Venice Icon: Emily Winters
By Enyaj Pitchford
For thirty years, Emily Winters has lived in the same apartment complex, just across the street from Virginia Drinkwater. She has two daughters, one is a full time studio artist. She was born in Illinois in a little country town, in the tristate area of Illinois, Idaho, and Missouri. After high school, she went to the big city of Chicago, to the Art Institute, where she met her husband. For a year of school, she went to classes at night and worked making street maps. They called them “inkers” at the time. This helped her make some money to be able to move out of the area, away from the confines of a small town mindset, and start afresh. She decided, along with her husband and another couple, after graduation, to move to the West Coast.
Emily was pregnant then, and working while completing her B.F.A. at the Chicago Institute of the Arts. Her husband and friends went ahead and started out in San Francisco, but her husband checked out Venice, where he had a couple of friends. It wasn’t long before he called for her to join him and prepare a place for them to start their family. That was in 1963, and she’s stayed ever since.
I asked her what Venice was like back then and she said, “It was considered a slum by the sea. Everyone was poor.” (‘Where debris meets the sea’ was the phrase I heard in the late 80s.) They got their one bedroom apartment for $49.50 a month. Her husband was an artist and a musician. She played music as well. They eventually divorced.
There were Beat poets influencing cultural happenings, but Emily was tied to raising the girls, and learned about those events through other people. She was able to go out by meeting more people she trusted to do babysitting exchanges. She wound up living by the Canals in a two bedroom on the second story. She and the kids would sometimes go with a piece of bread tied to a string, and fish for smelts. Biologists and geologists would come by to study the various seaweeds and algae growing at that time. She says that it was much cleaner back then. She had a balcony over the Grand Canal, which the family enjoyed. There were very few fences, and there were many open lots where people would make gardens. I told her that, in the late 90s, I made a hole in my back fence to get access to my neighboring empty lot, and had a garden for my entire second pregnancy. That was a Godsend. As with Emily, developing a network of women who supported one another made single moms able to explore the culture around them.
She was part of an artists’ collective called Jaya, which means “non-violent victory”. They gathered weekly with a cheap $3 gallon bottle of Red Mountain Wine. She wonders how they survived it! Emily recounts the day when Judy Baca of S.P.A.R.C. (Social and Public Art Resource Center) “started the citywide mural project, and came to a meeting of Jaya and announced that they needed a mural in Venice. The group discussed what they wanted to see in the mural. But no one volunteered to paint it, so I did it. This was the early 70s, and gentrification was just beginning. I gave one design which showed people being sad as they were pushed out of the area. But no one liked that, so we reconvened with our ideas.”
The Marina made their first high rise, and the sterile white people were pouring into the quiet, eclectic, bohemian life, pushing out the creative element. That’s what inspired the mural that Emily painted on Dell Avenue. It shows the bucolic life of the community, holding its own against the shadow of the development forthcoming. I worked on the mural commission in New York City in the 80s, documenting murals for the City to catalog, and I can confirm that this mural is a classic time capsule and has great historic and cultural significance and must be preserved.
Currently, it is under threat from development. The mural has been redone several times. When it was first painted, there was an elderly woman in her nineties living in a house in the Canals who, apparently, didn’t pay her rent for a while. The City, without contacting any of her relatives, set a date to evict her and demolish her home. Emily says, “We all talked about it and collectively stood in front of the bulldozer to save Sadie Hays and her home, and it worked! Even the driver of the bulldozer got down and joined in. He did not want to tear down an elderly woman’s home!” The power of the collective! Sadie got to stay in her home. And that story got immortalized in the mural as “The People of Venice vs. the Developers”.
Emily recalls how, at one time, “On a wall at John’s Market, someone had written ‘Stop the Pig’, and Jaya wanted that to be a permanent part of the mural. At that time, a sort of SWAT team of cops in black started beating up gays and guys with beards, making way for the ‘new’ people of Venice. Knowing what was going on, I kept the phrase in my work. And on opening day, we were picketed by the Venice Marina Women’s Chamber of Commerce, three old ladies and a couple of husbands with wordy signs that no one bothered reading. One was like, ‘We feel that, as tax payers, our taxes should not be delegated to causes denigrating the police department.’” Not exactly catchy slogans! Furthermore, she says, “The other side of the building was painted with the words ‘FK CHIEF DAVIS’ but no one complained about that!” Emily and Jaya pressed forward with their convictions and got national television exposure as they fought for First Amendment rights and won!
The years, and the changing neighborhood, brought a lot of challenges to her murals in Venice. She told me one particular tale that was of interest. “There was a developer who didn’t like the mural and painted it out. And when the neighbors saw it being done, they, in mass, got rags and washed it out. He came back with oil based paints, and the neighbors spontaneously came with rags with paint thinner and again removed most of the paint, but it left a patina behind and a sort of mosaic look. The owner of the building said that he didn’t like the mural but he didn’t want to antagonize the neighbors, so he left it alone. Some years later, a new owner of the building expressed that he would like the mural refurbished, and S.P.A.R.C. called me and said they had funding to restore it.”
