SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Consuelo Jimenez Underwood’s roots in fiber art
By Nancy Davis Kho
May 9, 2012
When Cupertino resident and nationally acclaimed fiber artist Consuelo Jimenez Underwood got the word that she would be featured this month in the fourth season of “Craft in America,” a Peabody Award-winning series on PBS, she felt humbled.
“I came of age in the ’60s,” Underwood says, “back when thread and fiber work was considered ghetto art.” But Underwood saw fiber work as a powerful and authentic connection to her Huichol Indian ancestors on her father’s side. She says, “As an art student at San Diego State in the early ’80s, I realized it was a political move to drop painting and pick up thread.”
Since the series first aired in 2007, “Craft in America” has sought to tell the comprehensive story of craft in American culture and history, by telling the stories of individual artists across a variety of media. In so doing, the program makes a strong case for craft as a societal nexus for both heritage and innovation.
The “Threads” episode explores how the seemingly benign act of textile crafting can become a soapbox from which to express powerful beliefs relating to justice, equality and environmentalism. Along with Underwood, fiber artists Faith Ringgold, Randall Darwall and Terese Agnew are featured, with work that spans story quilts, fiber collages and woven textile design.
Ringgold’s story quilts are but one of the means by which she shares her credo that “Anyone can fly.” She’s also a painter, an author, a teacher and a feminist organizer, and her mosaic designs grace the 125th Street subway stop in Harlem. Ringgold calls quilting “a useful medium,” and indeed, her quilts could keep a person warm at night. But the rich colors, brightly imagined details and moment-in-time scenes of African American family life challenge the notion that craft and art must reside in two separate worlds.
The segment on Massachusetts weaver Randall Darwall provides the viewer with an appreciation of the deceptively simple term “setting up.” He twists miles of yarn into skeins that are then individually dyed and then tied together, one knot at a time, before they go anywhere near a loom.
It’s an exacting and tedious process but one that speaks to his commitment to achieving his vision for the multihued blankets, scarves and shawls he creates. As he quips, “Why use five colors when 50 will do nicely?”
When asked why she got into quilting, Wisconsin’s Terese Agnew pulls out a thermometer and shows it to the camera; the external temperature is 14 degrees. “It was just plain cold,” Agnew says.
But beyond the warmth and care conveyed by a hand-sewn quilt, Agnew realized that she could offer up a political commentary from the threads in her hands. A showstopper piece in shades of black and gray features a textile worker leaning close to her sewing machine. The “drawing with thread” is beautiful in its own right, but when the viewer realizes that every inch of the quilt face is made of tags cut from clothing made in overseas garment factories, the work takes on a different weight.
Underwood’s journey to prominence in the craft world included a two-decade teaching stint at San Jose State. Her mastery of the form of weaving has allowed her to innovate with content, creating work that she terms “an expression of spirit, land and struggle.” The child of migrant workers, much of Underwood’s work refers to the immigrant experience, whether it’s a rebozo constructed from panels showing the controversial yellow illegal immigrant crossing road sign, or a “borderline strip” woven of barbed wire and bandannas.
“My father wove on a loom until I was 6,” Underwood recalls, an expression of his Huichol heritage that was subsumed after he immigrated permanently to the United States. “And now I have to pick up the thread.”