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Ed Rossbach, 88; Broadened Art Boundaries With Textiles

October 19, 2002|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Ed Rossbach, a pioneer of the contemporary fiber-arts movement who pushed the boundaries of traditional textile techniques and influenced a generation of young fiber artists, has died. He was 88.

Rossbach, a professor emeritus of design at UC Berkeley, where he taught for 29 years, died Oct. 7 in a Berkeley hospital after a long illness.

The essence of Rossbach's art, as one writer put it, was in "transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary."

Although he used a variety of centuries-old basketry techniques, he was a pioneer in using nontraditional, often whimsical materials, including metal foil, plastic bread bags, Mylar, rice paper, twigs, spray lacquer, ash splints, heat transfers, natural wood fibers, ribbon, tape, staples, twine -- and newspaper.

Like the ancients who used readily available river reeds to make their baskets, Rossbach found that the availability of newspaper in contemporary society made it a particularly appealing material to work with.

He just happened "to like it, the texture, the sense of ordinariness of it," he said in an interview for the 1990 book "Ed Rossbach, 40 Years of Exploration and Innovation in Fiber Art," which was produced for a retrospective of his work at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C.

Of one of his baskets made of coiled newspaper, he said, "I was not remotely interested in seeming clever or in making a statement about newspapers in our society; yet when the baskets were finished, the letters and words and fragments of illustrations added a peculiar force. They seem to speak out with an undeniable message."

"His baskets were incredible," said Inez Brooks-Myers, curator of costume and textiles at the Oakland Museum of California and a former student of Rossbach's.

"He was innovative, using throwaway materials for his baskets," she said, "but he also was innovative in his other weaving, where he would apply really old textile techniques in a very modern pop-culture, provocative way.

"The pieces he did with images of John Travolta and Mickey Mouse were marvelous. He was a scholar and yet he enjoyed popular culture."

Early Mickey Mouse drawings appeared periodically in Rossbach's work; he reportedly co-opted the world's famous rodent in response to snide remarks about his classes and occupation being "Mickey Mouse."

Added Brooks-Myers, who studied under Rossbach in the 1970s: "He was really a wonderful man and a marvelous teacher who listened to his students and challenged them in the most positive way."

Born in Edison Park, Ill., Rossbach grew up in the Chicago suburb of LaGrange, where he displayed an early artistic bent.

He never forgot the praise he received from his mother as a boy when he made a card-table cloth with three designed block prints in each corner.

"It's terribly important at a very early age, the appreciation that someone expresses toward your work," he told a former student who interviewed him in 1996 for her doctorate thesis.

Rossbach earned a bachelor's degree in painting and design from the University of Washington in Seattle in 1940 and a master's degree in art education from Columbia University's Teacher's College in 1941.

He served in the Army Signal Corps in Alaska's Aleutian Islands during World War II and, after earning a master's of fine arts degree in weaving and ceramics at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., in 1947, he began teaching painting and design at the University of Washington.

"I had to earn a living," he said in the 1996 interview. "I contemplated doing just art, but I was a shy person, and I could not imagine myself going with a portfolio of my art."

Rossbach, who joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 1950 and retired in 1979, received a gold medal for highest achievement in craftsmanship from the American Craft Council.

His fiber-artist wife, Katherine Westphal, a UC Davis emeritus professor of design, is also considered a seminal figure in contemporary fiber arts.

The UC Davis Design Museum recently concluded a "retro" exhibit of hand-painted textiles by Rossbach and Westphal from the 1950s to the 1970s.

"Ties That Bind," an exhibit of work by Rossbach and Westphal that ran at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1997-98, continues to tour the country.

Rossbach's textiles are part of collections in numerous museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Museum of Modern Art in New York, Art Institute of Chicago, the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery and the Stedelijik Museum in Amsterdam, as well as in many private collections.

Among the books he wrote are "The Nature of Basketry," "The Art of Paisley," "The New Basketry" and "Baskets as Textile Art."

Rossbach is survived by his wife.

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