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Area Voices: Visual artist brings art with a message to Bemidji

A headshot of artists Rachel Breen wearing a teal shirt.
Rachel Breen
Visual artist Rachel Breen has an exhibit at the Watermark Art Center through March 23, 2024.

Visual artist Rachel Breen’s exhibit “Reassemble” at the Watermark Art Center ends March 23 with a workshop and closing lecture.

BEMIDJI — Rachel Breen’s sees her sewing machine as her primary tool. Not only does she use it for her textiles, which you can see at the Watermark Art Center, but she also uses it to draw on paper and for her social engagement projects.

Rachel Green's collective garment of different shirt sleeves.
Andrew Dziengel
Rachel Breen's "Speculative Garment Series: Collective Garment #1" piece.

Breen learned to sew when she was in 6th grade and even made clothes for herself in high school. But then, she stepped away from sewing for a while. It wasn’t until graduate school, when she picked up a sewing machine for $3, that she began experimenting with it.

“I started to see the way that it helped me embed meaning into my work, and so it became important to me: both because it was a tool that helped me do formal aspects of making work, but it also began to have broader kind of symbolic implications that I was very fascinated by.”

Art can be personal, but in Breen’s case, it was also relevant.

"A lot of how I see myself expressed in the work is that I have a very deep commitment to social justice as part of my identity."
Rachel Breen

In 2013, the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh collapsed and killed over 1,000 people. Breen immediately thought of a previous garment factory disaster.

In 1911, there was a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City that killed 143 people. The majority of the women who died were Jewish immigrants. The tragedy was not just history, it hit close to home for Breen. Her grandparents were Jewish immigrants and the fire was part of her family’s history passed down through generations.

“I connected these two factory disasters, and I started to ask, "How could something like this happen in 2013?'”

Breen dove into a path of research, which grew into a passion for clothing. She asked questions like "How are our clothes made and who makes them?"

Art became an opportunity to explore the complicated stories of clothing and textiles.

Exhibit message

At her exhibit “Reassemble,” Breen has taken apart clothing to invite and encourage people to think about how their clothes were made.

A banner made of different colored sleeves
Andrew Dziengel
Rachel Breen's "Piecework" at the Watermark Art Center.

“Our clothes travel a very long journey to get to the store... We have a label that says ‘made in Bangladesh’ or ‘made in Honduras’ or ‘made in Sri Lanka,’ but usually our clothes have passed through maybe five, maybe eight different countries (before) that.”

Breen also wants audiences to consider what happens when they discard their clothes. Some people donate their unwanted clothes to the Salvation Army or Goodwill, which Breen doesn’t think is a bad thing, but most of what gets donated doesn’t get sold.

“What we donate is actually sent in containers back to the global South... where it mostly winds up in landfills in those countries.” Breen continued, “So the clothes are creating all kinds of pollution, both with how the clothing is created, but then also what happens at the very end of the life of these clothes.”

This attention to sustainability and waste led Breen to use clothing to inspire critical thinking through her artwork.

Rachel Breen's piece The Bottom Line made up of plackets removed from used shirts.
Andrew Dziengel
Rachel Breen's piece "The Bottom Line" at the Watermark Art Center.

Personal artwork

Though her artwork has a broader message, Breen still finds a part of herself in the finished piece.

“A lot of how I see myself expressed in the work is that I have a very deep commitment to social justice as part of my identity. It's part of my Jewish heritage and it's part of my desire to see workers treated better.”

Another emphasis for Breen was the idea of the collective. One piece she made is a shirt that has 11 sleeves.

“If 11 people put their arms in each one of these sleeves, it would require an incredible amount of communication and coordination in order for people to move...we actually have to communicate and coordinate action in order to move together, to make change.”

Workshop participation

Breen is hosting a workshop at 1:00 p.m. March 23 at the Watermark Art Center called “Making Meaning with the Everyday.” Participants are encouraged to bring things from home. During the workshop, they will find different ways to put them together and create new meaning with them.

Audience interpretation

While her work is a form of activism with a message, Breen also hopes people have different experiences looking at her work. She thinks that’s one of the greatest things about art.

“I love art that makes me think, that inspires me, that creates moments of beauty, creates moments of dissatisfaction or curiosity.”

Breen hopes an audience walks away with an experience. “If they can take something deeper away from it in terms of reconsidering things about their consumption habits or a greater understanding about and respect for the people who make our clothes and the need for them to be treated well, all the better.”

Breen’s exhibit “Reassemble” will be at the Watermark Art Center through March 23. The workshop will be held at 1:00 p.m. on March 23, followed by Breen's closing lecture at 5:00 p.m.

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Area Voices is made possible by the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the citizens of Minnesota.

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