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March/April 2003


Charles Edmund (Ed) Rossbach

Blue Ikat, 1957; cotton, linen; double ikat; 110 by 34 inches. Private collection. Courtesy of the Textile Museum.

Ed Rossbach, the basketmaker, weaver, and textile historian who changed the field of art in the fiber medium through his teaching, research, and writing, died October 7, 2002. He was 88 and had been in fragile health for five years.

A resident of Berkeley, California, for more than 50 years, Rossbach helped spark the fiber evolution/revolution of the 1970s and '80s, a time of enormous excitement and innovation in fiber throughout the Bay Area and beyond. He not only taught but mentored numerous graduates of the design department at the University of California, Berkeley, who went on to become important members of the next generation of artist-teachers across the country. His own nontraditional use of materials - plastic, newspaper, all manner of unexpected things as art supplies - gave his students permission to break rules.

Rossbach taught textiles with an eye on history and geography, people and place, and he credited his own beginnings as an artist to a very particular place and way of life. It was while serving in the U.S. Army between 1942 and 1945, on Adak in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, that he began to gather and manipulate tundra grass, making his first baskets. His later writing about nontraditional basketmakers, calling what they made art, had an enormous impact on both individual artists and the field. Rossbach was also a weaver and interested in the loom as a tool. He was fascinated by a wide range of loom and nonloom structures, eager to explore what might happen if he "played" with them. No technique was too "insignificant" or humble for him to wonder about.

In both his baskets and his weaving, Rossbach's work commented, among other things, on popular culture, on history, on how he saw the world and himself in it. He became identified with images he claimed and made his own. The buffalo, that magnificent, almost extinct, creature, appeared on many basket surfaces. As did Mickey Mouse. "If classes you teach are referred to and dismissed as Mickey Mouse," he said, "then you might as well use that image both on simple structures and on the most technically sophisticated textiles." The utter ridiculousness of his labor-intensive creations of Mickey Mouse amused him, and Mickey remained a continuing theme in his work. Always self-critical, private, questioning, he had high standards and expectations for himself and for his students. Despite the multiple demands of his academic position, he found time to create in his studio. But he did not exhibit much until after his retirement from UC Berkeley in 1979, where he had been since 1950.

Mickey Mouse Coil Basket, 1975; synthetic raffia, sea grass; coiled with imbrication; 6 by 9 by 9 inches. Collection of Jim Harris. Photo: Mark Katzman, courtesy of the Textile Museum.

His creative mind, curiosity, and ongoing research led to many articles and books.

Eskimo Pie, 1987; cardboard food carton, spray lacquer; folded, stapled; 7 by 7.5 by 7.5 inches. Private collection. Photo: Mark Katzman, courtesy of the Textile Museum.

Ed Rossbach's contribution to the field of fiber art may be discovered in the close relationships between his artmaking, his writing, and his teaching, each of which played off of and enriched the others. His excellence in all three arenas made for an immensely creative, integrated life, and his legacy endures in an art world forever changed by the multiplicity of his gifts.

- Pat Hickman

Pat Hickman is professor of art and head of the fiber program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu.

Work by Ed Rossbach will be on view in "Generations/Transformations: American Fiber Art," an exhibition highlighting artists from three generations, at the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts, April 12-July 18.

Scroll down for more images of Rossbach's work

Ed Rossbach's Far-Ranging
Influence: More Comments

Jack Lenor Larsen, textile designer, author, and collector (by phone in November):
I first met Ed in the late '40s in Seattle, and he'd come from Cranbrook to teach at the University of Washington. I was his graduate assistant for a year or two. It opened my eyes to a totally different way of looking at weaving. ...
We also became friends during that time. He was sort of a loner until he met his wife, Katherine Westphal [also a fiber artist]. As a courting couple, they were something to see. They got on well together. ...
As a weaver, he is certainly a pillar. He tried about everything that could be done, having to do in any way related to weaving. Ikats and doublecloth and laces and knits and rare techniques like scaffold wefting, and he later tried single-element techniques like crochet and was the first to take baskets seriously. His fascination with baskets - the northwestern coast was a good place to become familiar with them - led to the popularity of basket weaving.
As important and well-known as he became, he was totally uncommercial. He tried to do things that couldn't be sold or exhibited. He ran away from commissions; whereas other people in the craft field were learning about marketing, he fled from all such things. He tried not to get into shows more than he could help. He was all too unique in that area.
I remember the enthusiasm with which he and Katherine studied Japanese dye techniques with Yoshiko Wada at the old Kasuri Dyeworks and drew patterns for jacquard weaves when they were invited to use the looms at RISD [the Rhode Island School of Design]. The same was true of travels to Tunisia and Afghanistan and faraway places. Searching for the unfamiliar and delving into the unknown entranced both of them. They were well matched in that, and they would usually go in different directions: Katherine into various kinds of surface designs, and Ed into structure. They were our pioneers.

