Charles Edmund (Ed) Rossbach
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.
for more images of Rossbach's work
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
|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
|Bison, Bison, 1988; palm, commercial fabric;
transfer printed; 7 by 10 by 6 inches. Private collection.
Courtesy of the Textile Museum.