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Artist Blends Art and Life With Painting : Hand-Painted Tiles Tell Story With Whimsical Touch

One in an occasional series of articles on immigrants living in San Diego County.

September 18, 1986|KAREN KENYON

SOLANA BEACH — Sitting at a picnic table during lunch in her backyard, Irene Winant serves a gourmet lunch with just a touch of wine. The sea glitters below, bright cerise bougainvillea rustles nearby, a vegetable patch sprouts herbs and shallots, and tiny blue daisies border the back of the house. A mural of her hand-painted tiles, depicting a goddess moving through the clouds in a chariot drawn by birds, with an angel as charioteer, graces the back wall of the house.

For Irene Winant, 40, art and life blend, and this harmony is seen in her home, her family, and in her hand-painted tiles, created in the French faience tradition. In faience, which appeared in 1570 as a reaction against the overly ornamental pictorial style in French art at the time, red clay tiles or objects are painted white, then decorated, given a clear glaze and fired.

This merging of life and art is also seen in the fact that sometimes this mother of two cooks French gourmet meals with a paintbrush stuck behind her ear--and in the fact that her tile kiln sits alongside her washer and dryer in the garage.

Irene de Watteville-Berckheim Winant, a resident of Solana Beach for 14 years, moved to the United States in 1963 from France (she was born in the Alsace region in the town of Colmar).

Her clay masks, sculptures and hand-painted tiles have been shown in the San Diego area at the Stratford Gallery and the Del Mar Fair, and in Los Angeles her papier-mache and embroidery were shown at the Craft and Folk Art Museum. Currently she is working on commissions for Materials Marketing in La Jolla, and International Bath and Tile on Convoy in San Diego. She recently did tile work for the Designers Showcase Home in Chula Vista for designer Carol G. Brown.

Winant, in an ever-present apron (ready to paint or cook), is full of intense excitement as she talks of her latest project--a 75-tile scene for the Rancho Santa Fe Inn.

This particular scene is in some ways typically Southern Californian, in other ways full of a very personal gaiety and whimsy. It is of a grove of orange trees, two rabbits, and a balloon sailing on high (appearing very French and very North County at the same time).

"This is the first time I have really put green in," Winant said as she pointed to a large tree on the mural. Much traditional faience is primarily blue. "And I put brown under the blue. I found the use of browns and turquoise in tile work in Morocco," she said, referring to a recent trip she took with her husband, Clinton Winant, an oceanographer with Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Clinton is currently working on a project in the Strait of Gibraltar.

"I found wonderful craftsmen in Morocco," the artist said, "and complicated old designs--geometric tile.

"And the trip to Portugal last year," she said, blue eyes sparkling, "was wonderful. I loved it there. On every corner there were beautiful azulejos (blue tiles), and there are tiny patchwork gardens with pear trees, and old buildings with old vines. It reminded me of France 20 years ago."

The Winants' large master bedroom is also Irene Winant's workroom. It is here that her inspiration first takes form as a drawing, or directly on the white tiles as she paints with underglaze paint. Much of her work involves scenes that tell a story, using tiles to create a background for her fanciful paintings.

"Usually," she said, "I begin with one central figure. Then I build the picture around this figure."

The painterly quality of the bisque-fired tile surface enthralls Winant. "It is like watercolor, only better--similar to lithography. It's fresh and absorbent, like painting on a blotter," she said.

The process is similar to Chinese painting, she said, because of the spontaneity and the importance of the brush stroke. "The absorbent surface of bisque tile and that of rice paper is similar also," she said.

Once the painting is completed, the tiles are fired in her kiln at 1800 degrees, a transparent glaze is sprayed on, then they are fired once more.

Drawings and sketches fill the walls of her home--Winant's own work, her daughter's artwork (12-year-old Celeste's painting of a butterfly has a prominent place, as do 6-year-old Chloe's own hand-painted tiles), along with family pictures and the working pattern for her largest work so far. It is a 300-tile mural created around a window, which she was commissioned to do by a couple for their Borrego Springs home, designed by architect Sim Bruce Richards.

"This was a fabulous job," she said, "and there was no hurry. I put in little surprises." She points to a foot poking out from a curtain in one area of the mural.

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