With the publication of the important book Consuelo Jimenez Underwood: Art, Weaving, Vision* by editors Laura E. Perez and Ann Marie Leimer, art lovers are treated to a full account of the life, creative processes, vision, and accomplishments of a great Latina artist.
Consuelo Jimenez Underwood’s artwork, a rich combination of mixed weaving, embroidery, found objects, painting, print, and multimedia installations, has been acquired by some of the nation’s most prestigious museums, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles County Museum of Art [LACMA]; the National Museum of Mexican Art, Chicago; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas; and the Museum of Art and Design, New York City.
Jimenez Underwood, an internationally known artist, has her exquisite artwork showing in New York in a solo exhibition “Consuelo Jimenez Underwood: Threads from Border-landia” at the New York Ruiz Healy Art gallery. The New York City exhibit closes on February 18, 2022. Fortunately for art lovers in Texas, her artwork can now also be viewed at Ruiz-Healy Art in Olmos Park, San Antonio. Viewers are treated to an artistic feast. Consuelo Jimenez Underwood’s dazzling artwork has been characterized by UC Berkeley professor Laura Perez as a leap “from the craft to fine art.”
The Cheech Museum artistic curator, Maria Esther Fernandez, writes that Jimenez Underwood “is from neither Mexico nor the United States. She is of the borderlands.” We know from borderland studies that Jimenez Underwood’s transnational experience gave her a unique bicultural-bilingual upbringing which writers have described as both magical and difficult.
Jimenez Underwood grew up in the twin cities of Mexicali and Calexico on the California-Mexico border. Her extended family lived on both sides of the international line and she crossed the border daily. The daughter of a Mexican American mother and an undocumented immigrant Mexican Huichol father, Consuelo Jimenez Underwood joined her parents and siblings in her childhood and teen years laboring in the agricultural fields of California and worrying about the immigration status of her father.
Immigration is one of Jimenez Underwood’s major themes. At the San Antonio Ruiz-Healy Art exhibition Jimenez Underwood’s large “C.Jane Run,” a silk screened piece measuring 10 x 17 feet is a masterpiece of fabric pieces pinned together showing a family running across the US-Mexico border. Images with the word “caution” repeated on every one of the 126 small panels show a mother with her children in tow dashing across a highway or perhaps a border crossing.
Playwright Luis Valdez, a former farmworker like Consuelo Underwood, commented on the meaning of some of her conceptual themes. He noted, ”The hard pain of immigration looms heavily on the warp and weft of her creations. The very shape of the Mexican border, la frontera con los Estados Unidos, becomes an emblematic line that appears again and again as a symbiotic scar linking the past with the painful present.”
Jimenez Underwood began her higher education at community colleges in Escondido and San Marcos, California. She received an undergraduate degree in art at San Diego State University and went on to earn a Master of Art degree at San Diego State University and a Master of Fine Arts from San Jose State University. Professors at San Jose State recognized her immense talent and offered her a post teaching in the art department. Over a twenty year tenure at San Jose State she taught and mentored hundreds of students.
Jimenez Underwood is living proof of the proverbial concept–which I have adapted– “You can take the artist out of the border, but you cannot take the border out of the artist.” She left the border area to study at San Jose State University as a young college student and retired several decades later in a small community north of San Francisco. Nonetheless, it is clear from all of her work that the border remained a powerful thematic force in her art across diverse media. Robert Milnes, her colleague at San Jose State, wrote that “the border between Mexico and the United States has always been a dominating factor and theme in Jimenez Underwood’s artwork and life.”
Jimenez Underwood’s use of barbed wire is truly imaginative. I would agree with Professor Laura Perez’s assessment that barbed wire, both real and conceptually, is one of her most powerful and now signature elements. Perez writes, “Over time the artist has repurposed this and other wire–some of it precious copper, silver, and even gold–and recycled it from industrial waste into the ink of her handwoven and stitched mixed-media text.” An especially powerful rendering is Jimenez Underwood’s silhouette image of Mexico painted in dark brown and placed behind 45 strands of metal barbed wire. The message is clear: America’s southern neighbor is no longer the “good neighbor.”
I was especially intrigued with Jimenez Underwood’s “Border Flower Flag,” a large 56 x 23 inch partially folded flag of dyed cotton and silk fabrics and embroidery threads. Clara Roman-Odio wrote that “This flag refers to a geographic locale [the US-Mexico border] and the specific history of American citizens of Mexican descent, but also to a cross-cultural category and the spiritual result of residing in that location.” Jimenez Underwood often substitutes flowers for stars in her flags. The colors of the Mexican and American flags are blended to show the close geographic relationship of the neighboring countries.
A unique feature of Jimenez Underwood’s work is her incorporation of Indigenous themes. Her father, an Indigenous Mexican Huichol, introduced her to the art of weaving. However, she expanded this theme with her own additional knowledge of Indigenous cultures of California and the borderlands. Professor Laura Perez wrote, “First introduced to the loom in her childhood by her father, a man of Huichol ancestry, during her graduate art school days she discovered in the loom, thread, textile, and needle particularly effective media by which to focus on seemingly removed, marginal aspects of reality.”
The arts and crafts, much like society, have been in constant transformation over centuries. Today, art is often shaped dramatically by technology and the expansion of traditional materials and forms. Art is also shaped by university art programs and museums. The challenge for art works like those of Jimenez Underwood is that for the past century, crafts, such as weaving, textiles, and sculptures of found objects, have not been as visible as paintings and traditional sculptures. That is beginning to change.
The art world has much to learn about the fine art of weaving and mixed media. Carol Sauvion, Executive Director of Craft in America, the Peabody Award-winning PBS documentary series, has contributed greatly to the understanding and appreciation of works by artists such as Jimenez Underwood. When Sauvion first saw the work of Jimenez Underwood at the Renwick Gallery, the Smithsonian’s national craft gallery in Washington, D.C., she knew she had to meet and interview the artist for one of the PBS Craft in America series. The Jimenez Underwood story is one that all audiences can enjoy.
Perez and Leimer, the editors of Consuelo Jimenez Underwood: Art, Weaving, Vision, have greatly enhanced our knowledge of an important American artist of craft and fine arts. The editors confirm that Jimenez Underwood’s “redefinition of weaving and painting alongside the socially and environmentally engaged dimensions of her work position her as one of the most vital artists of our time.”
Copyright 2023 by Ricardo Romo. All photo credits as noted above.