal immigrant father, also a weaver, she helped hide from the law as a child. Underwood also opens eyes and hearts by investing border insights with creative threading using barbed wire and safety pins.
All these brilliant surprising people are the lead-in to Agnew's lightning quick connections of today's society and nature's deterioration. Her artistic levels and intuitive gifts dovetail with theirs as does her refusal to fulfill instant gratification and facile creation. It is a quality the community noted back to her student days at UWM and is evident around Wisconsin in commissioned sculptures, textiles and even labor placards used in protests – along with the famous, unique in the nation tribute to fallen workers at Zeidler Union Square Park downtown, a memorial she co-created.
In her textiles and quilts, social justice and nature's wonder combine without beating us over the head with politics. Highway maps, mining, parking lots, bombing sights and pink slips echo in her perspectives and make the bureaucrat in all of us wake up and smell the losses. In some ways she is the gentle perceptive inspiration for Occupy 99% or Reclaim Wisconsin, proving again how artists sense linkages far ahead of data punchers and politicians.
PBS devotes time to Sheila Cochran of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council who knows how textile shops have abandoned our shores and skilled workers were reduced to economic digits. She and workers here were big parts of the "label-less" parade Agnew speaks of -- thousands cutting out clothing labels around the world to give personality and recognition to the sweatshop unknown of "Portrait of a Textile Worker," much written about by Labor Press and other publications – a huge quilt made of clothing labels, now housed in a New York museum.
Agnew deserves the high placement the series gives her, but on the more mundane level of local politics there is quite a Milwaukee tale behind all this.
Filming took place at her farmhouse workshop near La Farge, at the Milwaukee Art Museum, which owns key quilts, and at the Downtown park where Agnew co-designed the Workers Memorial annually celebrated April 28 and where Cochran came for an interview late last fall.
But while you can't tell on the PBS program, since Cochran is cool and calm like nothing bothers her, she had to be mad as a wet hen, as well as wet as a wet hen. She and Agnew arrived in whipping rain and wind to discover downtown holiday frames, bric-a-brac bulbs and wires dumped randomly all over Zeidler Union Square Park, leaving the PBS crew desperate to find any spot - even an ungouged tree - for a setup. A highly regarded artist, national film crew and labor council were embarrassed for Milwaukee.
The upshot came when told about it all was how Milwaukee County and the downtown commerce association apologized and sought amends, which are still in the works.
The memorial was never supposed to interfere with normal park activity and was carefully designed to blend with nature. Conversations have ensued to restore respect and switch the holiday display to white not garish colored lights. But there is still trouble because the county, desperate for funds, still charges the labor council for the annual tribute it agreed to help co-sponsor. Expect that to heat up as an issue if the county doesn’t figure out a way, particularly since the April 28 memorial event featured County Executive Chris Abele, Milwaukee DA John Chisholm and US Rep. Gwen Moore.
The artist will not be happy that nothing can be done about the ugly giant decorative Teddy Bear that in the winter is parked in the park. But the new sensibility should soon return to the county and the labor council the original vision and agreement - a very Agnew-like blend of nature and message.