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One-Horned Wonder
Timothy Westbrook has constructed a fantasy land grounded in environmental and historical realities.

Alternate Reality: Brinkley the horse and Timothy Westbrook.
Photo by Adam Ryan Morris. 

Timothy Westbrook moved to Milwaukee in March 2012, when he became the first out-of-state artist selected for the Pfister Hotel’s yearlong residency program. He was 23 and had recently completed a degree at Syracuse University.

Shortly after he arrived in Milwaukee, and unpacked his foot treadle sewing machine and weaving loom, a friend sent his profile to scouts at the fashion competition TV show “Project Runway.” They contacted Westbrook and invited him to audition, and he became one of season 12’s 16 contestants. By the second episode, though, it was obvious Westbrook was cut from a different cloth. The design theme for that episode involved diamond necklaces, and while all of the other contestants were ooh-ing over the jewels, Westbrook turned up his nose, and in a squeaky voice said, “I’m not inspired by the jewelry. I’m not impressed by money.” He was booted off the show the next episode, after histrionics with fellow Milwaukeean Miranda Levy. 

Now, Westbrook considers “Project Runway” the low point of his young life. Growing up “sheltered with support,” the competitive adversity of the show was disturbing. But Westbrook rallied and became fond enough of Milwaukee to stay awhile. In a mere two years, he has peppered the city with fashion events that fuse ecology, sustainability, mythology, repurposed materials, unicorns and, perhaps most significantly, a sensitivity to racial and economic issues.

When he realized the extremes of Milwaukee’s segregation, he began using mostly black models (all shapes and sizes) and drag queens at his shows. On “Project Runway’s” first challenge, he refused to let his model wear the sponsor company’s chemically based makeup or hair products. His Pfister Gallery Night productions always included hotel workers, from desk clerks to housekeepers, in ways that highlighted their avocations and individuality. Meanwhile, he has mastered the skill of weaving sinuous, shiny strings of old cassette tape and plastic bags into his garments. And his charm makes it hard to not kick off your shoes, pin a tail on your butt and prance around his magical world. 

Thin, elfin, with an adorable gap between his front teeth, Westbrook’s life already overflows with the kind of adventurous mythology that he threads into his work. And his love of unicorns is no joke. The day I visited him at his Downtown apartment that doubles as his studio, Westbrook offered a generous greeting and started apologizing for the mess. Indeed, the studio really was a mess. Explosions of fabric pooled everywhere. The table was littered with disemboweled Red Bull cans. A kitschy painting of a unicorn presided over all. 

The mess was indicative of his busy life. He’d just landed a job as an assistant costume stitcher and wardrobe assistant for the Milwaukee Ballet, and he’s returned to his figure skating practice with a private trainer. 

This month, he will also take over the entire Charles Allis Art Museum with his exhibit Unis: The Origin of the Unicorn. Each room of the historic mansion will be part of a travelogue to tell the fictional story of how Charles Allis, in the late 1800s, hired a team of researchers to study unicorn origins. Using video, photographs, fashion, artifacts, actors and a curated exhibition of unicorn-themed art to drape narrative onto history, Westbrook’s approach is complex. Everything is somehow logically or historically sourced, but the associative leaps are balletic. Westbrook’s mythical worlds, like Narnia or Neverland, become metaphorical contrivances to open the space for real solutions. His discovery of a Rosa Bonheur painting of a deer in the Allis collection, for example, led to learning that Bonheur had to be issued a license to wear pants in the mid-1800s in France so she could paint in stockyards and outdoors. This inspired a character and a crazy pair of floral knickers for the exhibition. But the history of women’s emancipation underlies the work. 

Back in his apartment and in the throes of the project, Westbrook cuts out the tiny Red Bull logo from each energy drink can to later use as sequins for a vest. He pairs slow, laborsome, tedious handwork with his effulgent thinking. It seems they anchor one another. Pulling a garment out of a bag, he coos over a black lace dress from 1901 that was a 16th birthday present from his mom. He’s going to transform it for one of the characters in this project, which is loosely autobiographical, featuring symbolic representations of his family. 

While digressive and multidimensional, Westbrook seems to thrive on one simple recipe: grandiosity of vision mixed with humility and kindness. Forget the unicorn; this is Westbrook’s real magic potion. ■

This article appears in the August 2014 issue of Milwaukee Magazine. 
Read the rest of August issue online here, or subscribe to Milwaukee Magazine.

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