NY Times Commissions Fine Artist Carmen Winant to Call Americans to Action

Posted inCulturally-Related Design

On Saturday, January 21, a man with an illegal semi-automatic pistol burst into a ballroom in Monterey Park, California and “began shooting everybody.” He killed 11 people and injured nine others who were in the midst of celebrating the Lunar New Year. It was the 33rd mass shooting in the United States in 2023 alone. This year is just over six weeks old, but as of today, there have been 71 instances in which a shooter killed or injured four or more people, including Monday’s tragedy at Michigan State University.

Photo by the author

When I opened The New York Times on Sunday, January 29, the cover of the Opinion section grabbed me with its power— and artistry. Words and phrases jumped out: Massacre, Hate, Rage, Pain, Grief, over and over in real typeset headlines as densely packed as the list of 617 mass shootings that took place in the United States in 2022.

Families grieve, communities grieve. What about the rest of us? Are we inured, used to it, resigned to it? What will knock some sense into us and call us to action?

Those are questions the Opinion editors must have asked and answered when they called Carmen Winant, a fine artist, writer, and the Roy Lichtenstein Chair of Studio Art at Ohio State University, to make the cover art.

“We chose Carmen because her work has a strong message, a strong point of view,” said Opinion Design Director Frank Augugliaro. “We wanted to grab readers by the shoulders.” ‘Urgent’ was the word Augugliaro used to describe the mood and tone they were after. He said the Times already had a rapport with Winant and knew she could meet the three-day deadline, having already done projects for T magazine, the Sunday edition, and a photo-collage for Opinion last May analyzing the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Winant is a 2019 Guggenheim fellow in photography who shows in museums and galleries worldwide. Her work is in the collections of the Minneapolis Institute of Art and MoMA, and she’s been written about in The New Yorker, Artforum, Aperture, Vogue, and Art in America. “Winant’s work poses a challenge to the ways we understand women’s power, pleasure, labor, healing, and liberation to function, querying the aesthetic and political legacy of second-wave feminism,” said her faculty bio on the OSU Department of Art page. “Winant’s appropriative installations and artist’s books grapple with this question for all its contradictory impulses: the awe of living in a revolutionary moment [and] a shared preoccupation with the female body as a zone of political strife.”

Opinion Art Director Damien Saatdjian learned about Winant at MoMA in 2018, when he worked there and Winant was featured in the museum’s biannual New Photography series. “When the Dobbs draft was leaked, I thought about how her work ‘My Birth’ dealt with issues around motherhood, autonomy, politics, and feminism,” he said. “I was curious if she would be able to use a similar visual language and process, with an eye towards the debate around abortion rights. We reached out, and she immediately dove in.”

While Winant’s more recent cover shifted her focus from pregnancy and birth to shootings and death, the Times thought her bold approach to collaging made her perfect for their response to the Monterey Park shooting. “My colleagues and I wanted to see how far we could push the idea of gun violence using mostly typography,” Saatdjian said. “So much has been written about the endless epidemic of gun violence in America, and we thought Carmen could make a powerful collage using headlines culled from our own coverage.”

Some art directors wouldn’t dare approach artists who show at MoMA, thinking they’d be out of reach and couldn’t agree to a tight deadline or a process that includes sketches and changes. Saatdjian sees things differently. “We don’t think that because an artist shows in museums or galleries their work isn’t welcome,” he said. “It’s quite the opposite— it’s great to collaborate with any artist who has a strong point of view, and it’s important to break down perceived notions between ‘high’ and ‘applied’ art. Giving feedback and bouncing around ideas are part of any true collaboration. We love working with all kinds of artists and are always hoping for a deep partnership.”

Winant herself echoed those thoughts: “I see more and more happening between ‘fine art’ and commercial modes of creative output,” she said. “I like being able to pivot— to be seen in such a flexible way. But I wish [the space] were more fluid than it is.” Does she think readers are ready to accept more cerebral, personal pieces rather than typical editorial illustrations? “I’m interested in working in the space between the illustrative and the conceptual. There is room there.” The images of her process tell their own story— of working in layers, by hand.

“It’s a studio-bound process, not something that happens on the computer,” Winant explained. “I move based on feeling. It’s fairly intuitive. I need to set myself up with all the material I can get my hands on, then start visually processing it in relation to itself.”

In order to meet the Times’ rapidly approaching deadline, she drew upon her years of experience making layered collages to communicate complex ideas. “Damien sent me a package with hundreds of stories,” Winant continued. “I printed all of them on newsprint. Then I arranged and arranged, taking pictures as I went. I was mindful of creating visual balances and echoes; telling a story between the headlines and also creating a dynamic composition.”

The final art was provided as a photograph of the collage. “We didn’t add any additional text on the cover, since her art did all the talking,” Saatdjian said.