The Birth of a Storyteller

Lizzie Martinez
Senior reporter

If Brian Winkenweder, assistant professor of art history, was the hero of a story, it would be a love story. The type of story where the hero struggles to choose between two great loves: English literature and art history. The type of story where the hero finally discovers he can love and excel at both.
But Winkenweder probably wouldn’t be the hero of a
story; he would most likely be the genius behind the written word. Truth be told, Winkenweder is, at heart, a storyteller.
Whether he is in the classroom lecturing on art history, writing a paper for a conference or enjoying life outside the academic world, Winkenweder thrives on exploring the link between image and text, pictures and words, literature and art.
His story begins at the University of Washington, where he dreamed of writing the great American novel. Like countless other creative writing majors, he churned out fiction and short stories. Like many other writers, he felt inadequate.
“I liked writing, but I didn’t really have anything to say,” Winkenweder said.
To remedy his inexperience, he enrolled in an art history course. At the very least, he said, he figured he could then drop references to art and culture in his stories, elevating his writing. But Winkenweder found much more.
“I knew about English literature and that people were reading and discussing the classics, but I didn’t know there were people who were looking at art and discussing it,” Winkenweder said. “I decided it was much more exciting to study the role of words in pictures than the role of pictures in words.”
Though he abandoned creative writing, he found it difficult to give up literature and essay writing altogether. So, he double majored in art history and comparative literature. Afterward, still unsure of his path in life, he earned back-to-back master’s degrees in English and art history at the University of New Mexico.
“I felt torn between two disciplines, and I had to finally commit,” Winkenweder said. “I didn’t figure out what I wanted to major in until I finished my first master’s degree.”
His final degree, a doctorate in art history and criticism from Stony Brook University in New York, was the culmination of his search.
During his professional career, he explored and analyzed historical and contemporary artists who use text and images. Recently, he focused on social protests and graphic design.
In the end, however, though Winkenweder committed to a discipline, he didn’t have to choose between the two. His love of writing and English literature has helped him immensely, and it remains a large part of his personal and professional life.
Outside the classroom, Winkenweder is a prolific writer. He has traveled from Belgium to Paris presenting professional papers. He said he likes to focus on topics that are unfamiliar to the general art history community.
His essays often read as stories. Because the topic is typically unfamiliar, Winkenweder outlines the context of the artist and his or her work and, then presents his analysis. For the analysis to be compelling, the story of the context has to be accurate and interesting.
Though he never achieved his original dream of writing the great American novel, his first book, “Reading Wittgenstein,” was published this summer.
He already signed the contract for his second book, about renowned art critic Donald Kuspit. He will compile and edit essays written by various art historians on Kuspit, who mentored Winkenweder and shaped his life, Winkenweder said.
“I wanted to give something back for everything he had done for me, for everyone who has studied with him,” he said. “It’s like a sense of duty I feel, a service to honor him. And this was the best way I could think of to do that.”
In the classroom, Winkenweder uses stories as a way to engage students. After all, the history of art is just one massive story. He said he sets up the context and framework of the narrative and challenges students to take the ideas and find the story.
For Winkenweder, classes on art history are not simply a requirement to fulfill the Linfield Curriculum, they are a way to view life. He said he tries to answer students’ questions, such as, “What do you do with art history?”
If anyone understands students’ quest for a major and career, it’s Winkenweder.
In class, he presents essays written for conferences to his students as a way of showing them what one can do with art history. He teaches students how to write research essays using the same techniques he uses. His techniques in writing an essay-story have benefitted him in his professional career.
Before Thanksgiving, Winkenweder traveled to Paris for a conference on minimalist artist Robert Morris. He presented his paper in front of the artist.
“Most art historians say, ‘I would never write about a living artist,’ but I’m just too stupid to take that advice,” Winkenweder said.
After the conference, Morris told Winkenweder his paper was one of the best papers presented.
“When you give a paper at a conference where that person is present, well, I was very nervous,” Winkenweder said. “He could say, ‘You’re wrong!’ To have him say my paper was one of the best, that was a great validation.”
Winkenweder brings the same level of achievement to his classes as he does to his professional work. And he makes it exciting.
Whether it is having students drawing like surrealists, taking his post-modern class on an overnight trip to Seattle to visit the art galleries, visiting the Portland Art Museum or assigning students to design a Dada sound poem, Winkenweder keeps his students on their toes.
“For me, it’s essential that students have the chance to see the art not in a classroom,” he said. “The only way to know what you’re talking about is to see the art for yourself.”
Like any writer who rereads a classic piece of literature many times, Winkenweder can visit the same museum or view the same piece of art many times without growing bored.
“It’s not easy to stand still and look at a work of art,” Winkenweder said. “It’s a strange experience.”
Whether he is reading, writing or visiting museums, Winkenweder found a way to combine all his favorite activities in life.
Like any hero of a story, he has changed and grown over the years, but he still remains true to his original love of stories.

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