Art is her dream encore career
Sometimes retirement offers the ability to finally pursue a lifelong dream.
Karen Winston-Levin, 71, didn’t start what she considers to be her true career until she retired in 2012. Since then, the Marriottsville resident has been prolifically painting images of nature and people.
“I probably have been painting all my life, even though I wasn’t holding a brush,” Winston-Levin said.
In July, a decade after she took up painting in earnest, Winston-Levin received the Howard County Arts Council Director’s Choice Honorable Mention for one of her paintings.
An art-filled upbringing
Winston-Levin grew up in Baltimore in the 1950s, when nobody locked their doors, she recalled.
“If your mom was busy with something, you went to your neighbor’s mom,” she said. “It was a real close-knit community.”
Both of her parents were passionate about art. Her father would draw pictures for her, and her mother took art classes from a local artist. One of her uncles was a professional artist.
She attended the University of Maryland, where she studied general education. That wasn’t her dream, though. She wanted to go to art school, but it was too expensive.
“I really got lost,” Winston-Levin said of her time at the University of Maryland. “My whole ethos was really geared toward art, and I wasn’t doing any of that in college.”
She left school after a year and a half to accept a job at the University of Baltimore, working for the vice president and the accreditation committee.
During that time, she watched her husband, Mark Levin, dedicate himself to a law firm. Inspired, she decided to go back to school to “have more of a career” herself, she said.
A detour into nursing
Then an opportunity appeared. Howard Community College had just opened, giving her a convenient and affordable way to continue her education. Winston-Levin decided to study psychiatric nursing to help support the family.
After graduating, she worked as a psychiatric nurse at Johns Hopkins University for about five years. That was where she introduced therapeutic art into her practice, even though it wasn’t something used at the time by the hospital.
“I just thought it was another vehicle to get to know the person who I was working with and help them know themselves a little better,” Winston-Levin said.
She also began to go to workshops to further develop her skills in art therapy, believing that imagery techniques were helpful with her patients.
She later moved to Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, where she could work part-time while she studied for (and earned) a Bachelor of Science in nursing as well as a special accreditation in psychiatric nursing.
After a few years at Sinai, Winston-Levin shifted to private practice in a physician’s office, where she stayed until she stopped working full-time.
Her time to shine
Winston-Levin’s post-career passion came to life with just one sentence: “Maybe we should take classes together.”
Around 2008, a friend invited her to attend an art class at Howard Community College, knowing that Winston-Levin painted.
A year later, Winston-Levin flew across the world to southeastern France for a two-week art trip, where she learned about the practice of plein air, or painting outdoors.
“Just to be introduced that that [type of painting] in that part of the world was kind of amazing,” Winston-Levin said.
At home, she dove into learning about art, taking workshops with artists she admired, including Baltimore’s Colin Page and Richmond’s Duane Keiser, whose work is now exhibited at the New York Academy of Art.
“That was what sparked my interest to return full time to art,” Winston-Levin said.
Since then, her artwork has won two Best of Shows this year and severable honorable mentions in local art shows.
One painting was also selected in 2016 to be the poster and book cover for Barnstormers, a tour conducted by the Frederick County Landmarks Foundation of nine local barns where plein air painters demonstrate their art.
Additionally, she is an associate member of the Artists’ Gallery in Frederick, Md., which showcases five of her pieces every year.
“When I started doing this, I didn’t really think about doing this as a career move or a way to make money,” Winston-Levin said. “It was just something I felt driven to do.”
While receiving acclamation for her work has been rewarding, Winston-Levin’s favorite aspect of being an artist is the reaction its produces in the average person.
People throughout the East Coast have purchased one or more of her paintings to hang in their private collections.
“It’s so rewarding to me to see that people really admire the work so much that they would want to hang it in their home and see it every day,” Winston-Levin said.
She recalled one particularly impactful moment when someone was interested in buying a painting but was unsure if it would fit in her home. Winston-Levin drove the painting to the woman’s house and held it up to the wall the woman was considering.
“When I stepped back and looked at it, it looked like it belonged there, like I had painted it for that location,” Winston-Levin said. “I kind of got an electric feeling.”
Winston-Levin then glanced at the woman, who was in tears. “That was such a moving experience for me to know that my art could produce that kind of response in somebody else,” Winston-Levin said. “I would’ve given it away for that.”
She credits that woman’s response to the emotion she puts into every painting. Pouring her feelings onto a canvas has sustained her through difficult times, she said.
“There have been periods of my life when I have been struggling — as we all do. And I find that just the act of absorbing myself in something that’s outside of myself is very therapeutic,” Winston-Levin said. “It’s life-affirming.”
Winston-Levin tries to engage with the unseen in her paintings, just as she did with the people she helped as a psychiatric nurse.
“Art is my oxygen,” she states on her website. Now, at the age of 71, she is finally able to breathe fully.
To view more paintings by Karen Winston-Levin or sign up for her newsletter, visit karenwinston-levin.com.