The Student Whisperer

17 Aug, 2012

by Dasha Kelly

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By all accounts, Timothy Westbrook is a cheerful guy.  He’s beaming whenever I see him: showing one of his fabrics to a guest, chatting with staff, carrying a cup of coffee through the halls or waving from behind the sewing machine in his studio.  Beaming.

His good mood radiates with a different frequency today. Three of us have joined him in the studio: a chick with a notepad (me), a guy with a video camera (Dustin) and the woman he credits for launching his weaving career.  I watch as he smiles and fidgets with papers on his work station and smiles some more. His professor, Sarah Saulson, is looking about the studio space, admiring his works. Timothy is glowing with unfettered joy.

“Sarah was one of the few professors who was able to tap into ‘what’s important to Tim?’ and encourage those things in me.  She was so nurturing and wonderful,” he said.  “She’s still wonderful.”

Sarah stands beside Timothy as he talks.  She is tall, roughly 5’11”, without being imposing. Poised but unassuming. She’s dressed in comfortable, asymmetrical layers of leggings, skirt, smock and cardigan.  Her ash blonde hair is also clipped into interesting angles.  Her face is kind as she watches her former student with an approving grin.

Then, I hear her speak.

It’s only halfway through her recounting of Timothy’s first classes with her that I realize I’ve been mesmerized.  Sarah’s voice is airy and measured.  Lithe and deliberate.  She speaks with the lightness of a kindergarten teacher at story time and the unwavering calm of a hostage negotiator. I imagine the gauzy softness of her voice uplifting Timothy as a frustrated student and even leveling a humbling critique.

Sarah has been a professional textile artist for more than 20 years.  Her pieces have been featured  in textbooks; she’s published articles in trade and consumer magazines; she’s given workshops and presentations at conferences and guilds across the U.S.; her work is widely exhibited and juried at craft shows; and she works frequently with elementary school classrooms, in addition to being a professor at Syracuse.

I ask about her markers to gauge new students’ weaving potential.

“I know by the end of the first class,” she says, explaining that the studio classes are once a week in a four-hour block. “That first day, I get observe their work habits, confidence in learning new skills, creative approach. It’s intense amount of contact.”

During her decade at Syracuse, Sarah’s classes have drawn students from fashion, interior design, industrial design, print making, sculpture, history, public relations and music composition.  She’s mindful that they all come seeking something.

“Teaching at an arts school is something of a tight robe,” she says.  “Students are searching for their own voice but, by necessity, I have a list of techniques and terms that I must teach them.  I try to keep the assignments open enough for them to bring themselves forward.”

Open enough for weaving cassette tape ribbon into a loom? Yes.

“Tim was a fiber arts major, I suppose I already had a few expectations,” Sarah says with a wide smile. “I had vivid recollections of a research project he had done involving historical gowns and dinosaurs.”

Timothy drops his head with a sheepish grin.

“He’s concept driven,” Sarah continues. “Weaving, on the other hand, is technique based. It’s labor intensive and step-by-step. I knew this class was going to stretch him.”

“It wasn’t until the very last minute that I realized I love weaving,” Timothy admits.  The passion Sarah ignited in him that last semester of college ultimately catapulted Timothy halfway across the country to become the Pfister’s Artist in Residence.

“It’s amazing that your journey led you here,” Sarah says.

Timothy looks to her with genuine adoration and says, “You are responsible for me getting here.”

I ask Sarah about her new work. She is preparing for an exhibit this fall, “Relics of the Twentieth Century,” where she explores the anthropological roles of textiles and weaving in the human experience.

“It was only until the Industrial Revolution that the typical home didn’t weave its own fabric or, in some cases, spin its own yard to make that fabric,” she says. “I find it equally interesting how many twentieth century items are already obsolete.  Once upon a time, women didn’t leave the house without little white gloves. Many of my students conceptually know about typewriters or rotary phones, but have never handled or even seen one.  Exploring the concept of ‘commonplace.’”

The voice. I’m nodding my head…

Timothy and Sarah trade stories about exhibit materials and memorable projects from other former classmates.  The sample list is intriguing: pantyhose, candy wrappers, film negatives, shredded paper, coffee filters, yellow pages, aluminum cans, pull cords from a ceiling fan.

“I had an intern for a few weeks this summer,” Timothy says, “and I was totally inspired by her use of rubber bands.”

“Timothy,” I ask, the notion in my head slowly shaping into a question. “Having had this powerful mentoring experience with Sarah, what do you want to be a part of how you mentor new artists?”

He  paused and says, “I have such a strong point of view, I want to be sure I’m motivating them to pursue their own styles.  I also want to make sure I explain the technical elements as thoroughly as I encourage the conceptual ones.  I’m still working on that.”

I turn to Sarah. “Who mentored you, Sarah?” I ask.

“I don’t even have a clear memory of it. I’ve been weaving since I was eight,” she says.  “There was a woman on my block. I might have gone to her house once, but I’m sure it had its impact on me. As an adult, I became friends with a woman who had been the first American weaver to travel to Finland in the 1950s.  I also learned that the weaving community is very warm and nurturing.  I’m fortunate for that.”

Timothy and Sarah slip into another conversation that has pattern counts, lace, artist communes, rescue dogs, the Adirondacks and loom maintenance.  Their exchange is easy, like a beloved nephew and aunt.  Like peers.  Like friends.

They both look wonderfully fortunate to me.

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About the author

Dasha Kelly

Dasha Kelly is founder and director of Still Waters Collective, a Milwaukee-based outreach initiative utilizing the transformative power of the written and spoken word. Dasha has performed and delivered workshops to writers, youth, educators, co-eds, executives, inmates and artists throughout the U.S. She is also an HBO Def Poetry alum. As a poet and novelist, Dasha’s writings have appeared in anthologies, text books, magazines and online. Her latest collection of work, Hershey Eats Peanuts is available through Penmanship Books. She is currently working on her second novel and a new collection of essays.

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