Pleasanton's Renaissance man tunes into his own channel
Gary Winter has spent his whole life listening to people tell him to quit daydreaming and stop wasting his time. Well, maybe not listening.
Don't let people talk you out of stuff," says the mustachioed artist, inventor, and entrepreneur from Pleasanton. "We're inspired every day. You've just got to keep going. You keep getting knocked down, they tell you you're crazy, and you just keep going, if your dream's strong enough."
Take, for example, the time Winter decided, way back in 1981, that he was going to meet President Ronald Reagan. People thought he was nuts. When he came up with a plan to meet Reagan—by making a representation of the presidential seal out of nails pounded into wood—they thought he was really nuts. But that didn't stop him.
While I was making it, everybody said ‘You're crazy, man. There's no way; don't waste your time,' " Winter says. "And I didn't listen to them. I'm kind of a rebel, and I always go against the grain."Winter completed his nail sculpture, and he and his wife were indeed invited to a presidential dinner in Los Angeles, but John Hinckley shot Reagan a week before the dinner. After the assassination attempt, Winter sent the sculpture to the White House, and it ended up hanging above the fireplace at the Reagan Ranch. Later, it was moved to the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley (Winter recently delivered a replica of the sculpture to the ranch). And he did finally get to meet the president—although after his term had ended. It just goes to show what vision can do for you.
I'm able to picture in my mind how things are going to work out," Winter says. "I've learned to listen to my inner thoughts and [to] throw out all the worries and the crap that drive everybody crazy." Winter, a kinetic man who refuses to divulge his age, was always inventive. As a youth he spent much of his time building things with his father and brother, Benjamin, and his mother called him "the little entrepreneur." But in school, he felt stifled. "In those days, everybody kept you from being creative. You were supposed to go to college and become a doctor or a lawyer. So I shied away from my artistic stuff."
After high school, Winter spent a few years in the Navy and then got a job with United Airlines. He felt unfulfilled—"like a member of the herd," he puts it—and searched constantly for new direction.In the early 1970s, he decided to take a meditation class at the urging of a friend. For $200, he found his new direction. "Meditation totally changed my life," Winters says. "In this class, they pushed that you could do whatever you wanted to. It's all about how you visualize."
The class taught Winter to clear his mind and listen to his inspirations, which, it turns out, he draws from just about anything. His various projects have included furniture made of large cardboard tubes that he got from the printing company where his father worked. And then there's the Zwirl spiral football, which was inspired by a drill bit pattern his brother found in a condemned Alameda foundry. (Winter and his brother sold more than a million of the footballs, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York has one in its permanent collection.) "Gary's skill is his versatility," says Bob Philcox, a former mayor of Pleasanton and a good friend of Winter's. "He's one of the most creative artists we have. Any kind of idea he gets, he follows it with a passion."
Winter's greatest muse is the Tri-Valley area. The idea for his nail and wood sculptures came in part from his time hiking and horseback riding among the oak trees in the hills around Sky Ranch in Castro Valley. These sculptures include a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, which he has sold to Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum, and a $100 bill containing more than 22,000 nails, which he has yet to sell. The project that consumes much of his time now is making small, detailed, two-dimensional models of local buildings. In addition to making models of people's homes on commission, he has done the Pleasanton Arch, Clint Eastwood's Mission Ranch, and more than 100 other buildings in Danville, Pleasanton, Livermore, and San Ramon. The models are sold at Mesa Trading Co. in downtown Pleasanton.
"Our customers love the buildings," says Phyllis Couper, co-owner of Mesa Trading Co. "I probably sell 30 a month."
Winter signs his pieces Dream Wisely, and it certainly appears that he does so. He spends his days speaking to children's groups about being positive and following their dreams, as well as completing projects like the mural of blue skies and rolling hills at the Country Club Village Shopping Center in San Ramon. He passes the evenings meditating, drawing, and working in his shop at the home he shares with his wife of 27 years, Luciana, and their 17-year-old son, Alex. (The couple also has a daughter, Caterina, 25.) About the only thing he doesn't do is watch television.