Emily got it repaired with a couple of assistants. Lots of history! It has become a place where people say, “Meet you at the mural!”
Her other mural on Ocean Front Walk, “Endangered Species” of 1990, is itself an endangered species of art. It is covered with tagging! Even though it was covered with a layer of graffiti repellant or mural shield that, when sprayed with a solvent, dissolves the graffiti and can be re-sprayed with the mural shield, Public Works decided that they were going to use the property across from the mural where a building had burned down, and they set up an office there to put barriers to keep cars from driving onto Ocean Front Walk. They had a chain link fence with a cover on it and they left a 5-foot passageway between the fence and the mural. It became a taggers’ paradise, having easy access to climb the fence and attack the mural from all ends. This happened right after the mural had been restored! Emily says, “I approached the supervisors and asked them to bock the passageway but they claimed that, after the project was over, they would pay for the mural restoration.” Emily warned them that, after a couple of coatings, it was going to get expensive. But when the project was done, they claimed they ran out of money.
The “Endangered Species” mural is still in a state of disrepair! It still has the mural shield protection but the mural would need some repairs. And of course, the whole project needs to be funded. Emily sought a grant to restore the mural from the Department of Cultural Affairs of Los Angeles but was denied, even though the City paid for the mural to be done through S.P.A.R.C. and the Neighborhood Pride Project.
The new selection project for murals opens this fall. They want new murals to work with youth. Emily is eighty-seven and needs a group of artists to assist her. Sometimes it’s difficult when they overpaint areas where she feels her “fingerprint” needs to be respected and preserved. I guess it’s all a learning and communication process. Right now, she is in the process of meeting with a group of supporters, and planning for the future of the mural and other projects.
Emily partnered with Suzanne Thompson, a local activist in the early 2000s. She says, “The Neighborhood Council was opening up and they requested me to do an art committee, and Suzanne talked me into it. I ran against a local incumbent. I got 29 votes and he got 5, and he contested it, but later we became friends. We tried to slow down the gentrification of Venice by collectively objecting to big development projects. And we also wanted to protect what was created, and wanted to bring other public artworks into the neighborhood.” She still co-chairs the Venice Arts Council with Suzanne Thompson, which was started under Ruth Galanter. However, when they moved the Councilmember’s office to the valley for her last term, against her will, Venice got Cindy Miscikowski in her place. Cindy was married to a big developer in the Marina, so you know how that played out. The Arts Council lost a lot of their governance and the developers got their way. They got set between a rock and a hard place in order to destroy them with political rules and banter. Eventually, the Arts Council got no representation on the Neighborhood Council for over a year, which left it open season for development.
When a bulk of the developments got passed, they were asked to rejoin, which they refused, since they would hold no real power with this group. Instead they reconvened and joined forces with the local Venice Japanese American community and got a monument put up on the north-west corner of Lincoln Boulevard and Venice Boulevard by the carwash, commemorating the thousands of people from the Westside, Venice, Santa Monica, Malibu, and Pacific Palisades who were taken to Manzanar, a war relocation center where Japanese Americans were incarcerated and stripped of their land and wealth.
Emily continues to draw and participate in fast poses classes and has a “frieze of her images” on the wall. Drawing seems to be foundational to her process. As a child, she recalled how she found her solace in drawing, without witnessing any other artists. The first museum she saw was at the Institute, when she walked through the art museum on campus to get to her classes. She also managed to learn the violin and played in local orchestras, but she gave that up for art and children-raising along the way. She did have a childhood friend whose mother was a watercolorist, as one of her earliest memories of art.
Emily was recognized early by the Legendary Women Artists of Venice five years ago. For Emily Winters, one of the most important things that she wants people to know is that the Venice Arts Council is trying to preserve the public art in Venice. They are responsible for preserving the poetry walls on the beachfront. They tried to get the tiles on the benches restored, which have been damaged, but L.A. City will not respond to caring for public art. The V.A.C., with the Venice Japanese American community, go monthly to the public monument and clean it up. Right now, someone put some sticky substance on it. They are trying to remove it without damaging the artwork.
Parks and recreation has not been very supportive of keeping the poetry walls and the poetry in the restrooms available. Emily says, “We had space for these children’s tiles to go in, which we got grants for, and we can’t get the R.O.E. (right of entry) to get them in! Mike Bonin pushed for the renovation of the beachfront, and then the City used to paint the benches and restore them every year. Now, even though they take the graffiti off, they don’t use the proper material. And people can’t see the poetry unless they know to look for it, because they are not kept up.” How do we get the City of Los Angeles to protect public art in Venice? This is the responsibility of Councilwoman Traci Parks, Mayor Bass, the head of Parks and Recreation, and the Department of Cultural Affairs. If anyone is interested in writing, calling, or starting a petition on MoveOn.org to get these works protected, here is your chance. Please write the Beachhead a letter about your efforts and responses.
It takes a community in unity to keep its heART beating! Cultural warriors and creative spirits like Emily’s are rare, especially one so enduring in protecting public artworks and keeping the culture alive for the public to see for free and in the open air. Let us all do what we can to support this legacy. And thank you Emily for your strength, vision, and commitment to our little town of Venice! We salute you!