The following interview was conducted on December 6, 2017, in Dennis Winston’s studio, by David Burton. This interview is part of the Virginia Art Education Association Distinguished Fellows’ Legends and Legacies Project, a project intended to gather and preserve the stories of prominent Virginia art educators for posterity.
Dennis Winston is a retired art teacher and art supervisor who worked for 38 years in the Richmond City Public Schools. He is also a renowned printmaker, specializing in woodblock prints.
David Burton (DB): Thank you, Dennis, for agreeing to this interview. As a printmaker, I see you as deeply rooted in your own background, things you’re coming from yourself, and the printmaking process development seems to me to gradually develop and mature, evolving rather than just different for difference’s sake.
Dennis Winston (DW): Well, I hope I’m mature. (laughs) I always try to learn so when I talk with someone like Stanley, a graduate of VCU, an excellent artist. He and I were talking about that the other night. He says, “You know, I really appreciate that time when I was nineteen and you came over and made the comments, and you gave me some really critical remarks, and at the same time, you came back and told me the correct way to do it.” And I curated a show and included Stanley in the show, and people said, “He’s only a kid,” but he won second place in the portrait division. But he didn’t present his work, so as I reflected on that, I thought about myself. When I went to a gallery, one of my instructors invited me down to a show, and the guy did the same thing that I talked to Stanley about. I had good work but my presentation wasn’t the greatest and he looked at it and said, “Who cut your mattes?” And I said, “I did.” He said, “It looks like you used a razor blade.” I said, “I did.” (laughs). And so, you know, as you go through that whole thing, of evolving as an artist as well as an educator, you try to reflect back on those things and you try to learn. And just like the other day when I was talking to some students (in Pamela Lawton’s printmaking class at VCU) and they asked me some questions about how I developed my philosophy, I think what I was trying to make them understand is, first of all, I looked inward to who I was. The other part of that is I looked at each student as an individual. So, I wanted to find out how they are very different so I as an educator can be very different with them. One size doesn’t fit all. So, I was big into individual instruction, and I think I reflected on that because I reflected back on myself as a young person and those things that my teachers did to inspire or get me to a point where could do what they requested of me to work. So, when I look at my students, I have to look at them individually and then I have to find a way to approach them individually although I am trying to do this big presentation. But at the same time, this kid over here might not read very well so I might have to go over here and do additional work with him. And then there is other student over here who lacks confidence, so my goal is then to develop her confidence. Not to make her an artist but to make her understand this whole idea that I have a creative force. So, I try to find some way to tune into that. That helps me to be successful. The other thing is that I didn’t always think that everything generated from my perspective. I remember once when I had some issues with my back, I had surgery, so I was a little evil (laughs), and I remember one of the young ladies came to my office, put her hands on her hips and looked at me and said, “Mr. Winston, you’re just not yourself. You’re just short and kinda evil.” I listened to her and I said, “Oh, my gosh, she’s absolutely right.” So, I shouldn’t let whatever is stressing me out impact whatever I was doing with my kids.
Saturday, I went to a little art fair with Kim Young and Julie Baylor and some others. When I walked in it made me feel so good that these people, former students who are now artists and they just spoke so well of their (art) experiences that we had at Henderson High School. Sometimes those art experiences, we all go through periods of questioning what we did, how we did it, Did I do the right thing? I tell young people, that’s part of the process. That’s a good, healthy thing. But you have to put it in perspective. And sometimes when an experience like that happens, like when Julie (Baylor) came over and just put her arms around me and reflected how she has her own child in her life. She’s talked about those experiences she’s had and the positive roles she’s played. Of course, I was lucky. I was on a great faculty with a lot of good people. The other part of it was I looked at what other instructors were doing that was positive and made a positive impact. I also looked at people who weren’t doing things that were not as successful. But that was also part of that learning curve. You look at those people who are successful. I think that is one of the good things, that I have enough good sense to do that over a period of time, to reflect what is expected of you as an art educator, what you have learned. You have to develop that out of your own personality, who you are and how you relate. When I had student teachers, I would talk to them about that.
The students have to get to know you. That’s another part of it. They (the students) have to know your expectations. You have to develop a relationship with students. I think that is what carried me over those years and helped me to understand how I could find more success in doing things. It didn’t matter what level, elementary, middle or high, it was.
