Brenda Wintermyer: Elevating York with art

In Episode 1 of our “Catalysts” podcast series, we chat with Brenda Wintermyer of Just Brenda Art.

Introduction

In Episode 1 of our “Catalysts” series, we chat with Brenda Wintermyer of Just Brenda Art. We’ll share the stories about how she turned down a job with a famous greeting card company, what led her to open her first studio in her 50s, and how an early vision of York came to be.

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Part 1: "You don't seem like you're from York"

Rebecca: We’re thrilled to be sitting down with artist Brenda Wintermyer, who’s best known for her colorful paintings of downtown York.

If you’ve been to White Rose Bar & Grill, all those paintings around the dining room came from her imagination, and she was among a group of people who got First Fridays started downtown and has been in a number of studios around the city for the past 18 years.

Today, her Just Brenda art studio is on North George Street above The Handsome Cab. Now Brenda has lived in York County all of her life, grew up in Dover, but she hears quite frequently from her students that you don’t seem like you’re from York. Can you explain that to us?

Brenda: Okay, well I used to teach at the Art Institute and York College level and some of my students would say, “Are you from this area?” and I would say, “Yes, I’m a Yorkie.” And they would say, “Well you don’t seem like you’re from this area.”

And I thought about that and, like, why would they say that to me? And so I kind of figured out that it’s because I live in a big world, I think, mentally and emotionally. So, I reside in a small town, provincial town of Dover — that’s where I reside.

But I live, my husband and I, and my, actually my adult children, we live in a bigger world, and that’s what makes you feel — that’s what made the students feel — that I wasn’t from this area because I maybe dress a little differently, I spoke about things and culture and places and events and people in a different way. And so I took it as a compliment.

Part 2: A job offer from Hallmark

Rebecca: You’ve said before that you were born with art. You liked to draw as a child, you were quickly labeled the class artist, and you later majored in illustration at York Academy of Arts.

Yet, when you had an opportunity to work for a famous greeting card company, you turned it down. Can you walk us through that story?

Brenda: Sure, yes. We had some talent scouts, actually Hallmark, the Hallmark company had talent scouts that came around, went all over the United States to art schools looking for gifted illustrators to hire, and I was one from this area, and I was so thrilled with that.

That was really a feather in my cap as a senior in art school, and they wanted to send me out there to Kansas, and I didn’t go.

But I always thought of it as a nice compliment. It was a nice feather in my cap. I was very always honored and very proud of that out of my class, I think there was two of us that got accepted to be a Hallmark illustrator, and so I was very proud of that.

But I didn’t go because I was dating a young man that became my husband, and we just didn’t have our sights on Kansas, and so I didn’t go. And I don’t know if I regret that. I think back about that. Do I regret not going? Do I? I mean, we could’ve both taken off and just went, but I was pretty much a homebody, to be honest with you. And not as much now, but back then I was young, and I grew up in a large family, and going to Kansas City seemed like a far away place for me.

And now it’s like, Really, Brenda? Get over it.

You know, but back then, I was young, and I never went. I don’t know how that would’ve changed my destiny. I’m not sure.

I’m thinking probably, it’s probably good that I didn’t go because I really had a very successful art career, and I’m not sure if that would’ve tainted me being out there or kind of confined me, limited me in my pursuit of using my imagination in drawing. I don’t know how restrictive they are with their artists so I’m sure there was some things that wouldn’t have been good about it, but the adventure would’ve been great and the Hallmark company’s a good company, so I don’t know.

I go back and forth, but I never think about it until someone asks me about it, like asking me that put me back in that time and I’m thinking, “Gee, I did have an opportunity as a young person to do something pretty cool,” and I didn’t do it.

Part 3: The tin lady

Rebecca: But still you stayed in York. You raised your children. I think people would be surprised to know if they don’t already, the remarkable things that you are able to have a hand in as an illustrator in your career. It may not have been for Hallmark, but you did work for Wolfgang, and Hershey, and other notable companies.

What were some of those projects that you ended up doing that people might not have known that you did?

