Threading the Future

Catherine Zublin’s legacy of fostering potential and opening minds

Jaime Winston BA ’22, Marketing & Communications

Catherine Zublin, photo by Benjamin ZackA Heartfelt Goodbye

Bittersweet feelings flooded the Mary Elizabeth Dee Shaw Gallery last May as guests honored a professor, who, above all, has met students’ needs.

The evening marked the opening of Catherine Zublin: A Legacy of Costume Design Stitched Together, an exhibit featuring costumes designed by the WSU legend.

Beforehand, friends, family, fellow faculty and students gathered to say goodbye to Catherine Zublin as she prepared to retire from Weber State University after 37 years.

“I was blown away by the response and things people said,” recalled Zublin, who officially retired from the university July 1. “It was a very good way to go out.”

The exhibit included wardrobes from 15 productions that Zublin designed for Weber State’s theatre program, ranging from the classy 19th-century suits and dresses for Sunday in the Park with George to one costume from a dystopian future, featuring earth tones, wire and a plastic coat, for Where Words Once Were.

Zublin described her work as “where art and craft meet research and scholarship.”

Sean Bishop BA ’12, MA ’22 and his husband, Taylor Knuth BA ’14, introduced the Catherine Zublin Endowment, which she later dubbed the “Zublin Award,” at the reception. The endowment helps theatre students overcome financial burdens; potential recipients can be nominated by faculty or other students, or nominate themselves.

“With Catherine retiring this year, maybe this is the universe saying we need to do something bigger for someone who did so much for us,” Knuth said.

Zublin surprised the first recipient, Abrielle Hambleton, at the reception. “I didn’t know they’d be giving it out this year,” Hambleton said.

She received $1,000 from the endowment at an auspicious time. Her father recently passed away, leaving her family without his income.

“It’s not a lot of help, but it’s a little help,” Zublin said.

Abrielle Hambleton, photo by Benjamin ZackHambleton, a musical theatre major, plans to move to New York City following graduation with hopes of one day appearing in a Broadway show.

As she had for many others, Zublin not only supported Hambleton’s dreams but made sure her needs were met so she could succeed.

Coming to Weber State

Growing up in New York, Zublin said she had always been “a maker.”

Before beginning her design work, though, she entered the State University of New York at Oneonta as a political science major, and was deeply involved in politics, even campaigning for a senator during his run for president.

Then Watergate happened. A political scandal led to the president’s resignation in the early 1970s.

“I got really disillusioned,” Zublin said.

Along with political science requirements, Zublin took a creative course she called her “sanity class” every semester. She eventually made it a theatre class, and, after transferring to the University of Colorado, a stagecraft class. In Colorado, she changed her course of study to mass communication and theatre and dived into design work.

She met her husband, former WSU adjunct instructor Edward Spangler, while working in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s props department, an area of theatre she never wanted to work in again. They have been married for 45 years.

“So, I can’t really fault props too much,” she joked.

She later became a stitcher for the festival and has worked on costumes ever since.

Zublin’s connection with her students was influenced by her University of Colorado costume design professor, David Bussy. “I absolutely, positively have drawings that I did for David in this room right now,” she said during an interview in her former office.

A costume Zublin designed for Romeo and Juliet, photo by Benjamin ZackBussy allowed Zublin to take the lead on designing for The Balcony by Jean Genet before she graduated and went on to a Master of Fine Arts degree at Indiana University.

She then taught at Sam Houston State University in Texas and worked as a freelance designer. When a friend first approached her about a teaching position at Weber State College in Ogden, she responded, “Where the hell is Ogden?”

She took a chance on the small institution at the base of the Wasatch Range.

“I’ve had really excellent colleagues and the most open-minded students on campus,” she said. “We have done some amazing work together.”

Meeting Students Where They Are

Zublin’s WSU career has been marked by the personal care she shows students.

Years before the Zublin Award, she started a food pantry in WSU’s costume shop after learning two students were homeless. It has become a fixture in the department, allowing students to concentrate more on their studies than their next meal.

As Zublin prepared for retirement, she donated design and art books, and one-of-a-kind items to a sale supporting the student organization Associated Artists of the Theatre.

“Catherine was my first professor; she was teaching freshman seminar,” said Knuth, who worked with Zublin on shows like Romeo and Juliet and Sleepy Hollow while in WSU’s theatre arts program. “She gave me the tools to succeed.”

Zublin encouraged Knuth to go into arts administration, recognizing his leadership qualities. He now holds a master’s degree in the field.

“Catherine really takes the role of mentor very seriously,” Knuth said.

