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Los Angeles muralist, 94, paints the seasons of her life

Neighbors encouraged Erma Winfield's at-home project, and even the police hovered overhead to monitor her artistic progress.

January 12, 2011|By Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times
  • Mid-City Artist Erma Winfield is a self-taught artist who celebrates life with paintings based on photos and her memories. She spent eight months completing the mural at her home. It turned out great, a neighbor says.
Mid-City Artist Erma Winfield is a self-taught artist who celebrates life… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)

The mural outside Erma Winfield's Mid-City home has a Grandma Moses look to it. And not just because the artist who painted it is 94, either.

The artwork stretches across a 40-foot fence and depicts the four seasons in a linear, primitive folk-art style that captures scenes from Winfield's past, just as Grandma Moses' work did when she took up painting in her 70s.

Like Moses, Winfield was raised on a farm and is a self-taught artist whose paintings are based on photos as well as her own memory.

And like Moses, she paints on unexpected surfaces: Moses favored cardboard, and Winfield used corrugated fiberglass panels as her canvas.

"I started this in March and worked on it about 11/2 hours a day for eight months," said Winfield. "The panels weren't easy to paint on."

Along the way, Winfield used up $150 worth of exterior house paint.

"You try to mix house paint. It's not easy," she said.

Born in Natchez, Miss., Winfield is the great-granddaughter of a slave. In 1994 she wrote a 261-page biography of great-grandmother Savannah Brown, who had three children fathered by the owner of the Wildsville, La., plantation where she lived.

Winfield moved to Chicago as a young adult to attend secretarial school. She eventually landed a job in the governor's office and enrolled in night classes at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts with an eye to becoming a fashion designer.

When her late husband, Martin Winfield, was transferred in his U.S. Army job to California, however, Winfield went to work at a Los Angeles title company.

At the time, the company was segregated. Because of her light complexion, Winfield's employers figured she was white.

The title firm found out differently when Winfield was injured in a 1962 auto accident and her husband picked up her paycheck.

"After that, they fired me," she said. "They claimed it was for medical issues, but it was because they found out I'm black."

Winfield began dabbling in oil painting after that. Several of her paintings are displayed in the living room of her Spalding Avenue home, and that's where they caught the eye of professional artist Sylvia Bennett during a visit.

"Her work is very meticulous. Anyone who is self-taught and can develop that talent is a gem," said Bennett, a Mid-City resident who specializes in pen-and-ink and watercolor greeting cards and collages.

It was Bennett who suggested Winfield paint a mural on the fence next to her driveway. "That wall needs something on it," she told her.

Those in the neighborhood kept regular tabs on Winfield's progress during the mural's lengthy execution. Among the onlookers were Los Angeles police, who often circled overhead in a helicopter to watch.

"I knew she would finish it, and it turned out great," said neighbor Hazel McClenon. "Erma incorporated houses she's lived in and her church in the mural. My favorite part is the winter season section."

That snowy scene depicts ice skaters on a frozen pond with the Chicago skyline rising in the background.

The mural's other sections include a church, a Mississippi Indian burial mound and a setting sun for autumn; childhood scenes including a river and the house she grew up in represent summer; and a lush landscape and the churning water wheel on a grist mill illustrate spring.

The Spanish revival-style home where she has lived for 54 years is also depicted in the summer section. "I stuck it in to shut up my friends who said it should be here somewhere," Winfield said with a laugh.

Marinella Miller, a friend who considers Winfield a godmother, pointed out that the nonagenarian muralist completed her artwork by cementing a row of small rocks along its bottom. Then she painted the rocks a glistening white.

"Nothing she does surprises me," said Miller, a retired nurse who lives in the Wilshire district. "She's 94 and she's always got something going on."

bob.pool@latimes.com

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