Brenda: Well, I did a lot of tins, decorative holiday tins for Wolfgang Candy. I mean, I was known as the tin lady at the printing presses that printed my art on the tins, so I did lots of tins for Wolfgang Candy, I did lots of tins for Hershey, and some Charles Chips tins — they were over in Lancaster back then, and they’re closed up now. I think, no I do still see some Charles Chips. Their iconic, original tin I see around every now and then, but I did some events for them, sporting event tins for them and seasonal events, so I did a lot of tins.

What that means is I would do the illustration work on board, illustration board, and to a theme that they requested, so I always had specifications. So, they wanted an Easter tin, they wanted a Christmas tin, they wanted it with elves, they wanted a Super Bowl tin, whatever it was, and I just did tons and tons of tins.

And it was fun, I enjoyed it. It was fun to see the end result, the new tins come out of the factory. So now I see them around in yard sales, and it’s like, “That’s my tin! You better be asking a good price for that!”

So, I saved two tins of everything I’ve done. For my children, because I have two kids. And so, I thought someday, they can, I have them all down in the basement, all protected in containers because they are tin, and I’m just thinking they could each have a tin. I’ve done so many of them. If they want them. If they don’t want them, they can pass them on to their children, or get rid of them.

Part 4: "Free-loading freelancer"

Rebecca: You had worked freelance for a while…

Brenda: Yeah, I did a lot of freelance work, and I, again, I did freelance work for a lot of the design studios. I shouldn’t say a lot. Several of the design studios around York County, Harrisburg, Lancaster, where they would hire me as their illustrator as a freelancer, and then as they needed projects, I would go into their studios and they would have a studio set up for me there. A nice studio set up for me, and so I was like a free-loading freelancer, I called myself.

I would just go in and I would do my projects, whatever they wanted me to do, and then I would leave.

So, some of those were Pfaltzgraff. I worked with Pfaltzgraff for about maybe 12 years in their design department, their product design department, so again, just concept drawings and working with their designers there.

Part 5: Working toward her North Star

Rebecca: When we had talked previously, you were working toward what you called your “north star” through all these projects that you were doing — the art that you were doing in your life.

And it eventually led you to open up your art studio, finally, in your early 50s was when that had happened. What fell into place for you that allowed that to happen?

Brenda: Well, I was teaching at the college level at that time, and I was weaning myself away from my illustration clients and all the while planning for my full-time painting career, and so I knew I had to wean off of my illustration clients, and a good way to do that would be to teach.

That gave me an income. And, also, I really actually enjoy teaching. It was a great experience for me. I taught a decade and made a lot of contacts.

And, so, they’re all pebbles. They’re all stones that build your path, and so you meet a lot of people when you’re teaching. You have colleagues that you work with, your other instructors, you have department heads, you have the deans, you have the presidents of the colleges, they all get to know you and believe in you, and they become your networking community.

And so while I was teaching, I met a lot of people and made a lot of friends and that led me into meeting my next stepping stone, was opening up a gallery on Philadelphia Street, which would be my full-time gallery, my full-time painting studio upstairs, with a gallery down below, and that happened through teaching at Bradley Academy, or the Art Institute.

So, the president of the Art Institute, Loren Kroh, encouraged me to call this gentleman’s number. He put it in my hand, he goes, “Please call this gentleman. He would like to have some private art classes when he retires from his profession.”

And I said, “Okay.”

And so I kept that little number, and I kept it for a couple months and really didn’t call, and then one day I decided to call, and it happened to be Bob Pullo, who I did not know, which surprised him. And I said, when I called, I said to the receptionist or his secretary, “I’d like to speak to Mr. Pullo.”

She connected me to him, and we chatted, and he was surprised I didn’t know who he was, and I said, “Well, I don’t bank with your bank. So, I don’t know who you are.”

He goes, “Can you teach an executive how to draw?”

And I said, “I’m sure I can teach an executive how to draw.”

And, so, he became one of my private students. So, see that’s how that happens, that networking.

All those little pebbles that are laid down before you. And you take those opportunities, and you see them as growing yourself, growing your career forward, and getting to know new people, and making new relationships and friendships.

