Charles 'Wink' Winkler, steelworker turned steel sculptor and artist, dies

Charles E. “Wink” Winkler, a steelworker-turned-artist whose life reflected Baltimore’s own transition from industrial manufacturing hub to a city of gritty creative types, died July 5 from cancer at FutureCare Northpoint.

The Highlandtown native, a resident of Eastwood, was 79.

Mark Supik is a friend from Maryland Institute College of Art who has an eponymous woodworking shop on Haven Street. In recent years he provided Mr. Winkler with studio space in an old boiler room out back, where MICA students and old hot-rodding buddies of Mr. Winkler’s would congregate as he sculpted and held court.

Mr. Supik said Mr. Winkler was a “live-wire kind of a guy” who was “incredibly gifted artistically” and extremely knowledgeable in a wide range of media — including steel, which could stand up to his frenetic sculpting style and which he understood deeply from more than 15 years as a millwright at Bethlehem Steel Corp.

“He couldn’t work in wood because it was just too easy, he would just beat it to death,” Mr. Supik said. “He needed the hardness of the steel, because his energy was so high.”

Curt Winkler of Huntington, N.Y., Mr. Winkler’s son, said his father worked the night shift at Bethlehem Steel in Sparrows Point while attending MICA during the day and raising three children in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He later spent close to a decade in the arts scene in Manhattan before returning to Baltimore in the late 1980s.

Mr. Winkler captured the city’s imagination in 2005 when he created a crab sculpture for a “Crabtown” fundraiser that put painted replicas of the piece all around the city. The piece garnered lots of attention, though those who knew him best believe his other work — including a series of large, wall-mounted steel masks and small, intimate watercolors — is far more memorable.

“His true love was just kind of his embellishment on natural forms — to make existing things even more interesting, or make whatever is in the dark corners of your mind,” Curt Winkler said.

The son of Charles E. Winkler Sr., a longshoreman, and Stella Kruszewski Winkler, a London Fog seamstress, Mr. Winkler was born in Highlandtown and had an early knack for building things, putting together soapbox cars. He dropped out of high school before enlisting in the Army and serving in the 101st Airborne Division in Fort Campbell, Ky.

Soldiers based at Fort Campbell often went into Nashville, Tenn., on leave, and while there he met the late Rebecca Sue Owens, of Nashville, at a dance. The couple married and had three children: Curt; David, of Parkville; and Rebecca, of White House, Tenn.

Upon Mr. Winkler’s release from the Army, the family returned to his native Baltimore, where they lived just across the county line in the Middle River area. Mr. Winkler got his GED and attended Essex Community College before accepting a scholarship to MICA, where he graduated cum laude in sculpture in the early 1970s.

After Mr. Winkler and his wife separated — they never divorced — he moved in the late 1970s to New York City, where he would spend the better part of the next decade working and living and partying with an eclectic set of artist friends in warehouse studios that struggling artists never could afford now, said his son, who lived with him part of that time.

“Everybody was always having parties on the weekend, a lot of art shows to go to; of course we were hitting the various night club scenes, a lot of dancing, hanging out,” his son said.

While in New York, Mr. Winkler worked on the production sets for music videos for famous artists like the Rolling Stones, and as a fabricator for sculptors like Andy Warhol, Mr. Supik said.

He returned to Baltimore in the late 1980s to pursue more of his own art. In addition, he was an “endless storyteller,” an avid fisherman and a skateboarder well into retirement, his son said.

“He was just about living life, doing things,” his son said. “If all you had to do was sit in a room, he would keep you entertained.”

Throughout his life, Mr. Winkler also worked side jobs fixing up cars and airbrushing them with elaborate images of album covers, photographs or other artists’ work — including the fantasy paintings of Frank Frazetta.

Ann Cavanaugh, a longtime Baltimore friend, recalled being introduced to Mr. Winkler in the 1970s as the guy who made “tricked out vans” with “carpeting on the inside” and the outside covered with “desert paintings, or men with glistening, huge Arnold Schwarzenegger muscles, or huge buxom women.”

She called him “a pure Highlandtown guy.”

“He was a character. He could get loud and all, and he liked his beer. He was a Budweiser guy, ‘not that Bud Light s—,’ he would say,” she said. “He wasn’t polished or what have you, but he was the nicest man I ever knew.”

Mr. Supik said that, before he became ill, Mr. Winkler spent a decade making art in the studio on Haven Street, including a set of steel wildlife sculptures that can be seen at Henderson’s Wharf.

“Wink, he just took over the space, and it was an amazing scene for about 10 years — the most incredible blossoming of somebody,” Mr. Supik said.

Mr. Winkler, who most recently lived with his 97-year-old mother and his sister, Kathleen Southworth, their caretaker, in Eastwood, was cremated. Family and friends are having a private gathering next weekend. The family is planning private services at a later date.

In addition to his mother, sister, and children, Mr. Winkler is survived by another sister Charlotte McFaul, of Brandon, Florida; his brother Vernon Winkler, of Pylesville; and four grandchildren.

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