For those who believe that deaths come in threes, the passing of Katherine Westphal this past Tuesday, confirmed by her gallery, Browngrotta Arts, must feel like fate. Already this year, we have lost Betty Woodman and Wendell Castle — two of the greatest exponents of the American craft movement. Westphal, though less well-known, was every bit as significant, a creative genius of astonishing eclecticism. Principally a fiber artist, she brought her boundless energy to many other mediums as well; her career has been aptly described, in Janet Koplos and Bruce Metcalf’s Makers: A History of American Studio Craft, as “a series of enthusiasms.”
Westphal was born in Los Angeles in 1919, before the city boomed, and spent much of her growing-up years on roller skates — always on the move. Though an indifferent student, she excelled at drawing, and went to the local City College to train in commercial art. She hated it: too many rules. So she transferred to the University of California at Berkeley, concentrating primarily on painting, though she also learned to weave and print textiles. After graduating in 1945, she got a job teaching in Wyoming. It was quite a shock for a city girl — “I could walk from one end of town to the other end of town in probably 15 minutes,” she recalled in 1988 — and she didn’t stay long, heading to the University of Washington after only one year.
There she met Ed Rossbach, whom she would marry. The two were the great odd couple of American fiber art. The weaver Jack Lenor Larsen remembers meeting Westphal back then: “the wildest woman I’d ever met.” She wore red cowboy boots and a wig, “and her language was a little rough and she was totally unconventional, and very short and round, and Ed was very long.”
In 1950, Rossbach got a teaching job back at Berkeley, and they moved there together. Barred from teaching there due to nepotism rules, Westphal studied ceramics, and also began developing a line of textile prints. She sold these through a New York agent, Frederick Karoly of the firm Perspectives, Inc., who also handled Rossbach’s weavings. This occupied her for about eight years, but eventually Karoly decided to quit the business and returned her samples in a box. It sat in her studio for some time (she never threw anything out). In 1961 or so, she opened the box and began making patchwork out of the samples. The results were highly unconventional, less like the traditional patterns of other quiltmakers than the collage-based works of Robert Rauschenberg. It was the first time Westphal had thought of textile as her principal artistic medium, but soon enough, she found herself at the head of a whole movement of creative quilting.
Another breakthrough came in 1969. She had taken up a position teaching design at UC Davis, and one day a coin-operated Xerox machine showed up in the offices. She began to experiment with it, working through stacks of nickels. It was the perfect medium, allowing her to rapidly exploit her magpie-like instincts. Westphal deployed the copy machine as an instant form generator, combining it with other techniques, from embroidery to heat transfer. It seems fitting that such a free spirit would appropriate the technology of bureaucracy in this way. Though a hugely popular teacher, she disliked much about university art education, which produced “art that has been trained,” she said, “like you train a dog.”
In the 1970s and later, as Westphal continued to rove across media, from drawings to baskets, she became best known for her “wearable art,” a genre she essentially invented. She defined it as clothing where “there wasn’t another one like it in the world, and most people probably wouldn’t be caught dead in it.” Few who bought her garments actually wore them, instead hanging them on the wall like paintings, so she went ahead and made them seven feet tall. Iconographic inspiration came from her global travels. “Basically, I’m a tourist,” she said, “moving around the world to faraway places either by actually traveling to the spot or by using the armchair method. Then it all pops out in my work, mixed in the eggbeater of my mind.”
Now, we must say goodbye to Westphal. Her creative spin cycle is at an end. She leaves so much behind, though: the infinite variety of her work, the generations touched by her instruction and influence. For this insatiably curious woman, the whole point of life was to avoid restriction. So she didn’t necessarily leave us words to live by, apart from this: “Art is irresponsible. That is its function.”