And in this case, with Bob, he liked my teaching style so much, and that he would come in, and I would loosen up his tie, and roll up his sleeves, and I said, he’d come right off his office desk, and office work and I’d say, “Come on Bob, you gotta lighten up, we’re working with charcoal today.”

And I’d loosen his tie up, and he’d, you know, and set up his easel, and he just liked the way I taught and he liked the results of how he could draw. He was just so impressed.

So, one day, he just said to me, “Brenda, if you can teach me to draw, that’s pretty incredible. I think we should go into business.”

And, so, he wanted to set up a business with me. He said he would be the finance partner, financial partner. I would be the creative partner, and that’s how that got started. And that was called City Art. I named it City Art.

We had a nice little place on Philadelphia Street. A lot of people that’ll be listening to this might remember that place. We had it for about almost five years, and so that was how that moved into that.

So, then I moved out of my teaching career because I needed to be there full time as a painter and as a gallery owner curator and also I had workshops upstairs. Like a little school, so to speak, of workshops.

And, so, having that for five years kind of set me up to move on to my next move, which was another studio, and then I went on my own.

So, Bob and I, we closed up our partnership, and we both agreed on that. We had it long enough and it was great, it was fun, but it was time for me to move on. It was time for him to move on.

And, so, I opened up my own studio, and that’s where Just Brenda came because it was just me now. I wasn’t representing, I had 40 artists on my roster for my gallery at City Art, so I was representing a lot of artists and I was helping them with their careers and helping them move forward and so when I moved to my next studio, I was just like well, I’m not representing anybody, I’m just representing me now.

This is me. This is my north star. That’s when I got to my north star.

My north star was when I became truly independent, had my own studio, and had no partnerships, no financial commitment to anybody, and I was just able to be my own person and be my own painter. That was my north star.

And have it sustainable. Because it is sustainable. And so that’s when I told you I was living my north star. But all those things added up to that.

My printer, my going back to illustration days, my printing, all the printers that knew my name, and then interviewing for an illustration job at Bradley Academy because they needed an illustration instructor and I was heavily into illustration, so that was another move forward, and then moving into the Art Institute, and then moving into York College, and then meeting Bob, and all those things just fall into place.

And it’s just being ready, being prepared when those opportunities come along, to recognize them, even though I didn’t do that with Kansas. I wasn’t ready then. I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t secure enough with myself then.

But as you grow as an artist, you become more independent, you become more secure, become more mature, and you become more brave, and yeah.

Part 6: On pivotal moments

Rebecca: The next point of your career, you kind of, when we had talked previously, you talked about kind of that studio space and partnering with Bob Pullo was a pivotal point for you, a pivotal stone for you.

Brenda: Huge, yeah. Very pivotal. That was, you know as an artist, and as anybody in any career, they all have pivotal moments. They all have pivotal times that push them upward and forward. And those pivotal moments usually involve other people and other people that network for you, or help you, or give you a break, or whatever that is. And we don’t do it alone.

We don’t, I mean, I didn’t become Just Brenda now on my own, even though my name’s Just Brenda. It really isn’t about Just Brenda. It really did, in all honesty, for me, for my personal experience in this small city of York, it really took a village for me because I have had so many people along my pathway hold me up, push me forward, give me opportunities, believe in me, encourage me, and that’s a village, and it’s still happening today.

People continue to buy my art, to collect my art, and it’s just those opportunities that are very important to understand and appreciate and to give credit where credit’s due.

Part 7: The White Rose commission

Rebecca: Well, I know that we’re kind of, in your story, leading up to what happened to be a big opportunity for you which was the White Rose commission. An opportunity that you maybe almost missed.

Brenda: Absolutely, absolutely. That was another pivotal, that was really critical. I mean, opening City Art with Bob Pullo was critical because it gave me credibility with Bob because he was a big man in the community and a good man, and respected man, and so if he partnered up with me, she must be okay.

So that gave me credibility because I was really, I was known, but in small circles, you know in the college circles, and in the printing circles I was known, in the illustration circles I was known, but not so much outside of that. So, Bob Pullo put me up to another plateau.

