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September 2012

If Rumpelstiltskin turned up at The Pfister demanding that Timothy Westbrook, the hotel’s new artist-in-residence, spin straw into gold, the young fiber artist wouldn’t even flinch. He’d just start working.

Westbrook, 23, arrived at the storied hotel in April, fresh out of Syracuse University. He has been weaving, sewing and constructing visually arresting costumes from bits and pieces of inspiration ever since.

His design aesthetic was sparked by turn-of-the-century fashions in the movie "Titanic." His methods, he says, are straight out of the Disney classic "Cinderella" — the scene where cheerful mice cobble together an elegant ball gown from scraps, odds and ends.

That’s what Westbrook does, too. He integrates strips of a white plastic garbage bag into fabric for a wedding gown, and it gleams. For another project, yards of audiocassette tape are pulled taut across Westbrook’s loom, ready to be woven with woolen yarn into a length of cloth that simply shimmers.

"The shine of the cassette tape gets me every time," he says.

So does the story. Westbrook’s grandfather, who is legally blind, listens to audio books. When he’s finished listening, Westbrook gets the tapes to play with in his work. He likes the idea that an audio book is the translation of something visual to something auditory; and, with his art, he takes the tape back to something visual.

While at Syracuse, Westbrook created the costumes for an entirely student-produced staging of Mozart’s romantic opera, "The Magic Flute." A gown for one of its characters, "Queen of the Night," is on display in his Pfister studio. Westbrook deconstructs it: the spidery stand-up collar is an old pineapple crochet doily and used millinery wire; the cape is made from a sheer orange curtain dyed black; and the skirt is an amalgam of a discarded prom dress, dyed bed sheet and silk. The bodice seems to be conjured up from a constellation of shy stars, with sequins glimmering behind black chiffon.

The ornate Pfister, with the largest collection of Victorian art of any hotel in the world, may be the perfect backdrop for Westbrook’s edgy ideas. "About 25 percent of the staff here are practicing artists," he notes.

Westbrook’s family has always supported his artistic ambitions. From his sophomore to senior years in high school, Westbrook and his mother lived apart from his father so that he could attend classes in a school that encouraged his talent.

The gold letters on the sign above his door read, "The Westbrook Studio."

"I like to look at that as the Westbrook family," he says, honoring their contributions to his success. "When my family comes in, it’s their studio."

He will be practicing his synthesis of fine art, fashion design and performance art at The Pfister until March. In the meantime, Westbrook says, Milwaukee reminds him of his hometown of Wanakena, N.Y. "And I love how art-centric Milwaukee is," he says. The entire experience, he says, "is all very magical."

See it Live

Westbrook is one of several fashion designers (including popular "Project Runway" alum Ra’mon Lawrence) showing their wares at RunUp 2012: The Roaring ’20s on Friday, Oct. 5, at The Historic Pritzlaff in downtown Milwaukee. Proceeds benefit the Cancer TRU at Froedtert & The Medical College of Wisconsin. Learn more at Or, buy tickets at



This story ran in the September 2012 issue of: