Thursday, December 27, 2007

Interview with the Artist Jonathan Winters

I probably first noticed Jonathan Winters in the star studded It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Throughout the sixties he made regular appearance on network television, culminating in having his own show from 1972-74. Bill Cosby called him the king of comedy and Robin Williams similarly praised him, calling him his greatest influence. In 1999 Winters was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

About three years ago I was in the mood to find some humor on the internet to lift my spirits from their mid-winter doldrums. By accident I came across some art work by Jonathan Winters, original paintings which were being screen printed by Joe Petro, a Kentucky screen print artist.

Not only did Petro have a couple of Winters’ paintings on his website, but he also had been doing works by Ralph Steadman and other famous or notorious people. Having been involved with the screen print industry, I knew the mags and pitched an article to Screen Printing magazine about the screen art of Jonathan Winters. This was eventually transformed into a cover story profiling Mr. Petro. The assignment gave me access to interview two influential people from my youth, Jonathan Winters and Kurt Vonnegut, as well as an overseas interview with the remarkable Mr. Steadman.

What follows is a transcript from the beginning of my Jonathan Winters interview, which ended up being a forty minute, high velocity roller coaster ride.

JW: How are you doing?

en: I’m doing great. How are you?
JW: Well, failing in health. Most of my problems are mental. I ... people ask me a commercial question… “How are you?” and I always say, “I’m out.” And they say, “I don’t understand.” You’d have to be “in” to appreciate that. And then they say, “Where were you?” You don’t want to know. The walls were high. We made leather purses. Little dishes. It goes from there.
Well, how are you?

en: uh... (confused)
JW: This is my comedy. You see, my art is one thing. My comedy is not really understood. Nor is my art.
(switching to a woman’s voice) What is this? What’s going on here? What are you trying to say?
(JW voice) That’s a bird with a key in its back. The title of the painting is called A Toy Bird.
(woman’s voice) I’ve never seen a bird with a key in its back.
(JW) Well, you’ve got to feed them the right thing. My painting ... My boy said you would call at eleven and you’re right on the dot.

I’ve been painting -- I didn’t do much painting in the marines... I scribbled a little bit... did a few sketches ... nothing too exciting -- When I came out of the marines I wanted to paint. I went to art school in Dayton Ohio. A small art institute there. My wife (Eileen) got her B.A. at Drake. Then she had gone to Miami of Ohio. Then she got her Masters in art history. She’s the one that got the education and she doesn’t paint at all. It’s a shame.

en: I went to Ohio University in Athens.
JW: Sure, her sister went there. I went to Kenyon. When I was there it was about 600 guys. I didn’t do too well because I wasn’t taking any art... and, I have always gotten A’s in history.... but we had to maintain a 3.2 to stay in school. I wasn’t ready for that. At any rate, I failed Medieval History. I left Kenyon after a year and went to Dayton Art Institute. It’s hardly a major university, but I tell you, you talk to a few people about education and art school is the best thing that ever happened to me. I was really doing what I wanted to do. I mean, opportunity. You go to school, smoking two joints, listening to Bobby & the Electric Wolves, and waiting for Ohio U to suit up and play Otterbein. I went to art school in ‘47, got married in ‘48, and in ‘49 got into radio
at Dayton, WING, and was a disc jockey, and continued to go to art school.

The bug bit me in show business. My art at the time was so commercial, so commercial it was sad. I would have been good if I was going to do industrial drawing or be a commercial artist, which I wasn’t. I’m not a commercial comedian, so I certainly wasn’t going to be a commercial artist.

I didn’t find a style until I was well out of school. In the early 70’s I really got down to painting. I was working on the road, in gin mills and night clubs and stuff, but when I’d come home I’d paint. I think I had my first art show in ‘72, here in Southern Cal or LA, and I have been painting ever since.


Jonathan Winters site:

Catch a couple minutes of Jonathan Winters in person here on YouTube:

See the work of screen print artist Joe Petro here:

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