University of Minnesota Alumni Association


The Clothes on our Backs

Visual artist Rachel Breen illuminates inequities and waste in the world’s garment industry and spotlights the oppression its workers endure.

The installation Shroud is made from 1,281 white shirts, each one representing a garment worker who died at Rana Plaza or in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
Photo courtesy of Rachel Breen

Two days before she started pursuing her fine arts degree at the U of M, Rachel Breen (M.F.A. ‘06) bought a sewing machine at a garage sale for three dollars. She’d always been crafty and figured it would be fun to have a machine in her new U of M studio, where she looked forward to spending time drawing, painting, and printmaking. As it turns out, that impulse purchase would revolutionize her art and help her see it as a vehicle for social change.

Photo courtesy of Rachel Breen

Breen was in her 40s and had already enjoyed a career as a community organizer, grant writer, and as the cofounder of Jewish Community Action, a nonprofit that advocates for social and economic justice. She’d always made art—she still has the first sketchbook her parents gave her when she was 9—and had taken community education classes for personal fulfillment in the cities where she lived, including at Parsons School of Design in New York and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD). But she says her political work always felt more urgent. “I always joked that I would be an artist after the revolution,” she says.

That idea changed in 1998, when her family moved to China for three years for her ex-husband’s job. While there, Breen studied the folk art of papercutting, traveling to remote regions to meet women who made the art—and who had no formal training. “It helped me get beyond the idea that a ‘good’ artist was someone who was skilled at representational work,” she says. “I also realized that art could be a force in social change, [and saw] that the social changes I worked for as a community organizer are the work of a lifetime, not just a decade. Therefore it made sense to find a way to do what I really wanted and make it a source for change, too.”

As her commitment to making art grew, Breen considered getting certified to teach art in public schools, only to learn that the curriculum for that degree involved more pedagogy classes than art classes. Instead, she applied to the University’s M.F.A. program, which allowed her to focus on her artistic practice. She also assumed she wouldn’t get in.

“I remember the day I got my acceptance letter,” she says. “I sobbed. Going to school in your 40s is the best. I recognized the privilege of being a student and felt the joy of learning deeply.”

One day during her first semester, she was in her U of M studio. On a whim, she started experimenting with sewing paper to fabric.

Breen on a train in Jaipur, India, where she is spending five months this year on a Fulbright scholarship.
Photo courtesy of Rachel Breen

“I was just playing,” Breen says, over a Zoom conversation from Jaipur, India, where she is a Fulbright Scholar on sabbatical from her job as a professor of art at Anoka Ramsey Community College. Behind her, the sun lights up the whitewashed wall of her apartment’s balcony. She recalls the day she was sewing and ran out of thread and how she noticed the holes that the needle made in the paper.

Those holes opened up rich inquiries for Breen. She started to think about the sewing machine’s connection to labor issues. “A lot of people connect sewing to the domestic sphere, but for me, the sewing machine has always been a symbol of sweatshops and the labor of garment workers,” she says. “It has always been deeply intertwined with my people’s history as immigrants to the U.S. This is the work that so many Jews entered when they came to the U.S. at the turn of the century.”

She also realized that stitch marks are something nearly everyone in the world understands in a very intimate way. “This mark of the sewing machine is something that all of us have next to our bodies [because] the majority of people on the planet wear clothes that have been sewn in some way, whether by hand or by machine,” she says. “So, this mark is next to our skin, and so it connects us all. It’s this thing that binds us in a metaphoric way.”

A stitch is also a mark of repair, a concept that Breen connects to the Jewish concept of Tikkun olam, which translates to “mend the world.”

In 2009, Breen began her current job as an art professor at Anoka Ramsey Community College. And she continued making art—a practice that took another turn in 2013, when a building known as the Rana Plaza collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing at least 1,132 garment workers. (Bangladesh is known as a home for low-cost clothing manufacture and often poor working conditions. According to the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report 2020, a 30-year-old index that attempts to measure quality of life, including life expectancy, conditions are improving slightly in Bangladesh, but it still ranks 133 out of 189 countries and territories.)

It was a galvanizing moment for Breen. “I was making my work sitting at a sewing machine and felt viscerally connected to this tragedy,” she remembers. The event also reminded her of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911, where 146 garment workers—mostly Jewish and Italian immigrant women—died in the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of New York City. (Later investigations turned up numerous safety violations, including locked doors that prevented those inside from escaping the blaze. Outrage over the working conditions and loss of life eventually led to improved safety standards for factories, and to the formation of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which represents workers in garment production.)

Breen received a grant from Rimon, the Minnesota Jewish Arts Council, to travel with local poet Alison Morse to Bangladesh, where they interviewed survivors of Rana Plaza and met with union organizers. She also collected fabric scraps that had been tossed out of local garment factories, which became the inspiration for her 2018 work Shroud. The installation was part of a show at Carleton College called “The Price of Our Clothes,” and also a meditation on garment factory disasters. (Shroud was also part of a show called “The Labor We Wear” at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 2020.) 

The installation is made from 1,281 white shirts—the color of shrouds in Bangladesh and also in the Jewish faith—which are hung upside down from the ceiling so that the arms reach down toward the public. Taken together, the shirts are ethereal, almost cloud-like. But they are also startling and haunting, each one representing a worker who was killed at Rana Plaza and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

From Breen’s exhibition, “How to Dismantle a System: Take It Apart,” which was displayed at Minneapolis Institute of Art. According to Breen’s research, blue jeans are currently the most common clothing item worn around the world and are often manufactured under conditions that put workers and the environment at risk.
Photo courtesy of Rachel Breen

Breen says that creating Shroud deepened her exploration into garment labor issues in ways she couldn’t have imagined when she started. For instance, on a trip to Goodwill to purchase shirts, she discovered that buying even heavily discounted, secondhand clothing can be prohibitively expensive. That discovery led her to the Goodwill outlet in St. Paul. Standing in a room the size of a high school gymnasium amidst troughs of clothes, Breen learned that the overwhelming majority of clothes that are donated to Goodwill and the Salvation Army either are shipped overseas to be sold or end up in landfills. “I realized that while people think they are doing such a good deed when they donate ... we are just contributing to the problem in this whole supply chain of textile waste,” she says.

Breen is a deep thinker and gifted speaker, who is able to describe her artistic process and the motivations that drive it in a way that artists and non-artists alike can relate to.

“I really appreciate the way Rachel investigates actual societal problems and makes those issues visible to the rest of us,” says U of M Department of Art Chair Christine Baeumler, who specializes in interdisciplinary art and social practice. “We don’t necessarily think about where our clothing comes from, or the cost to the individuals who make it, or how they’re compensated or not for their labor. But one thing that really strikes me ... is that she’s looking at how systems can be improved.”

To that end, Breen hopes that her work will spark viewers to contemplate solutions to the problem of garment industry waste. She also wants people to move beyond where they should and shouldn’t shop—although she endorses the idea of buying fewer clothes and doing research to know if they were made ethically.

“What we really need to do is organize collectively to change policy and pressure the garment industry to treat workers better,” she says.

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