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Charmed Life

Metal Guru

Sam Holden

By Charles Cohen | Posted 8/29/2001

Charles Winkler snatches a blowtorch off a table in his dungeonlike workshop. A "whoosh" cuts through the pulverizing wash of spacey, tribal-sounding music flooding the room as he fires up the torch and leans his face into the flame. Another cigarette is lit.

"Isn't this some wild shit?" the 63-year-old steelworker-turned-artist bellows, glancing at big speakers decorated with a '70s-motel-room sea gulls motif. Then he turns back to his workbench, where a big chunk of steel pipe demands his attention. A little grinding here, a blowtorch blast there, and "Wink" has the makings of a ballet dancer, soon-to-be partner to the completed ballerina standing nearby.

The huge former boiler room on Haven Street, which once cranked out the steam from an industrial complex's coal-fed furnace, makes a fitting studio for Winkler, whose three-decades-plus artistic journey has taken him from the millwright shops at Sparrows Point to the inner workings of the New York art scene and back home to East Baltimore. With its great iron doors, steel smokestack, and abandoned railroad bed outside (which Winkler has filled with exotic flowers), the space is fertile ground for an unrelenting imagination.

Strange specimens dangle from the blackened brick of what the artist calls "Dr. Winkler's Museum of Unnatural History." Some look like fossils, metallic trilobites and similarly armored organisms. Others bring to mind the monster of the Alien movies. Teetering on pedestals are primitive, gatorlike creatures with fascinating rows of teeth. All of Winkler's work is made from steel, a normally uncooperative material, that he blazes, bends, and grinds down to amorphous curves that so defy the medium that people often mistake his sculptures for castings.

"Every time you go to do something to it, you got to take a torch and burn it off or grind it off," Winkler says in a gruff, playfully wicked voice that seems to pipe disarmingly out of his nose. "The stuff's brutal."

It doesn't take long to conclude that Charles Winkler is a bit of a wild man--albeit a wild man who feels most comfortable in a well-stocked workshop with flowers growing outside, coals burning on the grill, and a cooler full of beer and soda for visitors. And he's long had visitors, plenty of them, looking to tap his technical chops or get some free entertainment.

"I love stopping by here and seeing the latest wild thing going on," says Cinder Hypki, an East Baltimore artist and activist who shows up at the boiler room, armed with beer, late on a Friday afternoon. Hypki, who frequently works with local kids on community art projects ("The Big Picture," Aug. 15, www.citypaper.com/2001-08-15/feature.html), has sought Wink's help with tasks ranging from hanging a heavy installation to building a throne. "The thing that amazes me about Wink is, you can come in here with the most basic idea and he can conceptualize it five different ways," she says.

Winkler's own art, Hypki says, is a unique melding of aesthetic and technical chops. "Those masks take an incredible amount of technical skill and someone with an artistic eye to take that brute metal and make it into a work of art," she says, referring to some of the art on Winkler's wall. "That's what artists strive to be, to have the imagination and then the technical skill to back it up."

Winkler's recycling isn't solely for artistic purposes. Mark Supik, who has a wood shop next to Winkler's boiler room, watched his neighbor re-engineer junked machinery into a vacuum system to collect and eject sawdust via a miniature silo, the frames for which Winkler hauled into place using his Monte Carlo. "He would make up some cockamamie way of doing it," Supik says.

Winkler started honing his artistic and mechanical skills in the late '60s, when he worked for Bethlehem Steel. Married with three children, he was constantly looking for ways to bring in more money. Between shifts, he ran a body shop and painted murals on the side of vans. A few years later, looking for a more permanent income boost, he decided to go back to Essex Community College to pursue an engineering degree. At his first and only class, in design, his teacher got a look at his drawings and recognized not a budding engineer but a budding artist. ("Gimme that slide rule, take this paint brush" is how Winkler characterizes the instructor's reaction.)

The teacher helped Winkler get a scholarship at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, where his knowledge of steel and all things mechanical made him popular with fellow students as a problem-solver and fount of advice on their own projects. But as Winkler poured more and more time and effort into his (and his peers') schoolwork, his marriage deteriorated. After graduating in 1977, he jumped when a friend offered him a job as a metal fabricator in New York.

For the next dozen years, Winkler lived in New York, hopping jobs and hobnobbing with the artistic demimonde. He delivered tropical plants. He did framing work for Andy Warhol, fabrication work for Jasper Johns. He built sets for early music videos and Broadway shows. But while Winkler savors his New York days, the fast living and constant working left little time for his own pursuits. "I didn't have time to make art; I had to make a living," he says. "I had a lot of fun . . . but as soon as the good times where over, you couldn't lay in bed for two days and recuperate."

By 1989 the New York life and rents were getting to be too much, so he accepted an offer to return to Baltimore and live in a friend's house in exchange for some rehab work. He went back into the body-shop business, toiling 10 years before he could retire, set up his boiler-room studio, and became, for the first time, a full-time artist. Now his life revolves around his art, creating pieces that have fetched as much as $1,200 at commercial galleries. But he does have a tendency to sell much cheaper to those who come by his shop.

"I'm no businessman, and when they come in here and say, 'I'll give you $300 dollars,' I say, 'OK.'" All he has to do is make another one.

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