He recalls joining Zublin at the Treehouse Museum, a nonprofit children’s museum, to make costumes for a production about South Indian customs and culture. Zublin often brought students to volunteer at the museum, and is a member of the board of trustees.

A costume Zublin designed for Of Myth & Mud, photo by Benjamin Zack“Any other person than Catherine would order some sarees on Amazon and throw it on the kids,” Knuth said. “Those kids now have costumes that are made by hand.”

Bishop, who worked with Zublin on costumes during his five years in the theatre arts program, said her teaching was unconventional for Utah.

“She’s very upfront with you, she can be blunt and kind of intimidating at first, but it becomes endearing the more you get to know her,” Bishop said. “She really cares about teaching the right way to do things, especially with research, and making sure you know what you’re talking about when you go into a production.”

One of Zublin’s most memorable WSU productions was Pirated Penzance, later renamed Pirated!, a play by WSU professor emeritus Jim Christian about a 1930s film crew making a Pirates of Penzance movie set a century earlier.

“I never laughed so hard at a first dress rehearsal in my life,” she said.

As actors performed in 1830s costumes, the lead actress’s hoop petticoat flew up accidentally when she was dipped for a stage kiss to laughter from crew. After the performance, the actress asked Zublin for bloomers to wear under the petticoat, but, much to the student’s surprise, Zublin told her a black garter belt better fit the style of the play since other actors ended up appearing in their 1930s underpinnings.

The play was selected to be performed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Zublin also fondly recalls Wit by Margaret Edson, a one-act play she worked on for Weber State about a woman coming to terms with her cancer diagnosis.

Twenty-six years ago, Zublin battled her own cancer.

While promoting the show, she took part in a campaign encouraging others to be screened. “I don’t dwell on it a lot, but the reason I said ‘yes’ is knowledge is power,” Zublin said. “You can’t fix yourself if you don’t know what is wrong.”

She plans to continue designing on a freelance basis while retired.

She’s already slated to design Dungeons & Dragons-style costumes for a play called She Kills Monsters by Qui Nguyen for Mesa Community College in Arizona.

In addition to a number of WSU awards, including being named Crystal Crest Master Teacher in 2010, Zublin’s contributions have been celebrated externally.

In 2018, she won the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival’s  Region Eight gold medallion, the highest honor the organization provided at the time.

“Catherine’s best quality as a professor and mentor is her fierce belief in her students,” Jessica Sume BA ’19, BIS ’19 told The Signpost student newspaper following the award. “She is always in our corner… She makes me feel like I can conquer the world.”

Lessons Passed Down

Jennifer McGrew BS ’92 loves a challenge, and she’s taken on many.

Jennifer McGrew, owner of McGrew Studios She runs a costume studio, McGrew Studios, along with Black Beacon Media, which develops historically researched World War II content. Her resume includes costumes and wardrobes for Showtime, Neiman Marcus, AMC and many others, along with teaching as an adjunct English professor for WSU for 10 years.

Last year, she served as the university’s dance costume designer.

“I don’t much care for working on the same kind of thing over and over again,” McGrew said. She credits Zublin for leading her to discover many paths.

“I came back to school after years of dropping in and out, and I had only six credits left to graduate, but financial aid said I had to be enrolled full time. I looked through the course catalog and I said, ‘Wow, costume history, that looks fascinating,’” she said.

Reproduction work for Yo Gabba Gabba! by Jennifer McGrew and studentsAfter her first day of class, she approached Zublin, nearly crying. “I was dumbfounded,” McGrew said. “And I went, ‘You mean people actually do this for a living?’”

The student and teacher later worked in WSU’s costume shop together.

Now, McGrew guides others as Zublin once guided her.

She recently hired and worked with four Weber State students to build reproductions of Yo Gabba Gabba! characters for AppleTV’s relaunch of the beloved children’s show.

Additionally, McGrew Studios has hosted over 70 student interns since 2010.

Serving Students Until the End

Zublin had one last adventure with her students before she retired in July 2023. For the fifth time, she led students on a summer study abroad trip to London and Bath, England; and Paris, France.

Students visited the Salisbury Cathedral, where an original copy of the Magna Carta is housed, numerous museums and a Parisian flea market, all while learning about theatre design.

In classic Zublin fashion, she made sure her students’ needs were met by providing a packing list, and a pouch with bamboo flatware and a cloth napkin.

Students could use the napkin to cover a park bench, or to wipe their face after getting takeout. Either way, they would pay less attention to messes and more to learning.

A Look Back

Did you take a class from Zublin?

Share a memory at