Over a period of time, the administrators I had (and they would tell me), you are about providing good instruction. They knew that. I was younger then. At the same time, healthy questioning is good. Even when I first started teaching, I didn’t know why I would have a great relationship with 15 out of 19 kids. Then I’d have to figure out what’s going on with the other four kids. Maybe I would be teaching art history, and making them understand that art history was part of being an educated person. Some of the students realized that was the information that would help them on the standardized tests. One counselor came to me and said, “You know, those kids in that particular block (that learned art history) all passed the test.” I felt like it was very important to do the history part. Four days a week we would do studio projects and then on Fridays, we would talk about art, art history, cultures and world history. We would find ways to collaborate with the other teachers. That helped me as I moved along in my educational career and in my move to the (Richmond Public Schools) Humanities Center. That’s what we did—we helped teachers understand how the arts could be of help in learning all the other subjects. The other part of that was to make the counselors understand, “Yes, I, the art teacher, is doing something important, and don’t pull my students (for testing or other things) because every day in art I’m doing something that is important.”
I tried to keep the class exciting enough that the students would want to come and want to do the work. I would do unusual things to get a point across. I felt like I always had to be ahead of the game, especially in middle school. I thought to myself that particular day they hadn’t cleaned up the day before, so I figured out another strategy and they figured out what I was doing. They came in that day and I had cut out all these pigs and put them all over the room. They immediately understood what the point was. They said, “Are we going to get to work today? You’ve got all these pigs all around the room, it must be we didn’t clean up yesterday.” They got the message and much better than if I yelled at them.”
DB: Tell me a little bit about your childhood and your upbringing.
DW: I grew up in a rural environment. I grew up in Hanover (County) and then we moved to the city and I went to Richmond Public Schools. Even when I was living in the rural environment, I was always very creative. I drew and painted. We had chickens so I would get the chicken feather and make stuff out of them. I really think it’s in my family, too, because my father could draw. He didn’t draw much but he was somewhat creative. My brothers and sisters were creative but I’m the one that stuck with it. I only took one art class in middle school and then I had art in high school one year. I always took it to heart. I had really good art teachers. While I was in high school, I actually competed in an art show. I did a beautiful painting of a tree in snow in oils. I remember it was a competition with college students from Virginia Union, RPI, Virginia State, and I was just a high school senior. When they told me I had won one of the prizes, I was elated. That kind of let me know that there was an opportunity for me. When I went to college, I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to go into medicine or not.
As an undergraduate, I received a Virginia Museum of Fine Arts undergrad fellowship. I decided to go to the University of Colorado but it was the Vietnam era. I ended up getting my greetings. I decided to get a degree in art history, focusing on gothic art history. I wanted to do studio work but the reason I decided on art history was the fellowship required more of an academic direction. I don’t think they respected painting as much. But it was okay because I could still do my studio work. At that time, I was drawing a lot and I got started with photography because I took a photography course. I was hired to do photo essays. That might reflect on why I do a lot of black and white imagery (in printmaking) because I want my work to tell stories. The photos that I did were supposed to show the impact of urban renewal on the population of Ghent at that time, which is like Jackson Ward is here. I would go out and do these photo essays. I learned a lot about storytelling. I want to have a story so people can reflect on it.
From the University of Colorado, I ended up in the military. With my art background, I became a photo-specialist, utilizing photographic products to military intelligence. At that time, I was referred to as a 96-delta-20, which was an imagery interpreter. I worked for the Warsaw Pact (name?) but then I elevated up into other things. I did research on places like Somalia. I was with a psy-ops unit using my artwork to develop intelligence products for the military that would give people ideas about why you should do a certain thing—basically psychological operations. I worked a lot with the German military at that time. I was in military intelligence for quite a few years. I did work at the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency. It seems strange for an artist to be doing that.
I did some things that were unique in the army. I developed my own shoulder patch and that didn’t go over very well. They laughed about it.
I actually got a degree in art education in Norfolk State. I got degrees in art education and fine arts. I did student teaching in Norfolk. I went back to school to get my license, and I took graduate classes.
When I got home from the military, I decided I would apply for a job as an art teacher. There were no jobs in Richmond. Helen Rose, at that time, said, “I’m impressed with you but we just don’t have any jobs. I’ll call someone in Henrico (County) and see if they have a job for you.” Well, lo and behold, one of my former teachers, Mr. Bernard Whiting, decided he wanted to become a counselor, so he had a job in East End School, which was a really tough school. I went over there to substitute teach for about two weeks. I guess I did a really good job and decided they were going to hire me fulltime. Those two weeks ended up being 38 years in public education (laughs).
