Artist Blends Art and Life With Painting : Hand-Painted Tiles Tell Story With Whimsical Touch

Sitting at a picnic table during lunch in her backyard, Irene Winant serves a gourmet lunch with just a touch of wine. The sea glitters below, bright cerise bougainvillea rustles nearby, a vegetable patch sprouts herbs and shallots, and tiny blue daisies border the back of the house. A mural of her hand-painted tiles, depicting a goddess moving through the clouds in a chariot drawn by birds, with an angel as charioteer, graces the back wall of the house.

For Irene Winant, 40, art and life blend, and this harmony is seen in her home, her family, and in her hand-painted tiles, created in the French faience tradition. In faience, which appeared in 1570 as a reaction against the overly ornamental pictorial style in French art at the time, red clay tiles or objects are painted white, then decorated, given a clear glaze and fired.

This merging of life and art is also seen in the fact that sometimes this mother of two cooks French gourmet meals with a paintbrush stuck behind her ear--and in the fact that her tile kiln sits alongside her washer and dryer in the garage.

Irene de Watteville-Berckheim Winant, a resident of Solana Beach for 14 years, moved to the United States in 1963 from France (she was born in the Alsace region in the town of Colmar).

Her clay masks, sculptures and hand-painted tiles have been shown in the San Diego area at the Stratford Gallery and the Del Mar Fair, and in Los Angeles her papier-mache and embroidery were shown at the Craft and Folk Art Museum. Currently she is working on commissions for Materials Marketing in La Jolla, and International Bath and Tile on Convoy in San Diego. She recently did tile work for the Designers Showcase Home in Chula Vista for designer Carol G. Brown.

Winant, in an ever-present apron (ready to paint or cook), is full of intense excitement as she talks of her latest project--a 75-tile scene for the Rancho Santa Fe Inn.

This particular scene is in some ways typically Southern Californian, in other ways full of a very personal gaiety and whimsy. It is of a grove of orange trees, two rabbits, and a balloon sailing on high (appearing very French and very North County at the same time).

"This is the first time I have really put green in," Winant said as she pointed to a large tree on the mural. Much traditional faience is primarily blue. "And I put brown under the blue. I found the use of browns and turquoise in tile work in Morocco," she said, referring to a recent trip she took with her husband, Clinton Winant, an oceanographer with Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Clinton is currently working on a project in the Strait of Gibraltar.

"I found wonderful craftsmen in Morocco," the artist said, "and complicated old designs--geometric tile.

"And the trip to Portugal last year," she said, blue eyes sparkling, "was wonderful. I loved it there. On every corner there were beautiful azulejos (blue tiles), and there are tiny patchwork gardens with pear trees, and old buildings with old vines. It reminded me of France 20 years ago."

The Winants' large master bedroom is also Irene Winant's workroom. It is here that her inspiration first takes form as a drawing, or directly on the white tiles as she paints with underglaze paint. Much of her work involves scenes that tell a story, using tiles to create a background for her fanciful paintings.

"Usually," she said, "I begin with one central figure. Then I build the picture around this figure."

The painterly quality of the bisque-fired tile surface enthralls Winant. "It is like watercolor, only better--similar to lithography. It's fresh and absorbent, like painting on a blotter," she said.

The process is similar to Chinese painting, she said, because of the spontaneity and the importance of the brush stroke. "The absorbent surface of bisque tile and that of rice paper is similar also," she said.

Once the painting is completed, the tiles are fired in her kiln at 1800 degrees, a transparent glaze is sprayed on, then they are fired once more.

Drawings and sketches fill the walls of her home--Winant's own work, her daughter's artwork (12-year-old Celeste's painting of a butterfly has a prominent place, as do 6-year-old Chloe's own hand-painted tiles), along with family pictures and the working pattern for her largest work so far. It is a 300-tile mural created around a window, which she was commissioned to do by a couple for their Borrego Springs home, designed by architect Sim Bruce Richards.

"This was a fabulous job," she said, "and there was no hurry. I put in little surprises." She points to a foot poking out from a curtain in one area of the mural.

Much of Winant's work contains surprises, and has an almost impish quality to it. There are strange mythical creatures, like half-fish, half-birds. In one mural, Neptune rides a whale on the waves while mermaids dance in a circle in the water nearby. In another work a chicken sprouts a dragon's tail, and fish turn into fire extinguishers. Chagall-like in whimsy, angels, butterflies and birds soar through her works in bright colors--as do multicolored balloons.

