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The Worker's Rug: Fine Art From Day Labor

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Artbound's editorial team has reviewed and rated the most compelling weekly articles. After putting two articles up for a vote, the audience chose this article to be made into a short-format documentary.

It's just a rug.
It hangs on the wall.
It's just a rug.
It was made by hand. It hangs on the wall.
It's just a rug.
Day laborers made it by hand and now it hangs on the wall.
It's just a rug.
Day laborers tore clothing by hand to make braids that they fashioned into the rug that hangs on the wall.
It's just a rug.
Day laborers worked in the clothes that they tore into rags and braided together to make the rug that hangs on the wall.
It's just a rug.
Two artists facilitated day laborers to tear their old work clothes into rags, braiding them together to make a rug that now hangs on the wall.
It's just a rug.
Two artists and a group of day laborers sat around and told stories about the work they did as they tore old work clothing into rags, which they braided together into a rug, which now hangs on the wall.
It's just a rug.
There was a lot of work put into that rug.

I work as a roofer, roof-making/with my cap I've worked on many roofs. Two months ago, I fractured a finger at work/the last time I used it while working. I had had it for a year. I am now ready to disassemble it. I've been doing this job for 37 years.

The Workers' Rug/La Alfombra Del Trabajador | Photo: Katie Bachler.
The Workers' Rug/La Alfombra Del Trabajador | Photo: Katie Bachler.

The Workers' Rug/La Alfombra Del Trabajador is an art project done by day laborers, organizers affiliated with IDEPSCA, artist Katie Bachler and Jade Thacker, and the Craft and Folk Art Museum.

Bachler and Thacker wanted to use a rug as a space for social sculpture and call it the Roving Rag Rug. They acquired and programmed it into the Collective Show back in 2011. Later, they put out collection boxes for worn clothes around East and North East LA. They'd hoped to weave this stuff into there own rug. "Roving Rag Rug" contained in it a contradiction that became clear for the artists sorting through the donations. While the rug might "rove," each piece of clothes contained traces of the particular life that had just habituated it. The tension between a generic free space rug, and one sited to a particular working body was settled with Heidi Zeller. She showed up at one of the artists' rug weaving sessions. Zeller is the director of the Craft And Folk Art Musuem's Folk Art Everywhere project, which aims to bring folk art everywhere. Heidi helped connect the artists to IDEPSCA (Sonny Abegaze now leads the project for CAFAM.)

Instituto de Educación Popular del Sur de California is a non-profit with a mission to "create a more humane and democratic society by responding to the needs and problems of disenfranchised people through leadership development and educational programs." IDEPSCA organizes house workers, unloaders, landscapers, gardeners, care workers, and construction workers - all day laborers- through five locations in L.A. County. They provide services, advocacy, and job opportunities. Pedro Joel is an organizer there and is probably key to the Workers' Rug successful collaboration. He organizes VozMob. It is an award-winning platform and tool for empowerment, developed through IDEPSCA. Workers use cell phones to take photos, videos, and write short stories about the conditions of their labor. Joel says that the platform is a "tool to counteract the negative stories about immigrant workers online." Because IDEPSCA has this project encouraging workers to discuss their experiences, Bachler and Thacker's invitation to share stories was not at all unfamiliar there.

I am Ricardo Rodriques, blue-collar worker from IDEPSCA's downtown worker's center. In a T-Shirt, I loaded and unloaded trailers and diverse jobs, painting, laborious jobs, very difficult tasks. Searching for the American Dream.

Next door is a church holding some kind of event. There is music and preaching in Spanish. Little girls in frilly pastel dresses crowd the sidewalk outside asking parents for sweets and tacos sold by vendors. I am here two-floors up in a room at the downtown workers' center to celebrate the Workers' Rug. On the wall outside this room is an image of Malcolm X. In here are photos of laborers rending garments, and there is the rug itself. The group filling the little room is large, mixed ages and nationalities. In a sharing-circle the artists describe making the rug: the joy of their fellow workers- tearing old clothes, t-shirts, jackets, baseball hats- laughing and crying through stories of work.

Katie said: Objects exist in the world. The rug is an object but it is stories. People might look at it and not know what ideas, feelings, and pain are interwoven in it.

A man named Chrispin said: Thank you for putting the Workers' Rug together. It is a good thing that we are all here together sharing info with friends and family.

Jade said: I've learned (through this project) how to be inclusive of others' community. We went to the Craft and Folk Art Museum with IDEPSCA's workers. A worker wanted a bilingual tour there, which hadn't been done before. I realized the limited possibility of art if it isn't able to be accessed by all people. (The museum has offered these tours since.)

A woman named Madelou said: I asked my neighbor to borrow strings. He makes dresses downtown here. I made dresses when I lived in Mexico City. I've been here 16 years. I started braiding and started thinking about this- does this (distance) cause pain? I don't have a desire to go back, even to be buried. I am not going anywhere. If they send me back, I don't know how, but I will come back here. I am convinced that one is from where one stays, not where they are born. Keep working and contributing despite circumstances, so this house becomes even better.

This garment has been used in many construction jobs. It has worked so hard that is worn out. Today it will be donated to the rug as a historical remembrance.

I went to the UCLA Labor Center, located by Macarthur Park. It was an opening for an exhibition called Manos A La Obra. Juan Sontay is among the immigrant IDEPSCA workers whose art is there. His photos are of day laborers standing around waiting for work. I am familiar with this view, but Sontay's picture represents something that I never see. That is what he sees, standing behind these workers, looking at them, while he waits for people like me to arrive to give him work.

A piece of agit-prop theater was also performed for the large audience. Mariella Sabra starred as Jesusita, a maid. With my broken Spanish, I was able to glean the story and some plot points. Mariella labored in Beverly Hills. She worked many hours, and was given left over egg yolks to eat, or nothing else. At times, she was only allowed four hours to sleep. For a forty-hour work-week, with no overtime, she was paid $200.00. She couldn't quit because she needed the money, and her boss threatened to call INS. Though Mariella played Jesusita, her story was actually that of another worker there that night. So it was fitting that the play ended with a well received call for people to participate in a rally for home-workers rights in Sacramento, scheduled for the 21st of August.

I asked IDEPSCA organizer Pedro Joel what he thought about the collaboration between the trained Anglo artists and the immigrants. Joel felt the artists were doing "healing work," facilitating a cathartic moment; ripping tired work clothes and braiding it whole. I asked about the exchange between the two supposedly divergent groups, he said: " You are talking about high art versus low art. At IDEPSCA it's about the message. The rug is about the human experience. When humans come together they become collective."

The Workers' Rug collective meeting at CAFAM | Photo: Jade Thacker.
The Workers' Rug collective meeting at CAFAM | Photo: Jade Thacker.

In Europe, there is an emerging movement to address the needs of precarious workers; specifically for those in the emerging "creative class," and those in the shadow economy of immigrant labor. Neither Bachler nor Thacker were paid for all their time - nor were the day laborers. Though language and background may divide, significant work went into weaving the rug here.

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