I went to East End School, and I turned the school around. We had one of the top art programs by the end of the year. It impressed everyone. I fell in love with the kids. I learned just as much from them as they learned from me. I grew up there. There was a movie out at that time called “To Sir, With Love,” so I can relate pretty well to that movie. I had some pretty tough kids. Once I got to know them and go to work with them, they understood where I was, what I was about, it was just a very reciprocal, respectful relationship.
That’s the other thing—I always question myself. What am I doing? Am I making a difference? I remember my first year of teaching, Alan Landis and Priscilla Hynson brought students over to watch me teach. I was terrified. I was asking myself, what do I have to offer? I’m not experienced. I just beginning to learn in this steep learning curve because I was thrown in this situation at the last minute. I also felt like that kept me fresh. I realize as I look back on my career, I have been very such successful. But, back then, during that whole period of time, I didn’t see myself as successful; I was just getting started.
After I had been teaching for a year, I received the Teacher of the Year Award. I told the principal, “I appreciate teaching here at Henderson this year, but I’m not going to put together the Big Book (about my teaching) for the city-wide award or the state award because I’m just happy to be where I am.” He told me, “I’ll tell you what, these teachers selected you to be Teacher of the Year and, by golly, you’re going to do that book.” When she lit that cigarette on me, I knew I was in trouble. Doing the book made me evaluate and reflect on what I had been doing. That was good because it put me in my place but it made me sit down and focus on what you’re really about and what you’ve really been doing. That was the highlight of my career but at the same time, I still had questions.
Sometime later, I was visiting a military base and this soldier came up to me and said, “How are you doing, Mr. Winston. You don’t know me. I wasn’t one of your students but I went to Henderson. I wasn’t in your class but I wanted to be in there. My mom told me you were Teacher of the Year for Richmond Public Schools, and you deserve it.”
One thing I learned, whatever I taught at the beginning of the year, I tried to make the students understand my expectations were, the things I would tolerate and the things I wouldn’t tolerate. They always knew that you could speak quietly in the classroom as long as you’re quiet and respectful, but when Mr. Winston speaks, no one else should be speaking. Because if I speaking, it means I am giving some instruction. I developed that philosophical way of handling things and it worked out well for me.
I always had my classes organized so the kids always knew where their work was, what time they should put the work up. I could do that in a middle school where I had them for an entire week or every other day. A lot of it has to do with my experience, learning how to read kids, being proactive in how I approached them and then doing it in a way that wasn’t threatening. You have to be very careful and you have to be able to read when there is going to be an issue. They also knew that I cared about them and that I cared about the course work. At the same time, I wanted them to know that even if they weren’t going to be an artist but they should want to do their work.
I remember once I was late for school. I called the office and the principal and told them I would be late and that I was on my way. When I got to school, Mr. Spurlock was sitting at my desk, shaking his head, and I thought, “Oh, oh, something must not have gone right.” He said, “I didn’t need to be here. The kids came in, got their work out, they started to work, and they told me who was there and who wasn’t there. I just wanted you to know, I was really impressed.”
There are ways to get them engaged by getting the kid interested in shapes, colors, designs (their own ideas and interests). Why is this a good image? Or why is this valuable? Why should you redo this? It’s not just a matter of saying it’s bad, but this can be better, this can be redone, we can fix this. Let’s look at this; let’s look at the space, to make a space. I was always trying to use a vocabulary. If I said, “Negative space,” they would know what that means. I would make them understand how that related because words had no meaning, so I had them engage and use vocabulary as best they could, depending on the level of student understanding. It worked out pretty well.
Once I had a student teacher teaching something about Egyptian (art), but he hadn’t done his research very well. He mentioned the word “ka”, which is spirit, and he said that was not a word. I knew he was wrong. We looked it up and found it in the dictionary. To make a long story short, he ended up owning a leather company here in Richmond and my sister ended up working for him. And I still hear from him. He was one of my first student teachers.
The other one I think about is Billy Holladay. Billy came to Henderson High School. We had a great time. I remember a lot of students I worked with and I still have a good relationship with them.
Melissa Burgess is a painter here in Richmond who did a painting. I saw an article on her in Style magazine and Richmond magazine. She paints old houses. I had Melissa in the sixth grade. Years later, when she was working at Perlie’s (a Richmond diner), some of us having lunch there. Someone said to me, “There’s someone there who wants to say something to you but they’re afraid to come over. Is that alright?” I said, “Who is it?” They said, “Melissa Burgess”. I said, “You tell Melissa, ‘You come on over here!” Melissa came over and we hugged. She was always really shy. I remember I gave her a mannequin and she painted it purple and put the legs on a big tin can. She was always doing something really different.
