“I use these collages as studies for larger works, and the goal is much the same:
to create a narrative that speaks with the intention that the goal
of the artwork is not explicit. What is unseen is as important as what is seen.”

—Cynthia Winings, artist + gallery owner

interview SUSAN PEIREZ
photography courtesy CYNTHIA WININGS

Artist and gallery owner,
Cynthia Winings.
Photo: Erin Little Photography
Rescue, 2019
8 x 8 inches, oil on panel
Swinging Girl
8 x 8 inches, oil on panel
Thistle Girl
4 x 4 inches, gouache and collage
Wonderful, 2019
10 x 10 inches, oil on panel
Cultivate, 2020
38 x 50 inches, charcoal on paper
Stoic, 2020
4 x 4 inches, gouache and collage on paper
Persephone, 3, 2019
36 x 52 inches, charcoal on paper
Mourning, 2020
38 x 50 inches, charcoal on paper

Tell us a little about yourself and when you began your painting career.

From a very early age I remember telling people that I wanted to be a “freelance artist”—I think I just loved the word “free” in freelance. I grew up in the suburbs of Reading, Pennsylvania, starting out drawing pet dogs and parents and graduating to horses and skateboarders. In high school, like many of my contemporaries, I became focused on college and the academics required to gain admission, but all the while I kept drawing.

Neither of my parents is an artist, but they cheered me on and supported me attending Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia.

One day, in the first months of school, I remember sitting in my dorm room with a lot of anatomy homework to do. It was a beautiful day and
I wanted to go enjoy the sun with my new friends. But I looked at the work ahead of me and told myself: “I have this one chance, don’t mess it up. There will be more beautiful days. Focus. Put forth your best efforts.” Something changed in that moment, bringing into focus something more important than immediate gratification. That’s when I realized that
I was committed to this creative pursuit for the long term and I needed to do the work. That’s the moment I began what I would call my career as an artist.

Any words of wisdom from your early career that have stayed
with you?

I used to run through museum exhibitions and say to my boyfriend (now my husband), “Meet me at the gift shop.” He would take so long to get through one gallery of an exhibition—it was excruciating to me. And he suggested, “Take your time. Honor the artist who made the work. Count to 10 when you stand in front of an artwork.” What a revelation! I can’t believe how much more was revealed to me from that experience, how much I was missing by running by. Such a simple thing: Count to 10. But I took responsibility for my experience of the art and it was empowering and revelatory. As a result, I always told my students at Adelphi and Brooklyn College, “Looking at art takes time. There are no shortcuts in making art. Do the work. The foundations take time.”

What type of reference do you use? Sketches? Photos? Memory? Imagination?

I often begin work from collaged imagery, old National Geographics (1955–72), for example, that I’ve glued into small gouache landscapes. The scale (about 4 x 4 or 5 x 5 inches), assembly and juxtaposition of seemingly incongruous images allows for a lot of play and surprise. In that work, I am seeking to engage the viewer in an indirect way—for example, the figure is looking off the frame, a face is hidden by flowers, or children are looking up at something we can’t see. The implicit message is that there is a larger world here than what can be seen within this frame. This tends to draw the viewer in and create a curious empathy with the figure or object, bringing an ineffable “shared experience” with that subject.

This wasn’t altogether intentional but I soon found that many people had similar experiences when viewing my work, describing an
inward calm or contemplative sensation. People often describe it as “dreamlike.”

I use these collages as studies for larger works, and the goal is much the same: to create a narrative that speaks with the intention that the goal of the artwork is not explicit. What is unseen is as important as what is seen. For example, in the drawing Cultivate, the figure is standing there with a mess of flowers over her face, and while we think of flowers fading, and impermanent, her face is hidden; unfading, unaffected. I want you to feel her immortal power in her humble body.

I am drawn to ideas that explore the private, interior experience of
life, such as feelings of isolation, or observations of the mundane and the sacred in the same moment, like the Visitation, for example, or Persephone emerging from Hell.

Has there been an evolution in your work within the past
five–10 years?

I was very limited in the scale of my work in the early years of living
in Maine (we moved here in 2010), dictated by a narrow set of stairs up to an attic studio. About two years ago I began drawing again, after focusing on small paintings for about six years. I hadn’t worked on a large drawing in a long time. In the winter of 2019, I started renting a larger studio, a studio where I could work on many large pieces at the same time. This allowed for a shift in my work and I remembered how much I love to draw—the charcoal materials, paper surfaces and formal choices about value, rather than color. In the new studio I can feel myself stretching out, taking more chances, facing different challenges, doubting and questioning the same but also inspired by the new space.

What time of day is most productive for painting?

There is a wide swath of time when the kids are at school, so it would be ideal to work in that time, but try as I might I have been unable to be very productive during the day. I have realized that I am a night owl, building to my second wind around midnight, freed by the quiet and uninterrupted landscape of the night before me. Unfortunately, this makes me useless the next morning, and I can’t afford to do this too often because my family needs me! However, due to the current pandemic, and school closings, I’ve been able to have many more productive late nights.

What do you love about painting, or what drives you to paint?

It’s the only thing I’ve ever done or been interested in doing. It makes me feel like a human being and keeps me tethered to reality. It is my anchor, which keeps me moored in the sea of unending familial responsibilities, upsetting political events and the underlying emotional challenges of the mundane world.

When I paint, the world subsides and I become absorbed in the work, and though there are moments of hopeless frustration and confusion carrying me to the brink of insanity, there are moments of pure delight and joy which make it all worth the effort and give me the sense that, perhaps, this time I have contributed something meaningful that also makes the world a more beautiful, and somehow less mundane, place.

What does being an artist yourself bring to owning Cynthia Winings Gallery?

Having a general knowledge and understanding of how an artwork is made, I am able to convey this process to clients with confidence and clarity, thereby enriching their experience of it. I also feel that it makes me more sensitive to artists’ needs and able to empathize with them in
a way that, perhaps, other gallery owners can’t. Above all, I am able to celebrate their success with the knowledge and experience of how life-affirming it is when someone sees your work and “gets it” and wants it
so much they want to live with it. This success is what I want for all my artists and I hope that my experience as an artist increases that likelihood.

. . .

Favorite Maine restaurant?
The first restaurant that comes to mind is Sammy’s Deluxe
in Rockland. It’s the perfect place to have a meal after an
opening at the CMCA and before the drive home to Blue Hill.
Thoughtful, inspiring food prepared from super-local
ingredients and I love his take on the hamburger!


Previous StoryNext Story