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Fusing Art and Fashion at the Pfister
Timothy Westbrook and the Victorian connection…

The Artist in Residence program at the historic Pfister Hotel is one of the jewels in Milwaukee’s crown. By bringing in artists who work in a space that is literally in the lobby of the venerable hotel, guests and city residents alike get the unique opportunity to see the creative experience up close and personal. Nearing the end of his tenure as the current Artist In Residence, I tracked down textile/fashion designer Timothy Westbrook to ask him about the program, and how he got involved in the first place.

Tell me about your background and where you’re from.
I grew up in the small town of Wanakena in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains in New York State. My parents both worked in forestry and I was living in the middle of a land of imagination. When you live in a place that looks just like Neverland of course unicorns can be real. My parents were both very supportive of my artistic interests and rather than sending me to boarding school my mother and I rented an apartment an hour north of my hometown so that I could attend a school with a better arts program. My parents didn’t permanently co-habitat for three years so that I could have a better education. While at my new school I interned in the costume shop at St. Lawrence University where I polished my sewing construction skills.

How did you get into design?
My grandmother taught me how to sew when I was five, which for a boy who loved to steal his sister’s Barbie’s opened a million and one new doors. When I was nine my drawings tended toward fashion illustrations and then I made my first dress for a Barbie. Shortly after it dawned on me while playing dress up that I could make clothes for big people. Here is one of my favorite videos of me paying dress up!


How did the residency at the Pfister Hotel come about?
In October of 2011, I was at an artist residency in a restored church built in the 1860s. It was my first experience of sewing on a treadle sewing machine for an extended period of time. The interior architecture of the church had a powerful connection with my Victorian sewing machine. So I typed in “Victorian Artist Residency” into the Google machine and found the Pfister’s program. 

What drew you to apply for the residency?
After doing some research on Milwaukee I discovered an amazing artist community. The Historic Third Ward, the Milwaukee Art Museum, Made In Milwaukee, Local Playlist, Art Milwaukee, Gallery Night, and the list goes on and on. I was very interested in a smaller city, still the biggest I’ve ever lived in. It proved to be a great fit for me.

Explain the purpose and ideas behind the residency.
1. To bring the preexisting art collection to life by witnessing the process of creating art and by acting as a docent for the collection.

2. To bridge the Hotel’s relationship with guests, locals, and employees.

3. To support the success of artists. The hotel is very art centric in their focus. In addition to the artist in residence the hotel offers monthly public piano concerts, a narrator in residence.

How do you think design and textiles affect the viewer of your work?
In my first day at school someone told me that they refused to shop at thrift stores. This comment represents a large demographic of people. My reimagined textiles allow people to forget that they’re wearing “garbage” and it transcends into art and elegance. Same for the viewer. They are intrigued and drawn in by the ornate patterns and glimmer of the materials to late find it has been created out of refuse. The ingenuity and imagination of that usually wows the audience.

Are you more into art or fashion?
I often substitute the word costume for fashion. It admits that we are all using fashion to make a costume for the character that we would like to identify as. So when I am creating theatrical costumes it focuses on the idea that they aren’t just magnificent creations, they are firstly an identifier for the characters personality. With that in mind I’m very interested in the intersection of performance and costume or fashion. 

What artist or designer has had the most influence on your work?
Timothy Walker is an editorial photographer with an ephemeral, mother goose like perception of the world. He works with designers who have rich colors bold expression and shapes. 

Where do you see yourself when this gig at the Pfister ends?
Wherever I am able to continue spending the majority of my time creating art I will migrate to. There is an artist residency in Glacier National Park in Montana that I’m very interested in. The Imperial Ice Stars in London is an amazing Ice Ballet that I would love to design for. Shortly after I landed in Milwaukee I received my acceptance letter for another residency in Vermont, which I naturally deferred. I never would have guessed an opportunity like the Pfister exists so I’m excited to see what surprises life has in store for me. For now I am in love with Milwaukee and I have every intention of having indelible memories this incredible city.

Everyone is invited to view his couture constructions on Gallery Night, Friday January 18th, 2013 from 5-9 p.m. in his gallery/workspace at the hotel. There will also be a special reception from 9-11 p.m. The fabulous retrospective runway show, styled by Alexis Rose Criscimagna of www.alexisrosestyle.com, will commence at 9:30 in the Rouge Ballroom. Be there and help a grateful city say goodbye to this talented young man who has now become a part of Milwaukee’s great tradition of bringing the arts to the forefront of our culture.

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