And then the White Rose was another one because now we’re in the restaurant industry, the eating industry, and he pulls 1,000 people through there as week, maybe more, and so all those eyes are on that big commission that I did.

I did 26 large paintings, they’re six feet tall, they’re about maybe three and a half feet wide, and they’re of a walking tour of downtown York is what Tom wanted — Tom Sibol, the owner of the White Rose Bar & Grill.

So, they’re placed six inches apart, and they go the whole entire perimeter of the dining space in the back so it’s actually like a gallery back there. It’s a gallery. It’s a dining gallery is what it is of fine art because you have the bar, which is Pat Sells’ work, that three dimensional, all that work that articulates and moves and from old salvaged art so it’s like a gallery back in there.

So, yeah, that was a pivotal point because now I had a platform, and it was like I’m up on a wall of a very well used restaurant and enjoyed restaurant.

People sit there and as they’re waiting for their food or their drinks, they’re looking around and they’re looking at places that they recognize, “Oh, I know where that is.” Or, “I know where that is.” “Oh, I like that one down there.” “Look at that one.”

And that’s what they do, and it’s like, what it does, it was brilliant for Tom because what that’s doing to his patrons sitting there: It’s elevating them to a different level. They’re sitting in a dining space, looking at their city or a city they’re visiting, and it’s flushed with color and he has each one lit with LED lighting, and it elevates them. It’s like they’re someplace very special. They’re in like a gallery. It’s very special.

And a lot of people in this area don’t even visit galleries and so it makes them feel special. It elevates them and if that owner of this restaurant puts that much detail and emphasis into his walls, his food must be really pretty darn good, too, you know? And so it’s just that whole package. It’s like, he was brilliant.

Part 8: The White Rose commission, continued

Rebecca: What did that job do for you?

Brenda: Well, it gave me exposure. I mean, it gave me a lot of stress doing it because it’s 26 large paintings and these 26 white canvases sitting around in my studio and I sat and looked at them for about three weeks until I got started on them.

But my specifications for that project was, “Brenda, you do whatever you want. You can pick the buildings you want. I just want it to be downtown York. You decide on the buildings and just do your style.”

So, what it did for me was gave me anxiety because I had a deadline. So, you have these big paintings that you have to be finished when he wanted his opening of his dining area and so I got a little bit some anxiety with that because it was a lot of work and I think I told you before I was up to number 17, maybe 18 and I had a little bit of an anxiety thing going on I’m thinking what if I can’t do anymore?

I still have seven more to do. What if I just don’t want to do anymore? What if I’m just tired, I’m burned out. What will happen? Because that emotion of mine will reflect on the canvas and then the art’s gonna start changing.

And I was nervous about that.

So, I stopped, and we went to Italy for two weeks. And when I came back, I was all fresh and revived, and filled with art and the appreciation of art, and I finished the last seven or eight and I enjoyed it up to the very last one and so I was thankful for that break. And I met my deadline, which I always do.

I met my deadline, and Tom was pleased with them, and we had them hung, and what that did for me, it gave me a big springboard for my career. Because people actually know my art, they don’t know me.

So I have people every week, every week walk into my current studio and they’ll walk in, and the first thing they see, they look around, they look at my walls, and they go, “Are you the artist…”

And I finish the sentence for them, “…that’s hanging at the White Rose?”

“Yeah, yeah. Are you that Brenda?”

And I went, “Yeah, that’s me.”

And they went, “Wow, it’s so nice to meet you.”

I mean, they know my art. Which by the way is the biggest compliment you can give an artist, any artist — a dancer, I mean a musician, composer, anybody that makes something — that they recognize your product. They don’t know you, but they know your product and so to me, that’s a high compliment.

Part 9: North Beaver at Twilight

Rebecca: So that was like 2006 you had done that job. Rewinding a little bit to another piece that you had done, that I think, to us, we’ve seen, but when we heard the story behind it, it was just particularly fascinating is your Twilight piece, and looking at “North Beaver Street at Twilight” 17 years later from when you had first created it, tell us about that particular work, and why it’s so important today.

