High unemployment rates, recent protests regarding workers' rights in Madison and the upcoming 2012 presidential election have put a national spotlight on work and labor. The Crossman Gallery at UW-Whitewater will explore these topics through "artWORK," an exhibit that examines work and labor from a variety of perspectives.
"We're seeing increased awareness surrounding work and labor because of political and economic turmoil," said Michael Flanagan, director of the Crossman Gallery. "This show explores work, labor, the politics that go with it and how we as individuals fit into these matters."
Nationally renowned artist Terese Agnew, who was recently featured in the PBS documentary "Craft in America," will be exhibiting her piece "Portrait of a Textile Worker." The piece, which was acquired by the Museum of Art and Design in New York City, is a quilt made of 30,000 clothing labels stitched together to form the portrait of a textile worker in Bangladesh. Agnew also received a Wisconsin Lifetime Achievement Award this past spring.
The idea for Agnew's piece began while she was sewing at her machine, listening to a radio interview about the treatment of textile workers in Nicaragua. When 12 workers tried to form a union, they were immediately fired.
"They wanted us to know they were proud of their work and wanted to be treated like human beings. I wanted to help, but didn't know how," Agnew said. "Then many months later, while walking through a department store and seeing signs everywhere that said Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Eddie Bauer it struck me: The thing to do was create a portrait, an identity of one textile worker using all the identification labels that come on your clothes."
Agnew, a Shorewood native, started a worldwide campaign to procure labels to create her piece. "People had to cut off labels one by one, which became an exercise in connecting the remote idea of laborers on the other side of the world with the clothes on our backs. Suddenly, those workers didn't seem so remote," Agnew said.
She hopes people who view her quilt, especially students, will be inspired to become global citizens, especially students. "The workers in these factories are 14 to 24 years old. That particular age group is also the most heavily marketed demographic in the world and therefore the most powerful. When companies get letters from students saying 'We don't want to buy your products because they are made by exploited laborers our age,' companies take notice. Student campaigns can be very successful," she said.
The exhibit examines work and labor from a variety of perspectives, including immigrant laborers, miners and cowboys.
"In the exhibit there are workers shown in difficult jobs, such as working on an assembly line or branding cattle, which are out of the field of vision for many people," Flanagan said. "There still are people doing those types of jobs, however, and this exhibit will start the conversation about the future of work and what jobs in today's society look like."
Political perspectives regarding work and labor are addressed by Dan S. Wang, Nicolas Lampert, Susan Simensky Bietilla and UW-Whitewater alumnus Colin Matthes '01. Their pieces revolve around the protests in Madison after Gov. Scott Walker and the state legislature placed restrictions on labor unions and union workers. Several of the images have become iconic and have been widely distributed.
UW-Whitewater alumni Rebecca Ratzlaff '97 and Erica Meier '09 will also have artwork on display. Ratzlaff's piece, "Look for the Union Label," is an American flag stitched together with clothing labels. Faculty members Michael Banning and Teresa Faris are featured in the exhibit as well.
The opening reception for "artWORK" will be held 5-7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 6, in the Crossman Gallery.