Guenter und Luci Westphal

On the last day of 6 weeks in Germany (over the course of 2 months) working with my ailing artist father to create a very successful retrospective art exhibit, I’m filled to the brim with reflections. It’s time for a rushed retrospective of my own. This is the end. This is only the beginning.

Guenter und Luci Westphal
After the exhibit opening reception – photo courtesy of Charlotta Jansson

This will not be a well-organized article. This will be a stream of impressions and reflections. Maybe there will be edits later. I’ll definitely be adding more photos in the next few days.

A reflection of over a month of working with my dad
A reflection of an art exhibit (and its reception) – Taste den Mond (touch the moon)
A reflection of my father’s artwork
A reflection of my father’s work in my work
A reflection of my artwork – photography, writing, filmmaking, public and social art

There are many thoughts, lots of photos, and potentially plenty of future blog posts.

Some of these thoughts I already published on Patreon or on social media posts – some I’ll work out in finer details; some may get their own blog posts. We’ll see… maybe I’ll link them here once they exist.

6 Weeks with Papa

I began packing up his studio back in early December 2023, on my first trip to Germany over the last 2 months. That’s when I discovered so much of my father’s older photographs, stunning black and white portraits. I thought: we need to show this, not just the new work.

Maybe it was then, maybe in January, when I saw my father’s face light up and he said for the first of several times how his old work resonated with his new, how he had already expressed much in the past that he was again trying to put into words.

Was it around that time, I re-realized that my father is also a writer? Even a published author. Another connection: we’re not just visual artist and social artists, we’re always storytellers. Photography and writing on one hand – filmmaking on the other – and always there’s the aspect of active participation of the viewer, the reader, the subject… the art in a social space, the “social sculpture”. Another time I might write about Beuys and my father’s thoughts about him.

Frau Braun, Guenter Westphal, Prof. Dr. Rahel Puffert – 3 of the organizers behind Werkhaus – during the 10-year anniversary of the creative center for houseless young adults.

With him, I also attended the 10-year anniversary of Werkhaus, as always on his birthday. This time it was his 81st. This time I had to help him physically – because of his ailment. Mostly, it was such a joy to watch my father celebrate the success of Werkhaus with the other founders, and the current team – and witness him be celebrated.

In December, I also filmed an interview with him. Maybe I’ll make a documentary one day. Maybe it’s too close.

After the interview, I shared this photo with these thoughts on social media…

sunny path through snow-covered trees

And again and again I’m confronted with photos that were part of my childhood – because they used to hang at our house or I attended an exhibit where they were displayed. So much of how I see and photograph and what subjects interest me must come from what was retained subconsciously from seeing his work – all of my life.

Double-exposure featuring Pere Ubu – created by Guenter Westphal

We’ll be working on publishing a book featuring his artwork his theories about art, especially in social spaces (social art, artivism?). There is legacy here. There’s something important, something larger than just him as an artist. There’s the definition and the roots of an art genre, an art movement… there’s something…

In a recent article in the German newspaper taz entitled Artist on Aesthetics as Empowerment: “Meeting at Eye-Level” my Günter Westphal said:

Bei jedem Menschen, und das ist für mich das Arbeitsfeld von Kunst, entsteht über die sinnliche Empfindung und unmittelbare Wahrnehmung des anderen überhaupt erst das Bewusstsein vom eigenen Ich, aber partizipativ auch vom anderen.

For every person, awareness of their own self, but participatorily also awareness of the other, only arises through sensuous experiencing, and through direct perception of the other – which is what I consider the “work field” of art.

Günter Westphal, in taz article

And then there are the two paragraphs my father included in the invitation for the art opening. Originally there are two more. I might add them later.

English Translation:

“Two short paragraphs about my photographic work.
My artistic work spans two fields. They are both autonomous in themselves and yet they depend on each other. On the one hand, photography and on the other, aesthetic work in social, political and public spaces. One field feeds on the other and vice versa. At the same time, both act as a corrective to each other. A dynamic togetherness whose aesthetic grammar I ground/justify ethically.

