“The one thing about art I like, and I still do: you’re in charge.”
— 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 appearances 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.
In 2004 I was in the mood to find a little humor via the internet to lift my spirits from their mid-winter doldrums. Quite 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 of my Jonathan Winters interview, which ended up being a forty minute, high velocity roller coaster ride.
And we’re off…
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 appeared in more than 50 films, has authored books and produced an impressive collection of original art, some of it available in his 1988 book of paintings titled Hang-Ups.
EN: Tell me more about your studio.
JW: Little candy cash register that sits on a box that my grandfather had, a kind of a big square chest. The cash register is from NCR. I’ve got things I’ve collected from Dayton… a picture of the art institute. I’ve got pictures of guys I’ve worked with… Art Carney, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, and paintings that Native Americans have done. I’m a collector.
It’s a little bit of everything. I don’t work on an easel so much as a big drawing board. I’ve got a radio, and I paint to music, mostly from the 40s — Duke Ellington, Count Basie. And I have a desk. I do my writing there. It’s a comparatively small area that I paint in. You go up a series of stairs, almost like a loft. I’ve got a little table there with my acrylics, and I go to work.
EN: I also was a painter when I was young. In recent years I’ve set up a studio in my garage every summer.
JW: What kind of painting?
EN: Abstract expressionism, impressionism, surrealism…. I read that you were into Dali and Magritte.
JW: I love Magritte. I’m working on a painting now. It’s a hearse, and behind it there’s a trailer with a U-Haul label on it — it’s like a cartoon really — and the caption is, “You can take it with you.” I’m very influenced by cartoonists. I’ve done some cartoons, had a couple published, one in Playboy, one in the old Saturday Evening Post.
Charlie Adams, Peter Arno, George Price, those are my guys. I’ve done a couple serious things. I’m not an activist of any kind. I mean, message stuff. There was one you saw, A New Member… It didn’t play too well in the South.
EN: How did you get interested in screen printing?
JW: Joe (Petro) is a guy who knew my boy. We’ve put together some stuff. I did a book of short stories. Put some artwork in that…. Joe’s back in Kentucky.
EN: I have Kentucky roots. I’m a descendant of Daniel Boone.
JW: Southern Ohio, once you get into Kentucky….
>>>breaks into southern dialect<<< played football against Hamilton…
EN: What are you doing to promote what you do?
JW: I just finished a picture this past September. It will be out in late summer. We’re in touch with each other. I’m working with Joe. I just sent him some books and he’s putting them in a shadow box kind of thing.
EN: What makes your work unique?
JW: Well, that’s an interesting question. All I ever hope to do with anything is try to be a little bit different from the guy on the wall. As I mentioned earlier, I look for style. A woman turned to me the other day and said, “How much is your largest painting?” The biggest I get is about 18 x 24. “How much does it cost?” And I said $25,000. And she said, “Oh my God! I never dreamed it would be that much.” Well, I said, “The painting’s a joke. The idea is worth $25,000.”
And she didn’t get that, so she said, and I get this a lot, >>> alters voice << “If you weren’t Jonathan Winters, you couldn’t ask those kind of prices.” And I said, “But I am Jonathan Winters.” Why would I put Henry Walker, or Lyle Davenberger on my painting?
Sink or swim. I get annoyed very quickly. If you don’t want to pay that… Now the woman is wearing heavy jewelry, pulls up in a brand new Jaguar… You’re talking to a guy who’s 77. I see these assholes coming in with all this glass on their hands bringing in a Delta flight, dickering with me… and I say, “Look, let me tell you something. You’re best bet is to go to Tijuana and get something on velvet. That would be tops $35 and a picture of Elvis.”
I’ve only painted 150 paintings in my life. They’re not all 25,000 for crying out loud. My drawings are like $500, framed pen and ink things. Red Skelton, for an 8 x 10, gets $45,000.
But you’re dealing with people. People say, “After you die do you think these will be worth anything at all?”
“Well, I sold my clothes for 200 dollars after they were worn out. Collectible people, they will collect anything. I don’t know. I can’t tell.
