May 25, 2012

Nick Winkworth: Artist Photographer on how art enlarges the consciousness

Ruby Slippers
I introduce you today to the photographer/artist Nick Winkworth. The chapter “Bedtrick” in my memoir (Re)Making Love was inspired in part by Nick's photograph entitled  “Ruby Slippers.” I am in his debt.

He honors me here today with his essay and more of his work.

William Gass in Fiction and the Figures of Life, a fabulous book on art and life, says ...[A]rt enlarges consciousness like space in a cathedral, ribboned with light, and though a new work of art may consume our souls completely for a while, almost as a jingle might, if consumption were all that mattered, we are never, afterward, the same; we cannot consciously go on in the old way; there is, as in Rilke’s poem ‘Torso of an Archaic Apollo,’ no place that does not see us, and we must change our life.

Nick gives credence to William Gass’s words.

Nick Winkworth

It was inevitable, I suppose, that someone born into a family of painters and sculptors would find an outlet for artistic expression one way or another.
Born and brought up in England, I have lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, in California, for over 20 years, brought here by a career in high technology which could hardly be further from the world of paint and clay in which I grew up.

At times I imagined the vehicle for my artistic output might have been music (I play bass and guitar), but photography has always been my first love, as well as a more constant and reliable companion.

From the moment I first picked up my first camera as a child, my choice of subject matter has been a cause for comment, but I simply reflect the world as I see it – the subtle interplay of composition, color and form is often more interesting to me than what the subject may be. That doesn’t mean my photographs are sterile exercises in geometry, however. My goal with every image is to achieve a balance between aesthetic appeal and that elusive emotional quality which hints at a mystery, an untold story, or a forgotten memory.

After many years of sharing my work only with family and friends, my photography has now become a serious artistic endeavor.  An initial online presence led to a solo show, which was followed by selection into a number of juried exhibitions and events. Encouraged and inspired by participation in recent portfolio reviews, I now have a long list of projects which will allow me to continue to grow as a photographer and artist …and keep me busy in the coming months!

I am also a regular participant in the web project “SPARK”, which pairs visual artists with writers, encouraging each to create new work inspired by the other. (

Crying over Colors – Emotion in the Abstract
By Nick Winkworth

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld famously described his hit TV series as “a show about nothing.”

White on White
Of course, he didn’t mean that nothing happened in the show, or that it had nothing to say (as you may remember, it tapped into the psyche of its time and was hugely successful).  What he meant was that the stories in the show were grounded in the mundane – in the ordinary life we take for granted and which passes us by before we realize it’s actually “something”.  We go to work or school. We buy groceries and we interact with our friends. But when asked, “what happened today?” we reply “oh, nothing.”

Jurassic Shore
By removing the distraction of a dramatic plot or an exotic setting, the writers cleverly made us look inward. We laughed because we recognized ourselves and our lives (hopefully only certain aspects!), and by exposing the stuff that normally goes unexamined, it took us beyond humor to (perhaps) some deeper truths. If we cared to notice. 

So if “nothing” can be the subject of a successful TV sitcom, can it also be the basis for other art forms?

My introduction to this idea took place at an early age. Growing up in a family of painters and sculptors, I was reluctantly dragged around what seemed like every art gallery in London as a small child. I naturally became a big fan of the surrealists with their funny juxtapositions and brilliant ideas (“Ceci n'est pas une pipe”), but I was also strongly drawn to the work of abstract expressionists like De Kooning, Malevich, Pollock -- and especially Mark Rothko. I’m not sure I could have told you why at the time, but those fields of pure color and indefinable shapes that call to something just below the conscious were not simply compelling and attractive - they wormed their way into my brain in a way that would not become
apparent for many years.

We Never Close
The painters of that movement would have had a very clear explanation for my reaction, of course. They would no doubt have claimed that their work was a direct emotional connection between the painter and the viewer, without the intermediation of subject. “A painting about nothing” perhaps, but one which has a lot to say, and which is ecumenical in its appeal. This direct connection to emotion has been interpreted by some as “spiritual” and indeed one of the finest examples of Mark Rothko’s work is the Rothko “Chapel,” just outside Houston, Texas. This small octagonal building houses fourteen enormous, dark, almost monochromatic, panels and is a place for non-denominational and philosophical contemplation. 

The power of the work is reputed to move some visitors to tears.

Bus Stop
After my early exposure to painting, my life followed a path away from art - to science, technology and a career which eventually deposited me in my current location in Silicon Valley, California. I nevertheless always maintained a personal creative and artistic output, primarily through the medium of photography, and this is where the threads of my story converge. Photographs – as any photographer will tell you – are not made with a camera, but with an eye and a brain. My photographic subjects have always been what some may call unorthodox. Many have called them painterly. However it was only recently that I made the connection.

The fact is, abstract art is everywhere we look. It is there in the “nothing” that we pass by every day on our way to work. It is there in the “blank” wall and the “empty” space. In reality, of course, it’s in our brains, or rather, since I can only speak for myself, in my brain. Once I realized that my photography was unconsciously drawing on those early memories of abstract paintings I decided to create the body of work I later titled “Off the Wall”. 

