Beloved teacher and artist Reid Winfrey will be retiring at the end of the term. To commemorate and honor his time at Cogswell, The Cogswell Chronicle will run an interview series with him. This is the first installment.
Cogswell Chronicle: Okay, I guess a good starting place would be just for you to formally introduce yourself.
Reid Winfrey: Well, let's see. I'm Professor Reid Winfrey. I teach the figure drawing classes and the concept design class and I have been teaching the digital painting class, but I'm not doing that right now. That's my favorite class unfortunately.
CC: How long have you been at Cogswell?
RW: I started here in 1996.
CC: 1996! Okay, that's the perfect [window] to watch this school change from “old Cogswell” to “new Cogswell."
RW: Yeah, the [Digital Arts & Animation] department was three years old when I started out. I think [there were] four teachers, which included the department head, who was also teaching, so there were just a couple teachers and the department was way different, very different.
CC: Going back a few steps, you mentioned that you are a professor. What is the distinction between a professor and other titles?
RW: Well, in a normal setting you come in as instructor, and then if you have the right degrees, which in some disciplines, [is] a PhD, or in fine arts, an MFA, you can, after a certain period working [and meeting a] whole list of requirements, become an assistant professor. And then an associate professor, and then if you want to, you have to work for I think at least seven or maybe 10 years, you can apply to be a Professor, which I did.
CC: So why did you decide to become a professor?
RW: Well, I trained at a community college and I had a really great teacher there named Howard Ikemoto. I took a printmaking class from him thinking well, I'll make prints and etchings and I'll sell them at the Spring Fair, which we used to have in Santa Cruz way back in the day. And I got really interested in the process of teaching.
Back then everybody was an abstract expressionist. You couldn't get technique. You couldn’t buy technique. I didn't know where to go. If I had known, I probably would've gone to LA and gone to Art Center or New York and gone to Pratt, or somewhere where it was about realistic technique. But I didn't know. I just thought I just don't know anything, because I didn't. So when I finished there, Howard said "You should go to Davis," because that's where he knew some people. He was a friend of Wayne Thiebaud, and he said "You should go meet Wayne!" and so I did.
CC: That’s awesome!
RW: Yeah, and they had some really well known artists there, but it was like a new world for me. It was California Funk and a lot of abstraction. Wayne was almost the only realist there, and I took him for Color Theory and Theory & Criticism. I didn't take him for painting, although we painted a lot. But still, I didn't know how to be a famous artist. I was just like you guys, I didn't have a point of view. I didn't know and I would ask him "How did you get famous?" I would literally just go up and say "How did you do that?" But nobody knew. No one. Just be a genius…
CC: ...and it would just happen?
RW: Yeah. Then I went to San Jose State and I was still a printmaker. Because [no one else was] a printmaker. Surely I'll get it teaching job, [because] nobody knows how to do this stuff! And I did like it because there are so many technical elements to printmaking. And so it gave me this foundation to hold on to even if I didn't know what my art was about. I could do this… I could make it work. And I went to school in England for a semester, which was the only time in my whole college career I didn't have a job because you couldn't work there. And I thought "Oh, this is how it works, this is nice." I couldn't believe how much time I had.
I came back and finished my MFA and had a really big MFA exhibition. Back then, you had to document it all with a single lens reflex camera. You shoot everything and then bind it into a book and they were just photographs. Really cheesy, you couldn’t make it look very pro. Looking back, honestly, I wish I had focused on what I love, which is faces and people. But they made fun of realists at that school.
RW: Oh yeah! They teased them, and they would poo poo it and say "Oh well you know, it's not really art." I learned everything I know about realistic painting mostly from books and from Emilio [Villalba, esteemed artist and Cogswell faculty member].
I think that it's important you know. This is my only chance to tell you… to tell students something that I found out the hard way over many years of confusion. And if I have a point of view, I feel like it's my responsibility to just say "Look, this is what I think..." or "Isn't this funny?" or "Isn't this stupid?" or whatever I think. And I'm not shy about it, and I'm not afraid to screw up. I think that's the other thing that maybe students respond to, they realize that I fail all the time and I do things, drawings, whatever, that aren't that great, and it doesn't ruin my life. Failure is such a big part of this.
CC: And I guess it is like a degree of relatability there? RW: I think so, you know? Because they don’t know how to do anything either. And so my point of view is “Okay, I've been there.” I'm getting to a point where it's a little harder for me to remember not understanding something like a gesture and how important that is. It’s hard to communicate. And I do notice myself thinking, "Why don’t [they] see this? How can [they] not see this?" And that's when you know it's time to just head for the door. I’m too old. I’m too out of touch.
CC: Clearly you see value in failure...
RW: A willingness to fail is critical. You can't get by without it. When you're young, you don't want to [fail]. You don't want to feel dumb. You don't want to feel pathetic. You don't want to feel untalented. You don't want to feel any of those thoughts and you'll do anything to avoid that. So you stay in your comfort zone and it takes so much longer time to get better. When you're my age, I'm over it! You can’t embarrass me. I promise you, I've been in situations that would curl your hair, that were really really embarrassing so OK, fine. Done that, and it doesn't work anymore you know, but when you're younger, it's all dramatic. I mean, so many distractions. And it's hard to say well, I made a sh---y piece. So that's something that to me seems like yesterday. So you made a bad drawing, you don't have to go outside and kill yourself, you can just make another drawing you know? Which is nice because it's not the end of the world.
I think when you're young, you want to feel like you're on top of it and when you see your peers that seem like they're on top of it, I promise you they're just as anxious as you are. I promise you there is some place where they don't feel on top of it at all. So it’s just important for everyone to understand that's the human condition. If you really feel like you are in control all the time, you’re Donald Trump but he’s an a--hole and nobody really likes him. You don’t want to be like that. Even if you think you are… you don’t want to be like that. No one really accepts that. That’s why we go to the movies. Because there are stories about you. You know, the story is about you. And those are the movies you like because it’s you, it’s your own experience in a way. To make a good story, it has to come from inside you. You have to learn how to be honest which means all the things that you're afraid of, all the things that scare you, all the things that you feel "less than," you have to put it down for the world to see. Because they're going to go "Yeah, that's me too, I hear you. I don’t always feel like the champion of the world either."