By: Teresa Conchas ‘22, Sarah Doyle Center Student Program Coordinator
My antique dining room table in hot and sticky San Antonio, TX
Consuelo Jimenez Underwood is a bright soul who sings to the world with welcoming arms. In her early seventies, she beams with an optimistic and enthusiastic energy that is especially touching these days. Each time I experience the treasure of being in her presence, I notice a change in my body and mind — my shoulders relax and my words flow out with ease. Consuelo has a gift for opening, and it comes to her so naturally.
As many of you in our Sarah Doyle community may recall, Consuelo visited Brown this past fall on a week-long artist residency, during which she collaborated with a group of undergraduates to create Exposing Unseen Boundaries, the most recent installment in her “Borderlines” series. The exhibition showcased a combination of new and old works: the “Brown-Violet Borderline,” “Apocalyptic Rain Song,” a hand-woven barbed-wire basket and tapestry, and photographs documenting a performance along the borderlands. Her artwork reaches deeply into the dynamic political and ecological forces emerging from the U.S.-Mexico border, and sifts through these complex entanglements with bold strokes of color and texture.
I was fortunate to spend a couple hours chatting with her one afternoon in mid-April. Below you will find some personal reflections and meditations in response to our conversation together. Moreover, I had the opportunity to help out with elements of the Exposing Unseen Boundaries exhibition; included are images of the “power wand” I created (first photo) and the “soil blessings” I arranged (third photo) for its two main wall installations.
As a fellow textile artist myself, I am all too familiar with the labor-intensive and social distancing aspects that accompany the art-making process. And while I find comfort in the company of my needle and thread and the repetitive motions of embroidering in and out and weaving over and under, every now and then I feel as though asking us to commit our whole selves as artists to the work is too much of a demanding sacrifice — the piling hours of isolation and concentration can become unbearable at times. Thus, when I look upon Consuelo’s beautiful and intricate weavings and paintings, I am filled with wonder and appreciation in reverence to her ability to inhabit this liminal space, carving it out as a universe of her own and transforming it into one of truth, liberation, and imagination.
When I inquired into her experiences with solitude, she addressed it with a warmth reserved for old friends, referencing Emily Dickinson’s perspective on “solitude of space.” For her, this solitude of “a soul admitted to itself” is long-term, and she is intimately acquainted with its sacred possibility, urging us to presently “do something with it,” to share and create in it.
Her words on solitude particularly resonate with our moment, as we learn to navigate the difficult and lonely waters of our newly-imposed social guidelines. In our state of quarantine, how can we learn from solitude, find grounding in it, and most importantly, care for ourselves and our loved ones amidst it? I am convinced that art has a vital role in addressing these big questions, in helping us process and understand the new world we are confronted with. Art is healing and unifying, and we should embrace creative practices as a vessel for learning to live with ourselves and our thoughts during this period of remaking and adjustment. Though she is “sad that it’s happening so harshly,” if we have the time and energy, Consuelo asks us to pause and rest, to listen and reflect (inwardly and outwardly) in the silence of our solitude. It will be challenging — approach it with an abundance of patience and tenderness for yourself — but I am excited for the learning, discovering, and imagining that will come of it.
While this is a time engulfed in fear and uncertainty that has exacerbated division and inequality in previously unrecognized ways, Consuelo insists that we resist growing and expanding borders and boundaries — which can be a particularly troubling task when we are required to remain six feet apart. We concluded that borders have reached a new extreme, as we carry them with us on our own person now, “like you’re wearing them.” Several weeks later, this statement still haunts me, its implications becoming further real with each passing day.
However, rather than dwell in this fracturing, I am choosing to think about borders in the counter-context of inhabiting a shared world through strengthening ethics of connection and care and deepening meanings of community. Nowadays I find myself being more purposeful about acknowledging and cherishing living presences of all sorts — whether that’s greeting neighbors I hadn’t spoken to in years along my daily bike rides or tuning into the birds happily chirping from my front porch — gestures that had long gone neglected and taken for granted. Our restorative solitude has allowed us to “get to know ourselves in order to better understand others,” making our points of connection that much more intentional, enriching, and precious.
On Hope and Art Futures
Consuelo also emphasized our collective human resiliency, expressing that “we can sustain anything” while we firmly hold onto hope and resist the defeat of despair. Although we are enduring immense pain and devastation, she considers our current moment a call to shift and improve, for “when there’s chaos, it’s a time to change the world a little bit.” A profound structural change is long-due, and it is up to us to accountably fight for it — we owe this to ourselves and the loved ones we have lost. Equipped with a renewed vision of justice and the might to see it through, we will mend and repair the fabric of our humanity in radical ways.
She assures us that the arts aren’t going anywhere, and that their power to build consciousness and uplift communities is more important now than ever. Anticipating a return “back to the hand” and the rise of guerilla art activity in a public reclamation of art that is accessible and relevant, she views this as a positive reinstatement of the arts as being for and belonging to everyone, the “big empty gallery and museum spaces were getting to be too stuffy for their own good” anyway. And though the arts are the first to be cut from budgets, we will keep them alive and flourishing with our creative resourcefulness. So dream tremendously about the world you want to live in and then take part in actively creating it with your pen, brush, guitar, voice, body, etc.
Consuelo believes in the promise of young people with her whole heart and spirit. Her confidence in this next generation’s potentiality to sew the tears and scraps of our broken society together bestows dually upon us inspiration and commitment. We will continue to make movement, breathe, survive — and surely do good too.
For those who missed our series of events featuring artist Consuelo Jimenez Underwood, included are links to the artworks she created and the talk she gave while on campus in October:
High-resolution photos of the Exposing Unseen Boundaries exhibition available at this link: https://brown.widencollective.com/c/pv5fm3af
For more information about the artist and her collection of works/exhibitions, visit her website at http://www.consuelojunderwood.com/
Image credits: Photography by Nicholas W Dentamaro/Brown University