Sharing one's personal vision may go with the territory in art, but I was nevertheless relieved to discover that I am not alone: One of my images was recently selected (from over 1,400 submissions) for an exhibition of abstract photography showing now until June 9th at the PhotoPlace gallery in Middlebury, Vermont called “Abstract Expressions” (details at My contribution, “Dividing Line”, is at once an abstract composition of shapes, colors and textures, and also a simple boarded-up window that you might drive past every day. All the exhibition images are available online for those who can't, or won't, make it to Vermont.

Dividing Line

By coincidence, a few weeks before I heard about my inclusion in this exhibition I attended a photographic event in Houston and so naturally made a pilgrimage to the Rothko Chapel. It turned out to be a fairly unassuming building surrounded by a nice little park in a residential part of town. Having passed through the lobby, filled with books from every faith, I entered the main space. Huge purple-black canvases encircle the dim, high ceilinged room and imbue the place with an atmosphere I have only experienced before in a cathedral or remote redwood grove.  A few people sat quietly on benches, or on the floor. Some with eyes closed. 

Mark Rothko Four Darks in Red © Tate / 1998 by Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko source The Guardian

Having taken a while to absorb the ambiance, I approached one of the panels, reminiscent perhaps of a cave man approaching the black monolith in “2001, A Space Odyssey” (Rothko encouraged viewers to get very close - as close as 18 inches) and as I did so, the painting seemed to reach out and pull me inside itself. The surface texture and brush strokes are visible at this distance but they seem to just add to the sense of depth, and in a moment I was both deep under the ocean and staring at the stars at the same time. The subtle variations in color and shifting light drew my attention from one place to the next, but in every direction all there was, was the painting.

After a while it became so overwhelming in its intensity that I could no longer continue to look, and I turned my head away.

Visit Nick Winkworth’s blog and website through the link in the right hand margin of this site:




  1. Nick, what an amazingly beautiful essay! Your art is not only expressed in your photographs, but in your elegant words.

    I was particularly moved by your wording of why you were drawn to certain abstract expressionists:

    "I’m not sure I could have told you why at the time, but those fields of pure color and indefinable shapes that call to something just below the conscious were not simply compelling and attractive - they wormed their way into my brain in a way that would not become apparent for many years."

    That's as close to explaining the effects of abstract art as one can get, I think.

    I, too, have been to the Rothko Chapel in Houston. I have two sons living in Houston, and my oldest son Brian insisted on taking my wife and me there on a visit. We were blown away. How did a thing like this come to Houston? This is not what I expected at all of Houston, formerly Enron town.

    It was through further exploration with our able scout Brian that we began to discover what I'd call a discrete subculture in Houston, an artistic community that like abstract art, simmers below the surface. You have to seek it out, get close to it like a Rothko painting, but it's there. It's nestled amid the commerce of energy, biotech, and aerospace, and gleaming skyscrapers.

    Thank you for this essay, and thank you, Mary, for bringing Nick to us.

    1. Cosmot, I feel blessed to have virtually met Nick through his art. He sent me "Ruby Slippers" and I sent him my short story from The Woman Who Never Cooked, "The Burglar." I wrote "Bedtrick" in response to "Ruby Slippers" and he did an amazing photograph in response to my story. I am hoping there's a way he might put that photo up here in reply but probably the host here Blogspot won't allow that. But you can go here to see the exchange:

      I am so lucky to have worked with this artist, who, I am sure, is on to greater and greater honors.

    2. Wow. Thank you cozmot.

      There certainly seems to be a thriving art community in Houston, as I discovered at Fotofest this year. The event included a couple of gallery openings, which were packed with the good and the great, all dressed to the nines - both the wealthy and the arty. Great people watching!

      For anyone interested, the story behind the creation of my photograph inspired by an excerpt from "The Burglar" can be found here: . A lot more Heath-Robinson than you might imagine!

      Thanks again to Mary for asking me to write.

  2. Wow, I knew there was an active arts community in Houston but a Rothko Chapel? Thanks Nick, and Mary.

    1. A terrific overview of Rothko's work from an exhibit that came to the National Gallery in 1998 in DC and included pieces from the Chapel can be seen at this website: It is beautifully explicated and the paintings are visually powerful here, well-photographed. The chapel work is discussed, but perhaps more important, Rothko's view of the spiritual essence of art is discussed.

      I saw this exhibit. Nick's essay describes the quiet that the room elicited. Here in DC at the Philips Gallery there is a permanent exhibition of Rothko's work that I visit regularly and that has, in a sense, become a character in my novel Who by Fire that will be published on October.

    2. It's the sheer physical presence of these works that catches people by surprise, I think. That's one of the reasons the Rothko Chapel has the effect it does.

      This might not be such a revelation for the giant canvasses of Rothko, but the artist who always manages to catch me off guard is Jackson Pollock. Of course, we have all seen reproductions and mostly, I think, we carry those little icons around in our heads. So whenever I see one of the paintings "in the flesh" I am inevitably shocked by the sheer power and vitality and physicality of it. All those familiar "a child could do it" jibes, are suddenly laughable.

      Of course, this presents a big challenge for any photographer who wants to explore this territory...


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