Her inspiration is drawn from her life--her childhood in France, the study of art history, and her openness and observance of life today.

Winant shows photos of a faience tile stove in her grandmother's elegant home in France--and of her aunt's 18th-Century Swiss tile stove. "These stayed in my mind," she said simply.

Another photo of her grandmother's home shows an elegant dining room with large oil paintings.

"My great-great-grandmother was a lady-in-waiting to Eugenia, the wife of Napoleon III," Winant said.

"But here, titles don't exist. The aristocratic life style has no place in America. Still, it's nice to know I was surrounded by that heritage in my youth. I'm proud and amused at the same time. It's fun and colorful. For an American it would be like having Davy Crockett in your heritage!"

Winant's formal art education began at age 13, when she studied the Camondo method through private lessons in Paris.

"Thursday afternoons for two years I went to a ladies' apartment and we drew circles on the blackboard to relax. We learned about perspective and learned the Chinese style of painting mountains, trees and roads. The lessons were a combination of formal training with structure, combined with exercises to help us become more loose and free. We did not learn art in schools of France--or PE or music."

In 1963, after high school, she was accepted to the Museum School of Fine Arts in Boston, where she studied graphic design and painting, and won the Boit and Dana Pond Awards for both painting and design.

The young art student graduated with honors and was married soon after to Clinton Winant. Clinton was born in the United States but lived in France with his American father and French mother from infancy to age 18, when he was enrolled in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Irene and Clinton met at the French consulate in Boston after a Yale-Harvard football game.

"And it was love at first sight," she said.

The Winants lived in Los Angeles from 1967 to 1972 before moving to San Diego County. Once in this area she began to concentrate on ceramics and studied with ceramist and woodworker Erik Gronborg of MiraCosta College.

"I owe him everything," she said, of her introduction to ceramic work. "I'm grateful to him." On occasional trips to Paris, she has also studied faience at the Ecole Nationale de Matiers d'Arts et Arts Appliques.

"It is interesting to wonder, though, where does taste come from? I think that from my past, mostly the fact I was surrounded by beautiful objects, I gained a sense of--not elegance--but a classic feeling for design."

Much of Winant's early ceramic work was in the form of masks, including ones with bright red lips, black shiny hair and two small green and orange dragons in the hair. Another mask is white, with holes for eyes and mouths (for the light to come through), and has horns, animal ears and tufts of black hair on the cheeks.

"I don't plan what they'll look like," she said. "The look of the mask happens when I'm working with the clay. The masks were sensual to work with and I loved to create the faces. It was exciting to do. But now I've exhausted working with masks for awhile.

"I'd like to combine tile work with a mask-type thing, though," she quickly added, "like a gargoyle. Perhaps a fountain, with nice plumbing, and then water shooting through the mask or gargoyle."

Just as Winant's life is a blend of French and North American customs, she doesn't mind blending her ideas with those of others.

"I like to know what each client likes," she said.

"Recently I was commissioned to do a tile border over the stove for Michelle and Tom Bass (Bass is the former defensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers). They wanted a koala bear and other animals and some French words on the tile.

"It was a wonderful project. I loved working with them. I adapted the idea to their taste--and I wondered, should it be whimsical or real?"

The Winants returned to France to live for three months in 1982 while Clinton Winant was on sabbatical.

"This gave the children a feeling for the French culture," said Winant, "especially Celeste, who was 9 at the time and attended school there. Celeste learned French and did all those fun French things, like buying pastries after school."

Chloe was 3, so she didn't absorb as much of the language, "though she can say things like where her shoes are," said Winant, "but she thinks it's Spanish instead of French!"

Winant has observations on the differences and similarities between France and the United States. "The French are in fact more lively than Americans. And in France it is good to be original. Here everyone wants to get a BMW."

Lunch is almost over. Celeste has been entertaining an exchange student from France. Both girls are chatting happily in French. Celeste talks to Irene in both French and English ("It is our secret intimate language," said Winant). Chloe is running in and out, asking her mother for her bathing suit, to swim at a neighbor's house.

Blending motherhood and her art is something Irene Winant knows how to handle, though it's hard to do in summertime.

"I need four hours a day to work," she said. "When school is out, I have trained myself to work for short spans of time--half an hour--but I need more time to really get my heart in it."

She looks out over the garden to the sea, sparkling gray and blue in the afternoon light. "You should do what you adore--and not worry what other people think."

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