After 44 years of state and county park management, John Winter retired and thought, “I really should do something.”
He had always loved wildlife art, but between his hectic work schedule and the landscape company he and his wife ran, he’d never had the time. With his background in landscape architecture, he decided to sketch and draw. Then he met local artist B.E. Jolly who encouraged him to join the Northern Artist Association.
“Grace Garland, the president, was doing some classes in watercolor,” Winter recalls, “and I liked it. It was more fun than sketching.” Winter has been painting for the past three years and credits other local artists for much of his growth in the art form. “They encouraged me to come here to the Gallery,” he says. Now his paintings are on display and for sale at Gallery North (310 4th Street NW in Bemidji) where Winter is the featured artist for the month of January, 2020.
A St. Paul native, Winter studied landscape architecture at the University of Minnesota and started working for the Department of Natural Resources in the early 1970s when computers were first used for environmental analysis. After completing a study on the St. Croix, involving 215,000 acres of land, two state forests, and parks along the river, he became head of state park planning. At age 27, he found himself in a role that involved traveling to all of the state parks and supervising a large staff.
When he was home, he helped his wife with their landscaping business and with raising their two boys. When the Northwest Regional State Parks directorship opened up, twenty-some years ago, Winter jumped at the chance.
“I love Bemidji,” he says. “[Moving here] was probably the best decision we ever made.” When he retired from the DNR after 38 years, he eased into a smaller, more local role as Beltrami County Parks Director. When he retired from that position after six years, he looked for a hobby.
“Lots of people who are retired don’t have a hobby,” he says. “Some people retire and that’s kind of it. Retirement can be scary, but it’s not the end of the world. Try some things,” he advises, “and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to do it. Retirement should be fun.”
He enjoyed art classes back in high school and college, and had always loved wildlife art. Now Winter’s architectural sketching skills have become a major part of his design process. He sketches drafts on tracing paper until he’s ready to transfer to watercolor paper.
The subjects of his early paintings were boats, North Shore landscapes, ducks, and dogs. His current work features swans. It’s 22” x 15”, about twice the size he usually paints, which creates new challenges. After using a lightboard to transfer his sketch to the paper, he sponges water onto his work board and on both sides of the paper, staples the paper to the board, and lets it dry. So far only the sky has been painted.
“Everybody’s different,” he says. “You kind of get your own skies.”
The swans will be white, so he has painted a dark sky to balance the colors and tones to make the swans stand out. Often his process includes walking away from the painting for a while, then coming back, looking at it, and walking away again.
Winter has learned through workshops both in Bemidji and in Port Aransas, Texas, from an artist named Lee Rex, as well as by observing and talking with other artists. Basically, though, “You’ve got to paint,” he says. “You can take all the classes you want, but you learn by mistake or by accidentally having something work well. You develop your own style.”
When he looks at his earlier paintings, he can see his growth. “My first ducks,” he says, “looked like their eyes were falling out.” Other artists have advised him never to sell an original, but Winter says he has no problem with that. He keeps the tracing paper sketches that are the drafts of his paintings and re-uses them if someone wants another “original.” His second one almost always turns out better anyway, he says.
Winter expresses admiration for fellow members of the Northern Artist Association and Gallery North. He is amazed by their talents – Elaine Netland’s meticulous watercolors, B.E. Jolly’s skilled use of a variety of mediums, Gary Palmer’s ability to freehand with a wood burner. Winter enjoys learning from them -- examining their work, observing their techniques, and getting feedback.
He still enjoys hunting and fishing, but finds time to produce about one painting per week. In addition to Gallery North, he has displayed his paintings at Dunn Brothers, at the fall Northern Township Hall show, and last summer at Art in the Park. Showing his work is another way of getting feedback and learning what people like, but he doesn’t want to make a business of it.
In retirement, he advises, people should find something to do that interests them and “get with other people who do it.” He has found his passion in watercolor.
“Art is what I like,” he says. “It’s relaxing.”
John insists, “I’m a painter, not an artist, but I’m going to stick to one thing. If I do watercolor only, I might even get fairly good.”