Brenda: That piece was inspired by our economic development director back then, his name was Matt Jackson, Matthew Jackson, and he was a friend of mine, and he came to me one day, and he said, he was appreciator of arts, of fine arts, and he goes, “Brenda, I would like for you to illustrate what you feel your vision of Beaver Street would look like. Your vision of what it would look like in 10 years when it comes to fruition.”

Because we talked about, Matt and I would talk about so many times, what if this, what if the Central Market House was lit up from underneath at night and it would shine, the towers would shine? What if this? What if that? What if there was flower carts out? What if there was, the street became a pedestrian street and the macadam was removed and the fire bricks would be exposed? And what if, what if?

He goes, “Let’s take those what ifs, and you make a painting of it, and then I’ll use it as my poster, campaign poster to the City Government and the funders and the people that will help promote this. I’ll use your painting.”

So, I said, “Okay.”

So, it was more like an illustration because, again, I was coming right off my illustration years and I did this painting of what if Beaver Street? And I called it “North Beaver Street at Twilight” because it’s a night scene, and it was a hit right off the bat.

It was very popular and it gave everybody a vision of this is what Beaver Street can look like, and guess what, it is that now. It became that.

Everything happened that was on my painting except that the fire brick was not removed — I mean the macadam was not removed on that one block to expose the fire brick. Maybe someday that will happen, and it will become a pedestrian block maybe.

 

Rebecca: I think one of the fascinating things is you painted this scene of Beaver Street as to what you wanted it to be and at the time, there were people there and that wasn’t a common thing. Now it’s almost like you didn’t have enough people.

Brenda: Yeah, now it looks like scarce. Yeah, I mean we have, like on a first Friday, we have a couple thousand people downtown.

And when I put the people in the painting, I put people in that I thought was a lot because let me tell ya, when we started our First Fridays, 50 people We had 50 people. And we thought that was like yeah, we got 50 people walking on our sidewalks! This is so great!

And all 50 people pretty much ended up in my studio because I was like the only art studio downtown. I mean there were shops, little shops, you know boutiques and restaurants, but there were no other art studios, working artist studios downtown except me. And everyone would just gather to me because that’s really what First Friday’s supposed to be. It’s supposed to be celebrating the arts and culture and the little boutique shops, but also the art shops. But there weren’t any, so they all hang out at my place. So that’s how it kinda started.

Part 10: Artist on the sidewalk

Rebecca: Yeah, you know I think that’s a fascinating scene of what you hoped that York would become and what I think, in a way, what it very much has become, but one thing is with that particular piece, you put an artist on the sidewalk. And that was you.

Brenda: I put a couple artists. I have a guy walking with his easel and his beret, and yeah and I have me outside of a little merchant shop there on the corner, and I have my little baseball cap on, and I have my little baseball cap on, and I’m at an easel because that’s what I did back then.

I don’t do that as much now, but I used to sit out in the sidewalk all the time and paint and people would stop and talk to me and there was a reason I did that. Yes, did I love to sit down and paint? Yes, of course, I was a painter. But it was also to promote. Promote downtown. Promote the culture. Elevate people.

It’s all about elevating people, and it’s all about perception. And when people walk by and see a painter sitting out painting, what’s that message that those pedestrians are getting? What do you think they’re realizing there? What do they feel? What would you feel?

If you were in a little town and you were walking by, and there’s an artist outside painting on a sidewalk, what would you feel? You would feel like I’m someplace kinda special. This is really cool. This is a cool little town. There’s artists outside painting.

And honestly, that’s one of the big reasons why I did it because I could have easily painted inside. But I wanted people to realize York is something unique, it’s authentic, it’s not fabricated, it’s not made up, this is who we are, this is what we are. We’re real, we’re organic. I’m an artist. I have a studio right up the street. I’m out here painting because this is what I do for a living. This is my life. And I’m making a living on it. I’m not pretending, this is who I am.

I think that’s what all the shops are downtown. They’re all mom and pops. And they’re all like making a living on doing something they know how to do, and something they love. And if they can make ends meet and pay their bills, they feel like they’re doing something for the good of the community. So I gotta get out there paint again this, maybe in the fall when it’s not so hot. It was so hot this summer. It was kinda hard to paint, but.

