CARICATURES FROM THE HEART
Bob Winter's art, like the best of art, is about people and places. Better than that, it's art with a sense of humor.
That counts for a lot in a place like St. Mary Regional Cancer Center in Walla Walla.
There physicians, staff members and volunteers struggle every day with life and death, in an atmosphere so intense it's nice to have something to chuckle over.
Chuckles happen when Winter comes up with yet another cartoon portrait of someone who works on the floor.
"Bob's been quite a sensation here," said Public Affairs Director Kathleen Obenland of the man whose whimsical work will grace the walls of a new Cancer Center building.
About a year-and-half ago, doctors diagnosed the 81-year-old Island City man with colon cancer. Since then, Winter has been traveling regularly to St. Mary for chemotherapy.
He and his wife, Mae, make the trip once every two weeks, for three or four months. When the side effects build up, they stay home for awhile. Then they start the routine over.
After that many visits to the center, it was inevitable they would form close friendships with the staff.
"They're wonderful people, and by now they're about like family," Winter said.
Winter, long retired from his job as a civilian executive assistant at the Umatilla Army Depot, is the kind of man who likes to stay busy, whether traveling or staying home.
Art has always figured in his life. Working mainly with chalk pastels, he has used his spare time to produce countless pictures ranging from formal portraits to still-life studies.
It all started with cartoons, he said.
"I started drawing Mickey Mouse and Popeye when I was a little kid," he said. "Then I did cartoons for my high school newspaper. I drew a lot."
During a 21-year career in the Army and during his time at Umatilla, Winter taught himself how to draw caricatures of real-life people.
Reaction to his work was mixed, he said.
"Most people have some prominent feature big mouth, big nose, big ears and the trick in caricature is to accentuate that. But it doesn't always please people. I got a few people mad," he said.
The last thing he ever wanted to do was bring wrath upon himself. So he started experimenting with a new cartoon form.
He snapped pictures of people's faces, then, working from the photographs, drew them in a life-like if oversized way. Next, he put the life-like faces on comic bodies.
To fill the picture out, he placed each figure in its element golf buddies on the golf course, for example, or office workers behind their cluttered desks.
The effect is comical and it's hard for anyone to take offense.
Over the years Winter produced hundreds of the drawings, and gave them away as gifts.
He said he has never charged anyone for his artwork. He simply had no desire to go
"I'm not too steady about it," he said. "I can do it for a while, but then I get tired of it and lay off for a week or a month or whatever."
At the Cancer Center, he drew a cartoon picture of Dr. Robert Quackenbush, and that started something. Staff member Mary Calhoun wanted one, and so did unit volunteer Gene Petrie.
"Then it snowballed," Winter said.
By now, Winter has done about 25 pictures and donated them for display at the Cancer Center.
"The center is in a temporary building now, but soon they're moving to a new place. They'll hang the pictures on the walls," he said.
"It makes me happy. It's a nice little tribute to me."
Winter reckons he will have to continue his chemotherapy treatments indefinitely, but he doesn't let it get him down.
During bad weather, he sits in a corner of his sofa, doing his art. He always has several projects going at once. A favorite one for now is a portrait of a little girl, granddaughter of a St. Mary staffer, who died of cancer.
When the skies clear Winter puts his art away and plays a round of golf at La Grande Country Club, just across the street from his house.
"I've got a golf cart with curtains on it and a heater inside," he said. "I just played a round last week."
Mae also has an artistic side she lets come out. In her spare time, she crochets miniature angels. She likes to give them as presents, especially to people at the center. It's a way to make friends.
"I don't really give them away," she said. "I trade them for hugs."
Trading kindness for kindness is important to them both.
For Bob Winter, it's a way to stay focused in his fight with cancer.
"People get pleasure out of my pictures, and that gives me pleasure," he said.