The act of photography itself is the place where I lose myself. Here, there is neither a before nor an after. What exists here is the mere intoxicating now. An addiction that can never be satisfied of using the camera to immerse oneself in the energetic interactions of living bodies and material things with one another, across and with one another. It is hearing with your eyes, seeing with your ears, smelling with your fingertips.”

Günter Westphal
Photo of an Arbeitshaus worker – taken by Guenter Westphal around 1980

“Taste den Mond” – the 2024 Günter Westphal art exhibit at Renate Kammer Galerie

The way we laid out his exhibit with art installer Boris Füting – chronological featuring blocks for individual projects (many black and white) – but then like spokes of a beautiful wheel with huge color photographs interspersed throughout the room – may already serve as the structure of the future book.

The main exhibit begins with three images and text inspired by my father’s internship in a homeless shelter in 1972 (the year I was born). They tell of Anton who gets to jump into a lake and forget everything for just a moment. And the main chronological round ends with recent photos: a block of 12 digital photos as new as 2022 – exploring the Hamburg neighborhood and the trail behind my parents’ house in the countryside.

In-between there are the residents of a nursing home and the wildflowers and the urban buildings and the snarky slogans, like “don’t worry, this is art”.

And then of course the exhibit features the 2 tables filled with brochures, books, magazines, articles and folders with contemplation and archives. Then there is the additional room, which shows more of my father’s playful and experimental work.

Sein Viertel – His Quarter

Last but not least, everyone got to walk through his old dark room (where I learned to print and understand making art) and into his studio filled with life, memories and images and quotes up the wall. And all who shared the space. Life is art. Art is life.

Impression from the opening reception on January 28th

I loved seeing his individual work and the combination of the work. I’m so proud of his achievements as a person I love and admire – and as my father.

And I loved watching about a hundred people (friends, family, neighbors, art collectors, artists) cram into the Renate Kammer Galerie to honor my father and experience his work.

people in Renate Kammer Galerie

Scott flew in from Florida, nephew Linus flew in from Sweden, my brother and sister-in-love Lotta from Berlin and everyone else flocked from Hamburg and the surrounding states. Danke euch allen! Und vielen Dank, Renate Kammer!

My dad, Scott, Bjoern

I loved catching my Papi’s happy face. And my mom’s!

My cousin Fenja and my mom, Maria Westphal
My cousin Fenja and my mom, Maria Westphal

Last but not least, there was Prof. Dr. Rahel Puffert giving the best speech. I was so very moved by witnessing that my father with all his deeply-intellectual and often challenging thoughts has people like art professor and professional Rahel who created Werkhaus with him and who truly gets him and can pinpoint his work to others. It was so important that she was there to emphasize his artwork that is not visual, but social. I’ll aim to translate her speech and publish it on my website at some point, with her permission.

Prof Dr Rahel Puffert speaking at Guenter Westphal exhibit with onlookers, art gallery
Prof. Dr. Rahel Puffert speaks. Photo courtesy of Mathias Boschke.

Not surprisingly, much resonated with my own artwork or my vision for it. And when she finally got around to talking about my father’s photography, it clicked so strongly into place that I could almost imagine she was talking about my work – or at least I wished she was.

Paraphrasing, she talked about how he takes time and seeks out the right position to highlight what he photographs, how he gets on eye-level with his subjects, which are often unassuming, like a flower in the crack of the sidewalk or the clouds opening up above the city in the afternoon. She considers that it’s his gentle and conscious approach to photographing that informs his continuous demand that we approach each other on “eye-level” and come from an aesthetic/ethic point.

Paulina from the Werkhaus, Mathias from always, and my Papa
Paulina from the Werkhaus, Mathias from always, and my Papa

There’s so much to communicate, so much I’ve learned from him already.

Fingerhut – not a rose

“Aesthetics and ethics are like siblings. Let’s stick with the rose, even if that’s a cliché. It is a decision to judge whether it is beautiful or ugly. In the moment when I react to something and decide whether to be empathetic or dismissive, whether to preserve or exploit nature, then that is ethics. Then when I become active and create something like photographing or painting pictures, taking care of nature, I’m dealing with aesthetics. The first impulse to react and to decide always comes via sensuous experiencing and immediate perceiving.”

