Ruminating, Research, and Realizing

"I have always felt that my mission as an illustrator is to honor the work of past luminaries while creating works that reflect my own era’s thinking"

Ilene Winn-Lederer‘s detailed, vibrant works blend classicism with a modern sensibility. Her radiant drawings bridge gaps—between the fantastic and the ordinary, the real and surreal, the old and the new. Winn-Lederer, who studied at The Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, currently resides in Pittsburgh. She recently spoke with us about her work and the process of creating modern illuminations to illustrate the essays in Creative Nonfiction #65: “Science & Religion.”

CNF: What is your creative process? How do you start creating pieces that are so detailed?

Winn-Lederer: I suppose you might identify my creative process by three ‘R’s: Ruminating, Research and Realizing the often complex connections that emerge by way of rough sketches of each element in the drawing.

CNF: Your work, including your design for Creative Nonfiction #65, manages to combine an almost classical intricacy with a modern expressiveness. What drew you to this style?

Winn-Lederer: I have always felt that my mission as an illustrator is to honor the work of past luminaries while creating works that reflect my own era’s thinking. The ‘style’ you speak of grew organically from many years of research, study, experimentation, writing, and teaching.

CNF: What are some of your strongest influences?

Winn-Lederer: I draw my long list of influences from the works and thought of classical masters throughout history and into our current era, particularly the often anonymous artists and artisans of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, the medieval/Renaissance masters of painting, sculpture, and medieval illuminated manuscripts and a growing selection of artists and illustrators from the 18th ,19th and 20th centuries. While I admire the works of my many contemporary illustrators, I believe that they each have their own links in the historic chain and I do my best to avoid any semblance of imitation in order to preserve my own creative identity.

CNF: The theme of Creative Nonfiction #65 is “Science and Religion.” Often, we see these as two distinct, often conflicting forces. Yet in your illustrations, you manage to combine them with a great ambiguity. How did you express these two ideas in your work?

Winn-Lederer: The ambiguity in my imagery is quite intentional as I’ve come to think that the line between science and religion has faded considerably as devotees of both seek to sanctify their disciplines in theory and practice. As a result, I wanted to retain some features of historical works as a foundation beneath my own contemporary twist on images suggested by the essays in CNF.

CNF: What challenges did you have in responding to these essays?

Winn-Lederer: What I found most challenging was the desire to literally interpret each essay while creating a visual editorial statement on it.

CNF: What roles do science and religion play in your own life?

Winn-Lederer: Good question! Short answer? It seems that they are pretty well balanced. My husband is a computer software architect and I am a visual creative. We see the world in separate terms but try to acknowledge each other’s perspectives. I often like to say that we are a marriage of logic and illogic. I’ve also been told that our sons, in their choice of professions (industrial designer and motionographer) are, in their own ways, influenced by both.

My husband is a computer software architect and I am a visual creative. We see the world in separate terms but try to acknowledge each other’s perspectives. I often like to say that we are a marriage of logic and illogic.

CNF: You have worked in several cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles, and now Pittsburgh.  Where in the city do you find inspiration?

Winn-Lederer: Each of the cities in which I’ve lived has left its unique mark on both my personal and professional life. That said, I’ve lived in Pittsburgh since 1971 and though I’ve been told that my career might have flourished further by living in New York, I continue to be inspired by Pittsburgh’s culture, architecture, landscape, ethnic diversity and creative opportunities.

CNF: What is the most challenging part of your process?

Winn-Lederer: Establishing a firm concept to develop within the parameters of a personal or commissioned project.

CNF: What forms of art are you attracted to? What excites you as an artist?

Winn-Lederer: Though my appreciation of abstract expressionism and conceptual art are limited, I am always attracted to masterful drawing/painting, sculpture, and calligraphic arts.

CNF: You describe your personal artistic portfolio as “a sort of patchwork quilt, each page diversely colored with the ideas and experiences of my life as an illustrator.” How important is it for you to maintain such variety in your work?

Winn-Lederer: Somewhat important, though I tend to adopt and develop a particular working method and stay with it for a number of years before feeling the urge to experiment with something new. My artistic training reflected the trend of a time when illustrators were required to work in diverse styles to maximize professional earning potential. This began to change sometime in the 1980’s when art studio employment became extinct and art/creative directors encouraged their freelance stables to develop and employ unique personal styles. The consequences of this change often tended to pigeonhole an illustrator so if that illustrator’s particular style did not suit an assignment, he/she would not even be considered for it. At the same time, developing a personal style eventually worked to my own benefit. My clients and collectors grew to enjoy the surprise and flexibility I managed to bring to their projects.

CNF: How do you adjust your craft when illustrating for different audiences?

Winn-Lederer: With the exception of some early books that I illustrated for young children, I have come to prefer choosing assignments that suit me rather than conforming to a specific market. As a mother, I strongly believe that children are more intelligent than some would credit them with and should never be patronized, verbally or visually. 

CNF: What are your hopes for your work after completion?

Winn-Lederer: That my works become a credible part of my creative legacy and find value for future generations.

CNF: What is your next big project?

Winn-Lederer: I can hardly tell you how often I am asked this question! I’ve never given into the urge to ask the questioner, “What is yours?” because I actually enjoy the opportunity to consider the answer, formulating it in a way so as to offer a hint of possibilities without a definitive commitment.

That said, I have mostly retired from a nearly 50-year freelance career and am focusing on writing, designing, illustrating and publishing my own books. These may be previewed and purchased here.

Currently in the works is AirPlay: A Book Of Jugglery, inspired by the travels and adventures in the years my younger son had a professional juggling career.

You might enjoy reading this essay on the subject of my project decisions at my blog, Imaginarius.


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