Rebecca A. T. Stevens, Consulting Curator, Contemporary Textiles, The Textile Museum, Washington, D.C.:
Ed Rossbach taught my generation of artists and curators, and through them the following generations, to open their eyes and their minds. He taught us to throw off the prejudices formed from viewing the world through a "modernist" lens; to examine the old and see new possibilities; to reject nothing because convention or some "authority" said it was passť or unimportant.
Rossbach was a postmodernist before postmodernism. He infused his fiber work with content and meaning, commenting on art, life, and our shared textile history. He saw possibilities where others saw none, and he investigated those possibilities nonstop during his enormously productive artistic career. His was a life of exploration and innovation - an example for us all.

Lia Cook, artist, teacher:
I was fortunate to have studied with Ed Rossbach in the early 1970s and have remained a friend over the years. A gifted teacher who influenced a generation of artists, Ed Rossbach had a remarkable but understated way of bringing out each individual's unique creative potential. His passion for textile arts of many cultures and his interest in the common, everyday, and overlooked predate many artworks of today which embrace art in a broader cultural context and/or use recycled, ephemeral materials. The subject of his work ranged from popular American culture to obscure references to diverse cultures of the world. Ed Rossbach was a unique and profound thinker and maker whose influence as a teacher, artist, and writer is still strongly felt in the textile art movement of today.

Jane Brite, curator and author:
Ed Rossbach, the artist, teacher, writer, and father of American contemporary basketry who devoted his entire life to creativity and the pursuit of knowledge, was a very private person. This humble, gentle, modest, and quiet man preferred talking about a wide range of subjects, but was less interested in talking about himself. ...
Ed was a risk taker who encouraged exploration and discovery. He shared with his students his lifelong fascination with an infinite variety of textile techniques. However, he did not market his works, rarely entered juried shows, and only participated in exhibitions by invitation. I felt very honored to be chosen by Ed to curate the retrospective show "Ed Rossbach: 40 Years of Exploration and Innovation in Fiber Art," held at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., in 1990.
This multifaceted man gave the world beautiful potency and magic through his life's work. Ed Rossbach taught us what it is to value that which is valueless, to laugh at that which is unexpected and unabashedly delightful, to cultivate that which makes us curious, and to share with others that which sustains the spirit.

David Revere McFadden, chief curator, Museum of Contemporary Arts and Design (formerly the American Craft Museum), by phone in November:
[In Ed's work] you can see three sides of his life that, I think, are so important: his love of beauty; his deep interest in materials and their potential; and [his] sense of humor.
For me, he has always been a great colorist, in everything he has done. I love the way he combines surprising colors and then very often takes the most humble castaway material and turns it into something glorious. To me, that is the mark of a real artist in our field - to give unloved materials a voice.

Young Hercules, 1967; jute, cotton, ixtle; looping; 41 by 80 inches. Photo: Eva Heyd. Collection of the American Craft Museum.
Homage to John Glenn, 1962; cotton;
double weave pickup; 48.25 by 29.5 inches.
Collection of the American Craft Museum.
Plaited Handgun, 1975; construction paper; diagonal plaiting in
two layers; 36.5 by 50 inches. Courtesy of the Textile Museum.
Bison, Bison, 1988; palm, commercial fabric; stapled, heat
transfer printed; 7 by 10 by 6 inches. Private collection.
Courtesy of the Textile Museum.

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Mar/Apr 2003

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