Lucy Winton: Fairy Tales at the ‘Grown-Ups’ Table’

Her path to a life as an artist has been a winding one
Lucy Winton in her Wainscott studio with “Sneak Out No. 4,” in which she appears to be crawling through a nocturnal war zone. “Adorable Jungle,” above, contains various creatures, and, faintly visible, a drawing of Mickey Mouse’s hand. Mark Segal

Lucy Winton’s Wainscott studio is in a whitewashed barn with two large roll-up garage doors. Inside, the space is white, vast, and almost empty of furnishings, but the walls are covered with art. The adjacent bay is the studio of Bryan Hunt, a sculptor who has been her companion for 14 years.

While her workspace is more or less a white cube, her artwork is anything but minimal. She grew up in Minnesota in the 1960s in a Modernist house, one of five children, and she was exposed early on to Minimal art. “I was definitely fascinated by it. But I also thought, I want to create fairy tales.” And so she has, although her path to a life as an artist has been a winding one — through dark and scary woods, one is tempted to conjecture.

“The closest I came to art-making ambitions when I was young was maybe the hope that I would have a sort of bohemian life,” she said. In high school she discovered, at the age of 15, that “I could do fake Renaissance drawing, right out of the bag. I went to this life drawing class and I did hatching and assumed a Michelangelo stance. It was the first time I had picked up a pencil.”

Creatures, landscapes, fantasy elements, and the artist herself populate her paintings and drawings in combinations and juxtapositions. Her accomplished draftsmanship serves a vision that is personal, suggestive, moody, and mysterious.

“When I’m starting on a piece,” she said, “my focus is on an illustrative reference or a slightly cheesy piece of art.” Some pieces have taken off from Edwin Landseer, a 19th-century English artist who “did animals in a very emotional way.” She pointed out a drawing of a cow she took from one of his paintings. Among the many artists she cited as sources or influences are Fragonard, Kara Walker, and Neo Rauch. “The loose representational style of George Grosz and George Baselitz made me more comfortable with working representationally. I worship Kiefer so much it’s crazy.”

“I start with some irony or knowingness,” she said, “and as I work I fling myself into sentimentality, somewhat inadvertently. I sometimes feel I’m going to be banished from the art grown-ups’ table, even though I know contemporary art allows for multiple art vocabularies. I do like irony, but I still follow the siren call of sentimentality.”

In 2004, the Japan Society presented “Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture,” an exhibition organized by Takashi Murakami, which, according to Jane Cavalier, a critic, promoted “the emergence of manga (comic books), anime (film animation), hentai (hard-core manga), kawaii (cute culture), and similar ‘low culture’ visual tropes.”

At the same time, “Drop Dead Cute,” a book by Ivan Vartanian that Ms. Winton owns, showcased the work of 10 Japanese “cute artists.” “When I saw that book, I thought they were so girlish, and so out there. Even though I’m not exactly doing their thing, I thought if they can do that then I can do my thing. Sometimes being illustrative works, and sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t work, it can seem childish.”

Ms. Winton attended the University of California at Santa Cruz, where she took art classes and noticed, as she had in high school, how natural she felt when she was drawing. She considered majoring in art but decided she had to think about having a career.

After college she moved to New York, where her brother and sister were living. “My way into my work as an artist had a lot of delay to it. I wanted to survive practically and decided to work in human services when I got out of school. I was a paramedic for the 911 system in Manhattan for a really long time. Most of my co-workers quit before me.” She thought she, too, would quit after a year and switch to something creative.

“But I became addicted to adrenaline. I worked on the 12-hour midnight shift full time in Midtown, bringing patients to different hospitals around the city.” The urge to make art had continued to percolate, however, and, while in her 13th year on the midnight shift, she took courses at Fashion Institute of Technology, eventually earning a degree in fashion design. “I took life-drawing classes for the degree, and I was stunned by the feeling I had for drawing.” 

“I asked people, ‘What do you do if you want to draw for your whole life?’ ” She began taking classes at the New York Academy of Art while continuing to work part time on the ambulance. “The academy was really nice craft-wise, and I really love craft. It was fun using that muscle. But even then I thought nobody has a real career in art.”

After painting for a while in her bathroom, she found a studio and “cut the paramedic chord after 17 years. I had a new addiction. I felt, and even still feel, that if you do want to serve people, it doesn’t mean you have to go looking for drama. There was a lot of anxiety associated with the ambulance, and it was hard to make art in those circumstances. I became much more relaxed and free when I finally got off the ambulance.”

She met Mr. Hunt in 2001. “Meeting Bryan and his friends, I entered a life of art talk instead of ambulance talk. I was suddenly hanging out with people who discussed and lived art. I had always had a sort of art community around me, but it didn’t really jell until I got off the adrenaline and the creepy schedule and the drama of the ambulance.”

She listens to music while painting. If she doesn’t have an exact illustrative reference, music will sometimes provide “a crazy poetic gift.” Among her musical inspirations are Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Iggy Pop, Le Tigre, P.J. Harvey, Leonard Cohen, and Joni Mitchell.

There are several striking self-portraits in which the artist is situated in the foreground of a nighttime tropical environment, light and shadow illuminating the scene, tiny parachutes visible against the distant mountains.

“Many of my pieces have been nocturnal,” she has said, “perhaps because I worked for more than a decade on the midnight shift.” The ghost of televised news footage from the Vietnam War hangs over several of the paintings.

In another ink drawing she is sitting on the floor, looking open-mouthed at the viewer while a monkey cavorts on one of her legs. According to April Gornik, who included Ms. Winton in “Other as Animal,” an exhibition she organized at the Danese Gallery in Chelsea, “The compulsion to erode boundaries between herself and other creatures is one of Winton’s great creative strengths.”

Some of the works break out of the picture plane. In one painting, a papier mache wisteria vine emerges from the encaustic surface. A work in progress includes two lion paws and two human hands, also of papier mache, protruding from the studio wall, inspired by “Androcles and the Lion” and by “Beauty and the Beast.”

“I like things that participate in the space a little more,” she said. “I love painting, but I love relief, too.”

"Bull and Donkey," 2012.