Rebecca Westcott was a painter of people, places, and things that were dear to her. Her work was joined to the signs and senses of her everyday life. The personal meanings in her painting proceeded both from human relationships and mundane domesticity, so that a close friend was as likely a subject as the Chinese character emblazoned on a box of tea. Westcott’s painting practice was fiercely individual, but achieved a scope that transcended her personal realm. She was comfortable in the offbeat milieu that first received her art, but it was her traditional gestures that distinguished her.
Westcott, originally from Vermont, was trained in painting at the Rhode Island School of Design. There she met and befriended several artists who would come to prominence in Philadelphia, including her future husband, Jim Houser. They all moved to Philly together, where they became part of a young community of artists that included the artists’ collective, Space 1026. Westcott would have her first gallery show there, and move on to shows in New York and beyond.
Her portraits of artists and friends from the Philadelphia scene are as revelatory as they are intimate, offering the viewer both the personality of the sitter and the artist’s relationship to that person. Westcott’s brush discloses as much of herself as it does her subjects: certain parts are finely detailed, others practically neglected, revealing what the artist felt was most important to capture. Often, backgrounds are filled in patchily or left mostly blank, and the underpainting shows through. Westcott knew what she wanted to focus on and how to draw the viewer’s eye to those details.
Though Westcott excelled at portraying notable figures from the group of young urban artists around her, as an artist her adherence to her formal training made her stand apart from them. She was a true painter, and her confidence and mastery increased as Philadelphia and the rest of the country began to take notice.
Westcott took her sense of composition beyond the limits of painting, eventually showing her paintings as elements of installations that including wall painting, foam cut-outs, and painted found materials. By this time, she had developed a sophisticated painting style that was nevertheless candid and open, centered around an iconography of numbers, text and images pulled from her own life and the Philadelphia landscape.
The text appearing in her work often conjured up warm domestic images: birthdays, recipes, or other words of personal relevance to the subject, not always evident to the viewer but always descriptive of the artist’s relationship to what she painted. The word “homemade” appeared in gallery shows and on pieces, functioning as both a descriptor and a personal motto. It transmitted her kitchen and family into the realm and vocabulary of fine art, giving wider accessibility to these personal effects.
In 2004, Westcott won the prestigious Pew Fellowships in the Arts in painting. She died soon after, but winning the Pew Fellowship was an affirmation to her of what many already knew about her talent and abilities. The work she left behind is a glimpse into the details that were dear to her: a fragment of home, the hand gesture of a loved one. Even before her work garnered the high esteem it now holds, Westcott had the confidence to articulate these things lovingly, and was never afraid of the white space in between.