In Vol. 4, we published “Failure is Critical” as part of a series of interviews with Cogswell’s beloved teacher and artist, Reid Winfrey. In this highlight, he talks about how he started as a painter and his admiration of fellow teacher Emilio Villalba.
Cogswell Chronicle: Tell us about an influential experience in your career.
Reid Winfrey: I spent ten years teaching severely disabled adults. I couldn't teach them things, I had to figure out what they could do, and then we would do that.
CC: What was that experience like?
RW: You have to follow the student especially when they're not recognizing. Many of them couldn't speak. They were severely [disabled], they had severe cerebral palsy, they had brain damage, you name it. And you can't come in and say, “Okay, today we're going to make landscapes.” You can't. You just have to feel your way to them and find that communication, and you do, after that long exposure. You do find it and I genuinely like them.
You know, they were the best human beings I ever worked with, they really were. They were sweet and kind and they didn't lie because they [couldn't]. They didn't tease each other either. There was no sarcasm. They were incredibly courageous, just amazing. And so for me, that's the thing I have on everybody else. I have that experience.
CC: Wow. That adds a whole depth to the way you can teach.
RW: I wouldn't trade it and I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. It was really hard work. It was incredibly stressful. That was a big part of what I did.
CC: I'm interested in where you started as a painter. How did you even get into painting?
RW: Well, printmaking requires a printing press and they're big and expensive. You need a lot of gear, a lot of room, and pans of water. There was no way I was going to be able to do this when I get out of school because I'm living in an apartment. So I decided I’d better start doing something else, so I started painting.
I thought “well, all I need to paint is a piece of canvas and I can paint,” and so that's what I started doing. I was really active . . . I mean, I would enter competitions and try to get into shows and galleries and do all that stuff. And that was back in . . . Well, let's see, I got my own family in 1985 and I had started painting already a little bit. So that's been a long 35 or something years, but I was just feeling my way through.
The nice thing about now is you know, with Instagram, you can find all these amazing artists. And you can kind of see what they're doing and it’s inspiring. You can try things that I couldn't even see back then. The only artists you ever saw were the famous ones like the ones in Art in America, Art Forum, or Art News. There was no Hi-Fructose [Magazine], there was no Juxtapoz [Magazine] or anything like that. When street art became popular, it was a major deal. Nobody knew it was going on and then suddenly, there it was!
[It was the] young people who didn't care about the art world. They were just saying what they had to say. But it's not easy to find those things. You need to actually go there. And now, it's like wow! If I’d had this, [it] could have saved me a lot of time. Just getting on Instagram has changed my work in the matter of months.
RW: Yeah, it has. I see things and I go, “that's a cool.” I'm not really imitating [anyone] because I don't want to go back 30 years and start over. One thing it has done is allowed me to just be what I am, which is somebody who likes to look at faces. I try to make a painting that look interesting besides being a portrait of someone and try to work and find technique that allows the painting to stay fluid and look good.
Sometimes I look at the earlier versions of a painting and working and I think I should have stopped right there, like I should not have done all this. But I'm lucky, you know? I'm secure enough that I don't need to live off my work which I did for many years before I got the job. I was living off my wits and off my work. So I really don't need to paint to make money, and that's a luxury.
CC: And has that affected your drive to paint?
RW: It slowed me down. I used to work really rapidly. Just having to work through, work through, work through, get the work out there and get it here and get it shown and I didn't have a lot of time to work and I'm like, “yeah well, you know what? My new attitude to this is, I don't know if anybody is ever going to see this or not.” So I really have nothing to lose. I don't have to be always thinking about the marketplace and if the painting takes me two years to finish. I'm not into stretching canvas anymore. I just tack it up to a board and that psychologically tells me it's not really a painting. Like this isn't a real thing. I'm just practicing.
But even then, I get concerned. I mean, I really want that work to be great. I want people to go, “wow!” I just would think that it has a show in a gala. I don’t care if they like it or if they want buy it. I just want to think that it’s solid. You know when you see it and even if you don't really care for the work itself, you go “That’s solid! That guy really knows what they're up to.” And that's what I'm looking for: that painting that just stops me and says you know, “I'm done, I'm done, I can get no better.” And I haven’t made that one yet. Emilio [Villalba] makes them every day.
CC: And I'm sure he feels the same (laughs).
RW: I hope so!
CC: Everyone just feels that way about themselves.
RW: For a while, we [Emilio] were texting each other while we were working and I'd usually just text him a picture and then just say “Ahhhh… What do I do?” And then one day, he says, “I’m having a really really bad day.” I tell him that I find that strangely comforting.
But I think it's fantastic you know, for you guys, especially to be around someone who's vision is so clean. It’s super clear. And technically, he knows exactly what he's doing. That's not an ordinary experience. All students should understand this. It’s a unique experience. [I think] I bring certain things to the game and I always have done just the way I think and the way I am.
[I have a lot of] empathy for students because, you know, I always had a job in college and usually more than one job. I paid my way through school and supported myself. I have a lot of empathy for the pressure students are under and I think they respond to that. I've broken it down into things that I think are meaningful and they're very useful, you know? They're very practical.
I know what students like to hear. And I know how many great teachers we have here so I often wonder, "Okay, what am I?
I'm just me. What am I doing that makes students really like to hang out? And I think the same thing affected Emilio on some level.
So I want to send out another talented image maker, but to be around someone who’s so unique . . . You don't find Emilios out there everywhere. It's really rare to find them in a school because they’re usually out being famous so I don't know. He loves teaching, and it's just a great thing.
TO BE CONTINUED ON VOL. 6