Günter Westphal, taz article

One of my favorite quotes by my father and the title of a group exhibit he organized decades ago: A rose is a rose is the other. A variation on the famous Gertrude Stein quote.

We are all the same, we are all beautiful, and we should treat “the other” equally as we would treat anything beautiful, anything familiar – as we want to be treated.

Growing up as the daughter of an artist. Just like anyone who happens to be drawn to the same profession as their parent or who appears to be stepping into a parent’s big footsteps: it’s a blessing and a curse. For the longest time, it didn’t feel like I was trying to fill any shoes. I was a filmmaker, my Papi was a photographer and social artist. But the personal and creative connection was always there. Our sensitivities and visual approach are similar. Our personalities have a lot of overlap. I’m more inspired by my father and his work than by anyone else.

I suppose right now, I’m able and willing to fully embrace it. I’m working a lot more with photography, I’m perceiving myself a lot more as an artist than just a creator, I want my work to help people have better lives just as much as I have with every documentary film.

Our visions, our goals, our motivation – we share so much.

But with it I also picked-up some less helpful aspects – even if it wasn’t intended, e.g., shame when having to promote myself or talking about money (no please take this as a gift, how about I give you a friendship discount?), and sometimes overwhelming self-doubt.

It’s helpful for me to understand where some of my own feelings around that come from, so I can make my own choices. As much as I admire my father, I don’t have to live up to how and who he is. And probably I can’t anyway.

He always seems so selfless, always working on behalf of less fortunate (nursing home residents, homeless, refugees) and not needing an extra dime beyond the very basics.

I’m old enough and have grown through enough crisis, disappointment, and success that I know better. I’m going my own path. And I’m just so grateful to have been part of his path – as a child growing up with an artist father and his work all around, as an adult learning his view of the world through lively conversations and personal experiences, and as an artist who couldn’t be more inspired to keep “fighting the good fight” that is: to keep creating to satisfy the inner need, to drown out the noise, to help make this world better.

I am also grateful as a future old person to see how both my parents are handling this phase. My mother deserves her own blog post – but just as she has been in the background supporting during these months, I’ll have to turn the spotlight on her another time. Let’s just put it this way: nothing of the good that has been happening would be happening without her. She holds everything together for all of us.

Therefore, I also need to make a good living and stay healthy so that when I’m 81 I have a roof over my head, my partner beside me, younger people around to lift some of the weight, an open mind to new methods, and the drive to keep creating and sharing until the time that I know it’s time to rest and just reflect.

Familie Westphal, Jansson, Solary
Familie Westphal, Jansson, Solary

Last but definitely not least, a huge VIELEN DANK to my best friend Erik, who helped my dad and me so much over the last 2 months. Du bist und bleibst der Beste!

What’s next?

My father continues his work in the Hamburg Muenzviertel neighborhood, where he still has his studio and where the Werkhaus continues. Soon he can see his efforts pay off as a street will be renamed for the two teachers, Bella Spanier and Recha Lübke, who worked in the building now housing Werkhaus, who were murdered by Nazis. Then there is the last empty lot in the neighborhood, for which my father and others have a community-centered visions. Then there is the book I’m going to help him with. My Papa at 81 will continue…

And I’ll be flying back to Florida, where I will get started in earnest on my Creative Pinellas Emerging Artist Grant Cycle project. The “drop off” deadline is April 17, and there’ll be a group exhibit in early May. It’s been beautiful and reaffirming how much what I’ve been working on and planning to do resonates with the art of father, albeit visually and practically quite different. The only thing that’s nagging at me right now is that because I’ve “lost” the last 2 months of grant cycle time, I had decided to focus on a photography-installation-only project without a direct “social spaces” / “social sculpture” or video aspect… and the “won” time with my dad and his social artwork makes me want to do something more social.

To be continued…

Guenter und Luci Westphal, Ausstellung, Hamburg, Galerie Kammer

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