By April Gornik
North Haven, Long Island, NY, USA
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Lucy Winton began her unconventional career as an artist by becoming a paramedic in 1980 for the City of New York. As a young artist, however, she was already breaking ground on the international art scene with her mixed media, otherworldly compositions. Drawing her inspiration from romantic children's book illustrations, romantic-era paintings and comics, she prefers intimate scale and works mostly with oil on board and with graphite, oil, and ink on paper. I had the opportunity to visit with Lucy at her Wainscott, New York, studio for this Conversation.
APRIL GORNIK: Lucy, the first thing I remember thinking when I saw your work is how brilliantly oneiric it is. Do you work/have you worked a lot from your dreams?
LUCY WINTON: Actually, I'm glad you did not say dreamy because I am not aiming just for a mood. I'd like to find a whole inner alternative and am compelled to think (in the case of my tiger dreaming) that even a super-physical creature has an internal place of aspiration and fantasy. A cow was in the same painting I dreamt of some time before I painted it and the cow was disturbing in its vulnerability. So the tiger and I dreamt of the cow, for different reasons.
I have many dream journals from my 20s and 30s, with occasional illustrations, because a lot of things don't hold up in sentence/word form and need image. The painter in me wants to put that in bold because that is of course why many of us paint…or often why I do.
Before I went to graduate school, I started a "fresco," high up near the ceiling molding all around my living room, of what my recent dreams were, in an illustrative style. But it lost steam and I only did a few installments that looked sloppy and broken on my walls!
APRIL GORNIK: You have some really interesting and eccentric imagery in your work, but over the years, you've developed some "characters" that reappear. Do they seem like part of a narrative? I'm thinking of Towering Cloud, Fox, Bunny, Lone Tree…
LUCY WINTON: I fixated on painting a version of a George Stubbs monkey…and I just wouldn't let that monkey go! A couple of arty friends, who owned one, cornered me and said you've got to stop, or mix it up a little! But I find a cartoon-iterating pleasure in repeat versions of my titian tree, my Koch-Gotha illustration bunny, Edwin Landseer cows. They have all been favorite parts of other narratives that I end up mixing and matching for myself, but sometimes it's about them just having lines that are so fun to put on paper.
APRIL GORNIK: Then, of course, the other main character that appears is you. Do you think of yourself as yourself, or "The Human", or…?
LUCY WINTON: Yes! Rather than full-on self-portraiture I am often the ever-ready model for the human. For example, a youngish or immature female who is slightly perverted in her need to own or exploit a creature shows up in my work. It's me but I'm not young, and the above perversions – well I'm on a rapid learning curve. Also, the characters flow in and out of a lot of feeling situations, and often have no narrative – it's just a fun bunch of marks that hopefully have some formal grace.
APRIL GORNIK: I know you have great empathy for animals generally. Do you think of your work in terms of trying to arouse that in others?
LUCY WINTON: For sure. I want to invite the viewer into that pool of feeling or conversation. And I often have to dial it back from actual pedagogy or activism because that is a slippery slope of literalism and loss of art. For example I had a cow portrait over which I wanted to do a small John Brown portrait overlay, but that's too heavy handed.
YouTube, Instagram, etc. have dramatically affected my (and maybe other's) empathy levels for animals and, in my case, to an actual devotional degree. And yet I still occasionally eat meat. So when I draw cows, I have intense feeling and confusion and I could not fully shake my finger at others. So I paint. (Full disclosure: I need everyone to be on the rapid learning curve towards animal rights.)
APRIL GORNIK: Sexuality plays a big part in your work too. Bunnies or monkeys with hard-ons, for instance. Do you think of them as little porno characters, or how would you explain them showing up like that?
LUCY WINTON: I guess it does, though I have no message. I do feel animal sexuality seems like a cosmetic-free, ego-free version of human sex, so sometimes it just fits when I have a delightful kind of mood in a painting. Now that you mention it, my perverted girl-self projects a soup of affection and domination onto the monkey that suggests and confuses it with sexuality. And – OMG – that sentence itself is the most convincing argument for painting something rather than saying it.
APRIL GORNIK: The other thing I think about in terms of the animals and sex and dreams is a kind of trickster universe. Does that figure in, for you? Are you maybe making your own mythological world?
LUCY WINTON: I'm just working marks from fun details from an illustration and I am playing more with existing tropes. But the question is great because slowly I have also surrounded myself with pieces and images that comfort me. For example, the rabbit tricking the wolf is so meaningful, like a way out of something.
APRIL GORNIK: One period of your work deals with bombing images and Vietnam, if I'm not mistaken. Is that a reference to your adolescence or childhood experiences of the world at war? Do you think your work is political in those images?
LUCY WINTON: Originally, I was thinking Nancy Drew when I was crawling under palms with explosions in the background. I wanted to be as resourceful and unperturbed as Ms. Drew seemed in her capers, and I was all twisted up in the early 2000's about the Iraq war, like a lot of people. After that, I did a couple of straightforward memories of family/wartime in front of the 1960s family TV…the Vietnam tragedies as just a background or a prop for family bonding, with us kids on our backs at the foot of the bed. So much time was spent like that. All visual, and I thought, suited to draw, suited to relive since everyone had forgotten about Vietnam.
APRIL GORNIK: Let's talk about your mediums which can also be described as eccentric. You've done dioramas, and lots of bas-reliefs, and one of my all-time favorite pieces that I own of yours is of a cow head that floats off a wooden panel with drool coming from its mouth, and a bas-relief tiger with big balls at the bottom of the panel lying on its side, with lots and lots of varnish. How did you happen to arrive at work like that?
LUCY WINTON: I saw in a 19th century animal storybook an etching of a lion dreaming of antelope. I was intrigued that the 19th century etcher wanted to crawl in to that lion's innermost interior instead of imagining other classic lion exploits. So I responded to his lion with a painted relief tiger dreaming differently to show my delight with his concept and etching. The varnish was a shiny toy-like feeling I had about the relief. Then the rest of that painting was cosmic quirks and atmospherics, mostly.
APRIL GORNIK: Another aspect of your choice of mediums would be collage itself, which seems essential to your self-expression. Do you agree? Can you talk more about that?
LUCY WINTON: Collage sometimes just helps me in the struggle with literalism – which is constant – and what degree of it I feel and want in a moment. The same way one subverts literal prose with poetic elements in writing, collage may allow a visual parallel. Plus, a floaty element suits the atmospheric images I'm sometimes playing with.
APRIL GORNIK: Of course your background is as a graduate of the New York Academy of Art, and you draw beautifully in a very classical style when you want to, and that's incorporated into all your work. Would you say such a background is still an advantage for an art student today? And what advice would you give to younger artists now?
LUCY WINTON: Just the other day I was just saying to a minimalist art lover not to worry if her art school kid couldn't draw well. It means little today and it may not be required for the heart of art. We all know earthworks that have moved us with nary a mark drawn or seen. But she countered me and said NO! Power of drawing comes through EVERYTHING when making and seeing art! In spite of not completely agreeing, I'm floating that. But, even in the midst of multi-lingual art vocabularies, drawing is obviously a huge asset. In my particular case, I allowed myself at the Academy to do what was pleasurable, even if it was partly mimicry or irrelevant. I had to play with those urges to find a track that is real, that is fun for me. That I think is essential.