Part 11: "You make a difference..."

Rebecca: Well, Brenda thank you so much for stopping by to share your story with us. People can find your studio in Handsome Cab on the second floor…

Brenda: Which was another pivotal point, by the way. I don’t wanna undermine that because that was another pivotal move for my career, and I knew it would be, that’s why I moved my studio, plus I believed in the two gentlemen that were opening this Handsome Cab, I believed in them with all my heart that they can make this work, and I knew it would be good for my career, and it has been. It’s been excellent.

 

Rebecca: So, people can have a glass of wine and go admire your work.

Brenda: They do it all the time. They do all the time, and can I tell you one little thing before we close up because I know you’re probably on time.

I had a young, we’re having some remodeling done in our home right now, and there’s this young man that’s helping, our handy man and he was at my studio, he was at my house, and he goes, “Brenda, I have to tell you: I was in your studio some time ago.”

I don’t know this guy, I don’t remember him, he’s just a young carpenter in his 20s.

He goes, “I was in your studio.” And he goes, “I really liked your studio.”

I said, “Oh, you were in my studio?”

He goes, “Yeah, several years ago.” And he goes, “Look!”

And he reaches back in his pocket — see this is one of these moments where these kind of things choke me up because this is why I do what I do and when these kind of things happen, it reminds me that this is good. This is really good. And you make a difference in people’s lives, and you don’t realize it.

So, he reaches back in his wallet, and he pulls out my business card. And it was tattered, the corners were all curled up, it was torn, it was dirty from carpentry work, and I said, “You have my business card?”

And he goes “Yeah, I carry it with me.” He says, “I really like it.”

And I thought, “Oh my goodness.”

This young man kept that business card, and it’s so dirty, but he wants it. Because you know what it does for him? It reminds him where he was. He was in this studio and he liked my studio and it elevated him. He was at a special, he was, to him, I take it for granted, but to him, he was in a special place, and he was at a special moment, and he got to meet the artist, and he remembered me, and I must’ve had good conversation with him, and it elevated him to a sense where he felt good about his life and himself and he never wanted to forget that and he kept that little card.

So, it was just so heartwarming for me, and this just happened like yesterday, and I’m thinking wow, this is what makes my life and my career worthwhile and meaningful to me.

So today, it was his last day on the job today this morning, and when I left, I gave him a new card. I said, “You might want a new card, but keep that old one, because I think that one’s special to you. But just in case you want a new one…”

And he just gave me this big smile. He goes, “Oh, thank you, Brenda.”

But those, it’s those things. It’s all about the people and the community and elevating people, educating people, making people feel good about themselves and where they live. It’s perception. And when people do believe that that this is where the magic happens, when they feel good about themselves, and they feel good about their community and their town they live in, then it becomes it because they believe in it and then that’s the magic. Then it becomes it. And that’s what I, I’m the soldier for that.

It’s my mission.

 

Rebecca: That’s incredible. Well it’s great he’s got a new card, but I think the old one has more story behind it.

Brenda:  Yeah, yeah, yeah. I don’t think he’s gonna get rid of that old one. He should laminate it.

 

Rebecca: Oh, there you go. Well, Brenda, thank you so much for your time and for telling us more about your story and background and hopefully people come and visit you and have a very similar experience as to what he did.

Brenda: Thank you for inviting me to be part of your program. I appreciate it, I’m very honored. –

I wanted people to realize York is something unique. It's authentic. It's not fabricated. It's not made up. This is who we are.

Brenda Wintermyer (Photo by Anthony Machcinski/Our York Media)
Brenda Wintermyer On painting on the sidewalk
Credits

“Catalysts” is a production of Our York Media. The project was funded in part by the YorIt Social Venture Challenge Grant from the York County Community Foundation. Our title sponsor is York College of Pennsylvania Center for Community Engagement with support from Stock and Leader Attorneys at Law. This show is hosted by Rebecca Hanlon and produced by Will Hanlon and Caleb Robertson.

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