Profile: Timothy Westbrook, Pfister Artist-in-Residence
The Pfister Hotel has named the fourth artist in their Artist-In-Residence program. For the past three years, the Pfister has offered a residency and working studio and gallery and been a member of the Alliance of Artist Communities. Both the gallery and the studio space at the hotel are open to hotel guests and visitors, encouraging the public to interact with the resident artist and experience the creative process first-hand.
The resident for 2012-2013 will be Timothy Westbrook, an emerging fiber artist from upstate New York. Westbrook attended art school in Syracuse, and has a background in fashion design and costuming, which continues to influence his work. Speaking over the phone, Westbrook provided some insight into the statements he is making with his work and why he is so excited to be the Pfister’s next artist-in-residence.
Much of Westbrook’s work focuses on themes of environmental care and consciousness, and fairytales. While this may seem like an odd mix, Westbrook sees the cultural phenomenon of Disney as inextricably linked to environmentalism. Walt Disney himself was an understated environmentalist, and Westbrook has polucked the threads from modern fairy-tales that weave together to form that picture.
The nature of modern society is that very few Americans live in wild places anymore; whether we are urban or suburban or exurban, the world most of us live in is increasingly devoid of nature in any sort of wild form. This disconnect between us and nature means that nature is the perfect setting for modern fantasy. We have to imagine it, because we cannot experience it. The fantastical creatures of Disney films, the mermaids and dragons and unicorns (a personally potent symbol for Westbrook), can exist only in wild places, and this is why we see them as fantastic. Westbrook recalls growing up in a small town in upstate New York, Wanakena, and being convinced that unicorns did exist, because the woods around him seemed to be the sort of forest that unicorns would live in: wild and deep and dark.
In accordance with his environmental themes, Westbrook attempts to create art in the lowest-impact manner possible. He uses recycled materials; his sewing machine is operated by foot treadle; and he plans to instill a large hand-loom in the Pfister studio.
One of the things he is most excited to be able to explore during his residency here in Milwaukee is low-impact dying techniques, since almost all dyes used are harmful in one way or another. His project in Milwaukee will be his first experiment in high-production of fabric from recycled materials, using cassette tape ribbons for weft and hand-dyed or -painted cotton and wool for weft threads.
Westbrook’s stated goal for his year in Milwaukee at the Pfister is to create five complete Victoriana costume pieces, from gowns to underthings to accessories, entirely out of hand-created materials and using as much recycled fiber as possible. As he has begun to think through the project, Westbrook says that a narrative has emerged in his conception of the project, from a simple series of gowns to one that tells the story of “Ms. Pfister” in her journey from Victorian miss to the femme nouveau, the proto-femme-fatale, the young woman awakening her interest and ownership in the world around her.
Westbrook feels as if this project is particularly suited to his residency at the Pfister because of the hotel’s history itself. The Pfister Hotel was built in 1893, right in the middle of the art nouveau period of art history, and is full of the sort of details that Westbrook loves from that period: bright colors, hand-crafted rather than machine-made, a return to the slower and more intentional art of the cottage crafter period and away from industrial art.
The Pfister is home to the largest collection of Victorian-era art of any hotel in the world. The Pfister residency, when he was first considering applying, attracted him because of the gorgeous surroundings of the hotel itself. Westbrook considers the environment in which he creates to be important to the final product.
And further, Westbrook is excited to come to the city of Milwaukee. He made the conscious choice to stay in Syracuse after graduating from the university to become a working artist. When he was in Milwaukee, he was taken by the number of people that came out for the selection show, despite the blizzard conditions. He told me that “Milwaukee was a place where people smiled at you, even during a snowstorm!” He was impressed with the interest in and support of art and the art community by the broader Milwaukee community.
Current Artist-in-Residence Shelby Keefe is in the midst of the UPAF Artists Among Us project, where she will create 16 12″ x 12″ paintings for each of UPAF’s member groups. Check out the Pfister Hotel Blog for more.