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Auction will help finance hanging Pittsburgh artist's lively works in public

| Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
'Hoop' by Susan Winicour
'Hanging On' by Susan Winicour
'Accordion Player' by Susan Winicour
'Cirque' by Susan Winicour
'Mask' by Susan Winicour

Perhaps there is no better way to describe the late Susan Winicour's artwork than to say it's full of life.

After the artist's passing this past summer at the age of 74, the American Jewish Museum at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill is mounting an unprecedented exhibit, “The Circus of Life: Work by Susan Winicour (1939-2013).”

It features 27 effervescent artworks, in the form of prints, drawings and acrylics on paper, that together represent Winicour's prolific output and show that her art, while lively, depicts the pathos and complexities of the human condition.

Many of Winicour's works convey a cabaret feeling or theatrical spirit, such as the prints “Hoop” and “Accordion Player” and the colorful drawing “Cirque.”

Others, like “Hanging On” and “Mask,” though vibrantly colored, are equally about depicting unremarkable, everyday moments that typically go unrecorded.

Winicour grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. As a teenager, she took the train into Manhattan every day to attend the High School of Music and Art. After graduating, she went on to attend the School of Art and Design at Syracuse University and later received her graduate degree from the Teacher's College of Columbia University.

“My mother was one of the first art teachers in the New York City public school system,” says Winicour's daughter, Robin Simon of Fox Chapel. “Later, she worked as an operating-room photographer at (Massachusetts General Hospital) and taught art at Antioch College.”

When she moved to Pittsburgh 37 years ago, Winicour occasionally substituted as an art teacher in the Pittsburgh Public Schools but mostly devoted herself to painting, printmaking, raising her two children, then grandparenting.

“She ran every day until the cancer destroyed her hip, and then she switched to swimming,” Simon says.

Winicour suffered and fought through four unrelated cancers over the past 15 years, her daughter says. “She was a fighter.”

“She quite often jogged to chemotherapy,” Simon says. “I would beg to drive her, and she would tell me to meet her for a coffee afterward.”

For Winicour, art was her passion and her therapy. “Painting and printmaking enabled her to deal with her cancers,” Simon says. “She painted and kept visual diaries until her last days.

“Some of the diaries could reduce anyone to tears with images of her vomiting after chemo, going through radiation, illustrating her crazy chemo-induced dreams and showing her pain and discomfort,” Simon says. “She never complained about pain until the end. I sat up with her the last few nights administering morphine through tears. She fought so long and hard; we thought she could beat anything.”

With her husband, Jeffrey Winicour, she lived in Berlin for part of every year for almost 25 years.

“They took last year off when my mother was not able to travel,” her daughter says. “My father is a physicist who does research at the Albert Einstein Institute for several months out of every year. My mother worked in a printmaking studio in the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien Center for the months she was there.”

Both with and without her husband, Winicour traveled around the world. She studied art at the Instituto Allende in Mexico and at an art school in Florence, Italy. She also studied in a small art community outside of Lucca, Italy, with a John Delmonte Painting Fellowship.

But it was here in Pittsburgh that her art flourished, her daughter says, whether she was creating it in her studio in her Squirrel Hill home, or even when visiting family.

“When my mother walked into my house, the art supplies were always out immediately,” Simon recalls. “She would spend hours with my three children — Eli, Claudia and Sloane — painting, drawing, making dolls and other artistic projects.”

In addition to the works on display in this retrospective exhibit at the American Jewish Museum, all of Winicour's unspoken-for art is listed at Winicour.com. The auction site will run in conjunction with the show at the museum. The proceeds will be partially donated to the museum and put toward offsetting the framing costs to hang Winicour's work in public libraries, Simon says.

“My mother was an avid reader,” she says. “Even with her bad hip, she would carry two shopping bags full of books out of the library and would read them all.

“My children and I are actively seeking libraries to hang her work. The Fox Chapel library and Squirrel Hill library are choosing pieces of her work to hang,” Simon says. “It's our version of scattering her ashes.”

Beginning at 7:15 p.m. Jan. 11, Ben Sota, creator of Pittsburgh's famed Zany Umbrella Circus, will perform a piece inspired by Winicour's work at the opening reception. Bringing Winicour's imagery to life, Sota's show uses circus, theater and puppetry, and is appropriate for people of all ages. The free reception is from 6 to 8 p.m. Jan. 11.

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kshaw@tribweb.com.

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