I’ve bought paintings I never heard of the guy, he wasn’t famous. I buy things I like. I don’t care what the name of the guy is. If I like the painting, and I see some interesting strokes that he’s done with his brushes and his subject matter, I’m gonna buy it. But a great many people >>voice change<< “Unless it’s Kuniyoshi, or unless you’re talking about Magritte or Reginald Marsh or Winslow Homer, uh, I don’t know. Do you think your stuff measures up to that?”
No, I’m not in any museum, except possibly the Dayton Art Institute, and probably in the basement there, but no… Look, if you don’t like the painting, get out of the place right now. Take a walk. I just don’t have time to go back and forth with these people.
EN: Is your work in galleries?
JW: Not now. A guy has been on me from a gallery in Beverly Hills. They take such a cut out of you. They want 70 and you get 30. They talk about a cocktail party and some exposure, but what do you come away with? It used to be when I did a show in the 70s, they took thirty and I took seventy. But now it’s just turned around. Automatically most galleries, just 50–50.
IN THIS NEXT SECTION Jonathan Winters does a lot of voice changes. All I do is listen and become an audience of one.
JW: My mother said, “Why don’t you run away. You’re not doing anything here.” So I ran away at 17 and went into the Marines. Now I didn’t get along with either my mother or my dad. My dad was a drunk… then, of course, he sobered up and became the meanest white man I have ever known.
When I got out of the Marines my mother said, “No reason to be sorry for yourself. There’s plenty of work to be done in the garden. Get out of that funny uniform.”
I was working when I was nine. She was divorced then and she said, “Forget the paper route. I’m not driving you around so you can throw a paper up on the porch. You better start washing the trucks down at the bakery.” At nine I was working…. shucking wheat and cutting corn…
EN: Do you follow screen printing?
JW: Only through Joe.
EN: How did it come about?
JW: He and Jay (Winters, Jon’s son) got together and he was showing us stuff out here. And I don’t have to tell you, for a guy that is working in acrylics on canvas it’s an entirely different field. Lotta work. Long hours… one color laid on another, on another.
So I kind of backed off from Joe, and said let’s go in a few different directions. I’m certainly fascinated by the process and really enjoy what people have done with screen work, but in the long pull it’s not my cup of tea. I don’t have the patience for that.
EN: Your first painting?
JW: Hung Up On Strange Fruit
EN: How many brothers and sisters?
JW: I was an only child. I took all the heat.
EN: What got you interested in art?
JW: Well, the one reason is, show business has been really good to me, and I’ve tried to be good to it, do something different along the line. The one thing about art I like, and I still do: you’re in charge. Sure, you still have to answer to a gallery and your collectors and one thing or another, but basically, I sit down and I paint what I want to paint. I’m not in school any more… a professor leaning over you.
Voice change to snitty professor: I don’t care for that color you used in the background…
JW: Get out! My patience is really short. You want to sit down and discuss it as a paper mache intellectual, fine. Don’t sit down and start telling me how to paint the mountain or what I’m going to do with this man standing over the truck.
You’re in charge and you sink or swim with what you’ve done.
In film, in television, theater, sure you’ve got directors, producers, writers … but with these people, the end result in television is, they’ve got the scissors. In art, they can’t edit your painting.
In another snitty voice: “I want you to cut that out, that thing with the horse. Cut that out.”
JW: No, we’re not cutting that out. We’re leaving it in. And if you don’t like it, take a walk.
So, the independent clown that I am, it’s not that I’m not disciplined in the movies. I’ve got my lines down, I’m on time, I know all the rules… I figure the fascinating thing for me at 77… I’ve always lived in one house, The House of Correction.
In an altered, domineering voice: Why are you wearing the overalls downtown? You just draw attention to yourself. (JW explains with an aside: “That would be my old man”)
JW: Well, I’m comfortable in these goddamn things and I paid for it myself. Look shorty, you’re five eight and a half, I could drop you.
Father’s voice: Oh, you’re talking back to me.
JW: Well, I didn’t talk back until I got out of the car. It’s a book about eighteen inches thick.
Everywhere you go: “Why do you wear those shoes?” Don’t worry about it. I’m wearing them. You’re not. And you’re constantly having to defend yourself. Your religion. Your color. Your hair. Your shoes. Your painting. That’s why I say we live in a “house of correction.”