Saturday, when I saw Kim (Young), I said, “You know, I still have that print you did.” She said, “You mean the one of the spider plant?” She told everyone, “He remembers the artwork I did.”
When I saw Julie Baylor, she gave me this big hug. She was sort of a problem child. She told me that she now has a child with some issues. I told her, “You have to love them; that’s what you have to do.” I mentioned, “I remember when you did that purple elk.” And then Kim said, I told you he can remember the work you did.” You remember people. Sometimes you remember them for the good things and sometimes you remember them for not so good. You have to bring them around.
I was at an exhibition at the University of Richmond. I walked in a little bit tardy. The caterer for the event was my former student, and when she saw me, she said, “Oh, my God, it’s Mr. Winston!” She said it so loudly that everyone in the gallery turned around and looked at me. “That’s Mr. Winston! He was my art teacher back in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades, back in 1989.”
I was sitting in a car one day and this guy walks over to the car. I didn’t know who it was. I was having a down day. He taps on the window and I rolled down the window. He said, “Mr. Winston, how are you doing? I was your student at Henderson. I was only there for a short time; I had to take something else. I just wanted you to know that the little time I spent with you, you made a difference in my life. I want you to know I have a young son who is really interested in art. I would love to bring him by your studio and have you talk to him. I was not the best of students. But now I’ve turned my life around. Now, I’m a consultant.” I said to him, “You know what, you’ve made my day because, as I was sitting here, I was feeling a little down, and by you sharing your experience, you have elevated my spirits. We did something good for both of us.”
I can’t ever think about not doing my printmaking. I have to find time to do my work, even if I’m tired, because it’s something that’s inside. It’s like your voice. You want to do things to share. As I spoke to Elizabeth Catlett and John Biggers and artists like that, I’ve listened to them. They had an empathy for people. I think I already had some of that but it helped me develop my approach to what I do. Anything I do, I want it to be something, regardless to how I have responded to something in my environment, it’s something that I want to share. I want people to have a positive feel from it. When I do something about “1954—Brown vrs. Board” (Dennis points to his print of that title hung on the wall), I want people to know I am speaking about a period of history. I am talking about segregation. I went to segregated schools. I understand that but at the same time, I want to do something that is positive and make people think about that. I use symbols. I do things like that guy, that Appalachian guy that I saw in the paper (pointing to another print). It’s about people. All of us have feelings. All of us hurt. We all have families and stories to tell. That’s what I do in my work. I try to reflect on the fact that I’m a people person. I do work that relates to my military experience. I do work that relates to my love for nature and my love for animals. And of course, being an educator, I do things that make me relate to some experience they (my students) have had.
When someone looks at my work, I want them to bring their history, their experience, to it because art is about your background and history, and my background and history. When I look at that, I want you to have some reflection on it and not approach it from a negative standpoint. That’s what Elizabeth Catlett taught me. She said your work should be something that you do for the people, so they will look at it and respond. That’s what I want people to do with my work. When I get a lot of positive feedback, it makes me feel good. It’s the same thing I get when I work with students—positive feedback. I always tell my student teachers if you don’t do a good lesson, if you don’t provide instruction that engages them as kids, you’ve got a problem, because that means they will find something else to do. That’s what kids do.
When I was a young artist, I would look to these people—the Elizabeth Catletts, the A. B. Jacksons—to understand how I would deal with the philosophy of being an artist. When I was coming along, you never really got a chance to learn about African American art until David Driskell’s book came out.
I think back on that and I think I probably got more out of it than I realized. No matter where I go, someone will say that I have made a positive impact. I feel good about that. That’s why I don’t mind sharing and giving back If I can. I think that’s what you should do—help someone else.
A lot of kids have to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. You think about the fact that someone took the time to help me, that someone did that for me. When I went to college, I had five brothers and sisters, and my principal in high school and I became good friends. There were times when I didn’t know where the next dollar was coming from, and that little envelope would come in the mail, and there would be a check for $50. That would be $500 today. Then I would call home, and he’d say, “Have you got a job for the summer?” I’d say, “I’m going to look in the morning.” He’d say, “Go say go see so-and-so, go see Mr. Fowler,” and I’d have a job. All through my life there has been these educators who had such a positive influence on me. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.