SANTA CLARA -- Consuelo Jimenez Underwood sat on a folding chair in the middle of an art gallery at the Triton Museum in Santa Clara explaining a huge, tapestry of flowers she's mounted over an entire wall. The flowers are in the shape of the world's continents, and over these beautiful symbols of life she's installed a wiry, gashing image of the U.S.-Mexico border.
"It's the world where borders rule and reign over everything, including flowers," she says. "We're not the only ones with border problems."
Underwood is a dedicated fiber artist, one who weaves and sews her eye-catching and controversial creations from all sorts of cloth, thread, leather and even paper. She learned much of her craft from her Mexican mother and later refined her specialty at San Jose State University's art department, where she taught for 20 years.
Now retired from the classroom, the 64-year-old professor emeritus is still a strong and active presence in her colorful, home-based studios in Cupertino and Mendocino. Her current solo show at the Triton, "Welcome to Flower-Landia," brings her long-running border theme full circle. This is a highly personal show, about a young girl who grew up along the border, crossed it repeatedly to pick crops and absorbed two nations and three cultures -- American, Mexican and Indian. She emerged as a challenging artist who sees the border as one place, a region unto itself, and that's enough to offend nationalists on each side who believe in political and cultural separation.
"The border is one land, always has been and always will," Underwood says. "The plants, animals and flowers know this. The people who live there know it. The politicians and soldiers don't. They're turning the border into an ugly place."
While Underwood is definitely a message artist, Triton visitors will be surprised by her balanced approach to an extremely complicated region. Underwood may have a sharp tongue and rapier wit -- genuinely a life-of-the-party type -- but she also weaves beauty and optimism into her creative borders.
In terms of space, this is a big, dazzling show. The Triton has given Underwood a room roughly the size of a basketball gym. If art was hoops, she'd play run-and-gun style, with lots of Phi Slamma Jamma. On the opposite wall from her global vision is one of the United States and Mexico. The border in this large tapestry is even nastier, but Underwood has filled the divide on each side with beautiful, hardy plants like bluebonnets and saguaro cactus.
Triton curator Ester Fernández said Underwood's show reveals that the artist is reliving the border tensions and contradictions she experienced as a young girl. At the same time, she finds purpose and a spiritual home in the region.
"As she evolved and grew as an artist," Fernández says, "she realized her redemption was there, on the border."
The fiber artist agrees. "Even though it's a horrific and stark vision," Underwood explains, "It's still beautiful."
Underwood's father was a Huichol Indian and an undocumented migrant worker from Mexico. Her mother was mestiza, of mixed white and Indian blood. While traveling in California, they gave birth to Underwood in Sacramento, but the migrant-worker family was based in Calexico, just north of the border, and also in Mexicali, its twin city across the line.
"I would get up in Calexico, attend school, then after school, cross the border and hang out in our Mexicali home till late," she says, "then return to Calexico to sleep."
That's how she met her future husband, Marcos Underwood, whose family also had homes on both sides. He is part Yaqui Indian, a tribe that resisted and survived a genocidal war waged by Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz in the late 19th century. The youngsters married when Consuelo was 17. The couple still travel three or four times a year to Yaqui territory in Mexico for festivals and religious ceremonies.
Intelligent kids, they enrolled together at San Diego State University and pursued entirely different careers. Marcos became an electrical engineer. After earning two degrees at San Diego, Consuelo enrolled at San Jose State for a master's in fine art, where she had a bumpy start.
"I felt pressured to go into traditional art, but it never felt natural to me," she says. "Every time I saw a sewing machine I felt drawn to my past, my history and heritage. My indigenous ancestors were great weavers."
So she abandoned the paintbrushes and took up the loom and sewing machine. Underwood's fabrics have appeared at the San Jose Museum of Art, the Oakland Museum of California, the Mexican Museum in San Francisco and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Most of what Americans and Mexicans know about the border comes from news media and Hollywood, and the images are almost always brutal, desperate or depraved. So when an artist uses flowers to describe the border, that's worth a look.
When Juan Velasco heard about "Flower-Landia," the associate professor at Santa Clara University asked Underwood to give some of his students a tour of the exhibit. An expert in Latin American and Chicano autobiographical writings, Velasco wanted them to see how the artist used images from her girlhood -- colorful flowers and ribbons but also barbed wire -- to tell her story and explain the border today.
"There is tenderness and brutality in her work," Velasco says. "The students were affected by that."
Underwood was glad to help.
"I've learned the power of generational knowledge," she says. "When you pass knowledge to the younger generation, not everybody gets it. But if one, two or three get it, then we won."
Though "Flower-Landia," with its huge displays, is enjoying its Triton run, Underwood is already looking for another home for the big border tapestries. She wonders aloud if any deep-pocket, Silicon Valley leaders, who have latched onto globalism and immigration issues recently, would be interested in hosting one or two of her massive creations.
Just thinking about it made her exclaim, "I need a bigger wall!"
The works of Consuelo Jimenez Underwood
Where: Triton Museum, 1505 Warburton Ave., Santa Clara
When: Through Nov. 24