Cynthia Winings is an artist who also owns a gallery called Cynthia Winings Gallery in Blue Hill, Maine. Her work explores timeless and sometimes melancholy figures or places that seem to offer solace and respite. The female figure is a strong component of her iconography and seems to stand in, often as a solitary figure, as both heroine and a creature in tune with the natural world. Working in oil at times and charcoal at other times, the imagery is often stark, surreal, and haunting. I met Cynthia in her new studio space in Blue Hill to talk about her imagery and how she came to develop it.
KC: You recently moved into a new studio space. What brought this about and how do you think it will affect your practice?
CW: I saw an exhibit of a friend’s work in a large space and contemplated my difficult studio at the time, which was the cold attic of my house, with its narrow winding staircase as its only access. I realized that I might want to create large work at some point and that my limitations in this respect were beginning to feel inhibiting. When the opportunity came along to move into the old Bagaduce Music Library space alongside two other tenants, I jumped at that opportunity. My current studio schedule revolves around my gallery schedule, which is open during the summer season. In the winter, I work in my studio. My new studio is spacious, heated, has great access in terms of handling potentially larger work, and is a very short drive from my home. My practice of scheduling seasonal studio time, though a great solution that enables me to run the gallery, puts me back a bit in terms of staying contemporaneous with my fellow artists. Missing those months of not being in my studio creates a bit of a stumbling block to get over when I do get there at the end of the season. It compresses my ability to dive deep into prolonged explorations, which I’d like to now have and develop to present something greater to the larger world outside of my gallery. This new space and life changes have eased my other constrictions, and I can now see more potential to expand my practice further.
KC: You titled several works: Persephone. What does this character represent for you within your aesthetic?
CW: I always liked the idea of a female emerging. For me, she is also a mother and thus a creator of life; yet I feel that this role comes to her naturally, and she is not necessarily conscious of all of the beautiful things that she creates. She cannot or does not necessarily see the trail of flowers in her wake, and as viewers who contemplate her in my paintings, we know not where she is headed or what she sees in front of her as she emerges and strives forward. I see a tension here, between us trying to understand what we are looking at, knowing the mythology, but seeing my interpretation or depiction of the myth. For me, there is even a bit of sadness in her as a character needing to emerge and strive. In Persephone (Thistle Girl), I’ve taken away her face and replaced it with a flower, which fits the myth of her emerging in the spring from the underworld and bringing flowers forth, but it also hides who she is, in my mind, and creates apprehension and mystery.
KC: What other sources of inspiration do you consider?
CW: I do like to look at photos as a source for subject matter and regularly create collages using magazine imagery, which I almost always accompany with gouache additions that complete the composition. If the image strikes a chord with me, in that I am drawn to its subject matter, lighting, tone, or gesture, then it is useful to me.
KC: Could you tell me about the drawing of a diving horse being ridden by a young woman?
CW: Diving Horse and Girl came about in direct response to current events. This motif was something that I conjured up rather than “discovered” perusing photos. I was very anxiety-ridden after the 2020 election, as were many of us, and I couldn’t work on my art, to the point where I connected with a dear friend, just to talk and anguish together. She helped me by suggesting that I try to visualize what I was feeling, and I almost immediately came up with an image in my mind of a girl on a horse diving into a dark pool! Once I had my idea, I then looked for a reference photo.
KC: Persephone returning to Hades?!
CW: Sure! I’m certainly open to any interpretations that anyone would bring to this image. But for me, the important element is the tension of watching a female figure descending, and as an image, of her being suspended. All of it is a metaphor for how I was feeling post-election.
KC: So your use of photography or media imagery is a key part of your image making?
CW: So my primary goal in searching photos, or using them as a reference, is to discover gestures or figures that can be stand-ins for narratives that I need to express or narratives that may be pre-existing, that I can recognize as relevant and important to my vision when creating paintings or drawings. Using the magazine cut-out photos as catalysts for my free-flowing collages, I try to have very few preconceived notions and experiment to see if I can create a new or unknown narrative. I’ll even stage a photoshoot in order to create a photo that I can then reference for a painting. For example, I had an idea to wear a set of deer antlers on my forehead, like in a ritual, from which I then produced a painting!
KC: Lament is a powerful image. Can you talk about where the imagery for this originates?
CW: In the Lament drawing, the house is not too different from the house I grew up in. However, the woman is referenced from a photo that just struck me to the core in terms of sadness and despair. Seeing the gesture in this photo gave me the impetus to create my own composition. I really wanted to do something with her. I carried this photo around with me for four to five years. I saw this image for its power to depict sorrow, and it made me want to create a drawing that contained this column of sorrow. One artist that I greatly admire is Käthe Kollwitz. Suppose I could offer in my work the opportunity for the viewer to find the kind of cathartic release from pain and sorrow, as I feel Kollwitz’s work offers in her powerful depictions of bereaved figures. In that case, I feel as though my work would be successful.
KC: Twilight Pool is a drawing devoid of figures. How does this approach tie into your pattern of narrative works?
CW: It originally had figures!
KC: Really? Wow! It’s a fantastic image.
CW: It grew out of a small collage titled Crepuscular. At that small scale came the germ of the idea to see if I could make an image devoid of humans that still contained the trace of humans and yet still expressed the idea of darkness and sorrow. The larger charcoal drawing had even more things in it, which I finally removed and pared-back until I returned it to the idea of the original collage.
KC: But the original collage has blue, red, and ochre and is nowhere near as interesting in terms of composition. I mean there is almost no composition in that collage, just upper and lower areas, compared to the large charcoal, whose dynamic composition is powerful and almost everything makes it great.
CW: The small collages are something that I really value as a way to create and invent with minimal input or logistical planning. I keep them in plastic sleeves in a binder, which enables me to reference them fairly easily. Sometimes, they are just sketches or abstractions, but each one could easily be so much more developed if brought into a larger work. Sometimes I worry after completing a work that it is maybe my last good painting or that a drawing is my last good idea. For me, the collages that I make, which are typically very small, are a way for me to create a new idea quickly and reassure myself that I actually have an unlimited capacity to create. As long as I have even the simplest idea and the opportunity to manifest it in a simple form, I can build upon that and create other things that could have a greater depth and form. Sometimes I feel that I just need to take my head off and work from my heart in order to find things!
Image at top: Cynthia Winings, Thistle Girl, gouache and collage on paper, 5 x 5 in., 2018.