by Alaina Mabaso

The old stone building on Chestnut Hill’s Meade Avenue used to house a carriage and its horses. Now it holds a veritable menagerie: bears, birds and Beowulf mingle with a llama-like vicuna, a graceful springbok, an octopus and even a quizzical guinea pig.

This extraordinarily talented couple have both been making great art in Chestnut Hill for more than 50 years. (Photo by Alaina Mabaso)

These new residents are the clay and metal creations of sculptor Joe Winter, who along with his artist wife of 56 years, Kathy, converted the 1901 structure into a home and workspace. A tile and sculpture studio, crammed with the characters of Joe’s career, occupies the former carriage-house. A stable of horses once stood in what is now the Winters’ living room.

The Winters, both 77, have lived in Chestnut Hill, where they raised their three children, for more than 50 years. But compared to many other families in the area, “we still call ourselves newcomers,” they laugh. “It suits us to a T,” Kathy says of the beautiful old lane, where an ambling parade of friendly neighbors and their dogs appear throughout the day. Several large tiles decorated with colorfully painted birds are set above the studio door: Joe’s latest artistic foray.

Joe and Kathy met in the fall of 1953, when they were both beginning their first year of a fine arts degree program run through a partnership of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) and the University of Pennsylvania. Joe is a native of Ohio who, with a father who was a physician for the U.S. Navy, bounced around the country as a child. Kathy grew up in Williamsburg, Virginia, in a magical window of time after the town’s historic buildings had been restored but before they were roped off or inundated with tourists.

When Kathy and Joe arrived at PAFA for their fine art prerequisites, they were members of a diverse group. Some students were fresh from high school while others had trained for years. Others came from France, Ivory Coast or China, like Kathy’s lifelong best friend, Phoebe Shih, now of Flourtown, with whom she has studied Chinese brush painting. Still more were soldiers from World War II studying on the GI Bill. There were 54 students in the class all together.

“We all became very fast friends,” Kathy says. In fact, they were so friendly that Joe and Kathy are one of 14 married couples to come from that group.

This stunning glass in the chapel at Somers Point Hospital at the Jersey shore was created by Kathy Winter.

A fiberglass bust of Kathy, sculpted by Joe when she was 19, still dominates the studio. There’s an especially lucid quality, both serene and expectant, to its lovely features. After working side by side for so many years, the Winters do not take turns telling their own life story: they alternate telling parts of each other’s without seeming to realize it.

Kathy was drawn by her love of color into painting, both oil and watercolor as well as pastels, and later designed several of the region’s notable stained glass installations. She specializes in portraiture, and in addition to a variety of commissions, volunteered in PAFA’s “Lost Dreams on Canvas” program, which provides professional portraits of children killed by violence in Philadelphia. The paintings become centerpieces of anti-violence programs and ultimately are gifted to the children’s families. “You get into a portrait like that, and you’re into the person,” she says, sharing the families’ sadness.

Also a longtime art teacher — at Villa St. Joseph in Flourtown and Our Mother of Consolation School in Chestnut Hill, et al — Kathy has exhibited her work at New York’s Knickerbocker Art Exhibition, Lutheran Theological Seminary in Mt. Airy, Springfield Residence in Wyndmoor, Woodmere Art Museum and many others. “The best thing is that you don’t have to retire from making art,” Kathy says.

Joe found an early love of sculpture as well as an appreciation for lettering, both of which served him well for a fruitful career in medallic sculpture with the U.S. Mint and many private mints. During his tenure at the U.S. Mint, he designed numerous medals, including the 1986 Statue of Liberty half dollar (reverse) and the 1988 Olympic silver dollar (reverse). He was acting Chief Engraver in 1981, and he designed over 300 medals and coins for private mints throughout the country.

His work is published in “Sculpture of a City” (Walker Publishing Company, 1974) and “Commemorative Coins of the United States: A Complete Encyclopedia” (1991). Today, the top of his studio is lined with dozens of his large plaster-white coin and medal designs, shelved like old film reels.

Joe’s work is found in many private collections, as well as at The Pennsylvania Academy Fellowship,Villanova University and the U.S. Embassy in Jamaica. But locally, Joe is perhaps best known as a former teacher at Chestnut Hill College and for the sculpture in what was once called Delancey Park at 3rd and Delancey Streets in Society Hill. In the 1960s, landscape architect John Francis Collins asked him to create a kid-friendly piece to anchor the park’s new design. Joe’s charming concrete sculpture of three bears, two large and one small, has turned the space into “Three Bears Park” ever since.

The bears’ rounded, durable presence remains irresistible to local tots, and Joe designed his bears with climbing kiddies in mind. He even enjoys watching the latest generation ply their chalk on the sculpture, which is easily rinsed off by the rain.

Back at the studio, alongside small reproductions of the bears that are now for sale to their Philadelphia fans, the Winters’ grandchildren appear in portraits and sculpture. The young family faces aren’t the only signs of life coming full circle for the talented Winters. In a lush side-yard, Kathy proudly shows a giant, graceful magnolia tree, explaining that it was given to them by Joe’s Delancey Park collaborator, who became their dear friend. Collins, who passed away last year, had cultivated the tree himself from a seedling. Kathy painted a picture of one of its blossoms, and Joe adapted the flower in her painting onto ceramic tiles that now surround the front door of their happy home.

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