I’m a rebel and I always will be, and I’ve adjusted remarkably well. A woman said to me the other day as I got out of my car (aside again) I’m writing a book called Know the Enemy and it deals with a very simple thing, with a-holes and how to deal with them. And this woman turned to me and said, “You know, you’re crazy.” And I said, I can’t help that. Are you a doctor?
Voice change to older woman: No. I’m Mrs. Alan Bednor. I live up on the Riviera.
JW: How did you know I was crazy?
Older woman: I’ve seen you on television.
JW: Well, I’m crazy there, definitely. I have to be, in order to make a living. I read your book, incidentally, Mrs. Gedner, or whatever your name is, on sensitivity. Is it still the one page? Oooh. Now, are you married?
Older woman: Yes, to a very fine man. Harry McDagner, and he’s with American Tool and Die.
JW: Is he on the New York Stock Exchange?
Older woman: No.
JW: That’s too bad. The company’s not that big, is it.
Older woman: Well, we’re primarily in the Midwest and Western states.
JW: Yeah, Black and Decker Hammer. OK, What was his capacity? Is he retired?
Older woman: He retired last year at 64.
JW: Was he owner of the company?
Older woman: No.
JW: Was he chairman of the board?
Older woman: No
JW: What was he, outside of straightening that Sparklitz bottle?
Older woman: Sparklitz bottle?
JW: Yeah, I’m a little fast for ya there. Maybe he was trying to make out with some chick at the computer. What did he do when he retired? Or maybe they fired him.
Older woman: Oh no, he was in marketing.
JW: What was his name again?
Older woman: Paul
JW: Tell Paul when he comes home tonight I deduct what he makes. Not bad for a crazy person. That’s the end of it dear. You get in your Plymouth and get your ass out of here.
That’s the book, my friend. It is. The minute they say, I don’t care for your comedy, always agree with the enemy, see. That gives you time to lock and load.
Jon Winters on Religion
JW: I’ve just finished a little book called “It’s No Fun Being a Protestant.” The Jews and the Catholics and the Muslims, … It’s not sacrilegious. I don’t make fun of Christ. I tell people I’m a Christian. and kind of a paper mache Episcopalian…. The book starts out with my meeting Billy Graham, which really happened. And he said, as he came into the Green Room, 45 years ago,
BG’s Voice: I’m Doctor Graham. Are you who I think you are?
JW: I’m Spanky McFarland, Our Gang comedy.
BG: No, no, who are you? Aren’t you Jonathan Winters?
JW: I know who you are. You’re Dr. Billy Graham.
BG: May I ask, What are you?
JW: I’m Caucasian.
BG: I know that.
JW: No, you don’t. I have brown eyes. Our people got across the river first.
BG: Be serious. What denomination are you?
JW: That’s what you should have asked me. See, driver’s license says Caucasian, and other little items I’ve had to fill out. But what denomination? I’m Episcopalian.
BG: Let me ask you something seriously. And try to be serious. What do you find the difference between my being an evangelist and you being an Episcopalian?
JW: Now Billy, when we go to Yankee Stadium we go to see a ball game.
He didn’t get it.
And I said, when you go to Westminster Abbey, you go to a church second to St Peters. See, when your people get to second base, we’re already home.
So, that’s the book. See, to me, I really do my homework, especially writing a book like this because you’re going to offend a lot of people. But what these people have done on television seven days a week is frightening to me… that you walk up to a man who has cancer in his right arm and you say, “Jesus is going to heal you.” And two thugs, some guys from Harlan County, catch him and supposedly the cancer is gone.
I turned to a guy the other day who is re-born, and he said to me “What are you?” and I told him — this guy with silver gray hair on CNN or something — I said “Why don’t you come up here to the Cottage of St. Francis and heal the cancer people there?”
Faith Healer: “We don’t do that kind of work.”
JW: It’s not a ballpark or an amphitheater. It’s sixteen kids with cancer. You’re a phony. Get out of my way, Jack.
It’s a big business. A very big business. There’s a lot of guys who are very bad cats who are sucking it in. and the poor public… these people go, wheelchairs … I don’t know. It’s frightening.
