Materials and power: Artist investigates labor rights and solidarity in textile exhibition

a red art exhibition
Artist Rachel Breen's "At the Root: Materials and Power" exhibition is up through Dec. 9 at Saint John's University.
Courtesy of Rachel Breen

A textile-themed art exhibition at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., asks audiences to consider the labor rights of garment workers and the overconsumption of clothing in an era when fast fashion is king.

The “At the Root: Materials and Power” exhibition by Minneapolis artist Rachel Breen is up through Dec. 9 in the art gallery of Saint John’s University.

One site-specific work is a wall drawing Breen created with students. They used a sewing machine without thread to create stencils that were then applied to the gallery wall with soft pastels. The drawing depicts shirt sleeves and collars stretching out in multiple directions.

a red textile installation
The piece "Banner for Solidarity #5: Towards a Common Future" uses the red and gold colors of the International Ladies' Garment Workers union founding banners in 1900.
Courtesy of Rachel Breen

“It is this metaphor for labor,” says Breen, who is also a professor of art at Anoka-Ramsey Community College. “Sleeves are really important to me because they cover our arms, but also arms are what we work with.”

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The piece is called “All of Us or None of Us” inspired by the poem “Red Sea: April 2002” by Aurora Levins Morales. As they were installing the wall drawing in October, the Israel-Gaza war began and it took on another meaning. 

“I’m Jewish and so I felt it was really important to respond to that in a poetic way,” Breen says.

Breen says the piece extends the invitation of solidarity with the people who make our clothes to those affected by the war.

Two people sit and at a table
Rachel Breen (left) in India in 2022 as a Fulbright Scholar studying the garment industry.
Courtesy of Rachel Breen

“We’re also connected to the people who are fighting in this war and who are dying in this war. We should feel connected to them,” Breen says. “I do want to see a ceasefire, and I don’t believe that what we’re doing right now is going to get us closer to any kind of solution. I would hope that my wall drawing could speak to that: Fighting is not the answer.”

In the many textile works in the show — all created from deconstructed and reconstructed secondhand clothes — Breen draws on the history of the garment industry and the dangerous conditions it creates for those working in it. Her work speaks to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 when 146 garment workers died. As well as the 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,100 people. 

“As somebody who worked with a sewing machine, I immediately felt really connected with these garment workers,” Breen says.

a wall drawing
Artist Rachel Breen worked with Saint John's students to create "All of Us or None of Us,” a wall drawing using a sewing machine without thread.
Courtesy of Rachel Breen

The exhibition is informed by Breen’s extensive research into these events and their aftermath, as well as the garment industry’s role in climate change — fast fashion is one of the biggest polluters. She traveled to Bangladesh to interview survivors of the Rana Plaza collapse. In 2021, Breen did research at the Kheel Center labor archive at Cornell University, and as a 2022 Fulbright Scholar, she went to India to learn about the clothing industry.

“Even though I was a union supporter before I started doing this research, it became really clear how important unions are for garment workers both at the turn of the century and in places like Bangladesh,” Breen says.

Many of the textile works in the show use shades of red and gold, a nod to the banners made for the founding of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union in 1900, a union she discovered in her research at the Kheel Center.

One of her pieces includes a shirt with 11 sleeves.

“Literally, 11 people could all put their arms through the sleeves and then wear it,” Breen says. “What would that mean, if 11 people wear one garment together? Well, it would mean people would have to actually communicate about how to move. And that’s the metaphor for the idea of collective power.”

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.