You don’t see Jews out there coming up to my door. You don’t see Catholics. Who are these people beating on my door, asking me if I accept Christ? I said to a Jehovah’s Witness, “Do you people ever salute the flag?” and they said, “No, we don’t believe in the flag.”
Get lost, Jack. I don’t need that.
It’s a lot of strange things… people yelling and screaming, going across the stage throwing the Bible up in the air… To me it’s bizarre.
Final Topic: The Art Scene
EN: What is it that fascinates you about Dali?
JW: He was such, and is such, a great draftsman. His anatomy, which I could never get close to, his many, many paintings, his detail, his thought.
EN: Dali found inspiration in the work of Vermeer.
JW: The only guy that bothered me, maybe it’s because I suffered a couple of breakdowns and stuff and I went through some tough times, not because of drugs or anything, just pressure — Van Gogh. I understand what fantastic art he did, but his things bothered me. He was a very troubled man as you know. I could see that sickness. I could feel it. And I wouldn’t be comfortable with that guy as a role model.
I like Manet, and the Renaissance people, Monet, El Greco… I studied all those guys as I am sure you did, and I liked the Ashcan School — Marsh, Bellows… all these guys. A good friend of mine was Don Kingman. A good friend of mine. He did the introduction to my book. A lot of people don’t know about Don. He was a wonderful Chinese water colorist.
EN: Do you know Chee at all?
EN: He’s from Duluth up here.
JW: Oh, is he… Huh. He’s quite good. He gets a lot of money for his things. Five and six figures.
EN: What’s your next project?
JW: I don’t know. I’m struggling with an idea right now. I’ve got my canvas done and background. It takes me a long time. I sit down…. trying to be different each time, hoo boy. I like to do something different each time.
I just did a thing about the American Indian. Two envelopes against the canvas. One is Seargent Ben Tall Bear, care of Browning Reservation, Veteran’s Hospital, Ward K, Montana
Then there’s another envelope to another guy, a Native American… and the only thing that isn’t painted is… I took a real stamp, a teddy bear stamp, up in the corner. And it’s titled Two Letters to Two Wounded Native Americans. And so I go from that to something else.
I just painted recently a couple weeks ago a dead tree against a big powder blue background, and the tree has many branches and from the branches are hanging many gingerbread men. And it’s called A Dead Tree With Any Number of Stale Gingerbread Men Hanging From It.
EN: What’s the strangest or funniest thing you’ve ever experienced as an artist?
JW: Probably the strangest thing I ever experienced…. I’ve collected all kinds of artwork, mostly things done on canvas, a few things of sculpture, but they’re so bloody expensive if it’s well done. I bought an enamel, an Austrian enamel, which I have in my studio. I bought it maybe 25 years ago. It’s about 9 x 12… I bought it because it’s a studio with the artist and he’s got his pallette, and he’s standing, and on his pedestal is a nude, three quarter nude, and I looked at the painting… How much is it? He said $3500, and I said “Oh my God, that’s a lot.”
Now I always wanted to get something with the artist and his pallet so I said, “Let me look at this, and (in those days I didn’t need my glasses) and I said, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. On her buttocks is an imperfection. It’s a black dot. What’s this?” And he said, “Take this glass.” It’s a thick glass. And then I looked at it, — this is at an antique show in Pasadena — and he said, “Do you speak any German?” And I said, “No, very little.” “Do you know the expression or word Difluegen?” I said, well the word flueg is fly. And he said, “That’s what’s on her butt, a fly. He took one hair of a brush and painted it.” I’m going to buy that, I said.
I love it because very rarely do people see the dot, and I saw it, and I know what it is… probably the most exciting purchase I’ve ever made.
Jonathan Winters passed away of natural causes at his Montecito, California home at 6:45 p.m. PDT on April 11, 2013, surrounded by family and friends.
Jonathan Winters site: http://www.jonathanwinters.com/
Catch a couple minutes of Jonathan Winters in person on YouTube
The website of screen print artist Joe Petro: http://www.joepetro.com/
Originally published at pioneerproductions.blogspot.com