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Pilot turned painter creates religious art

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Down a tree-lined country road, past the stream and at the end of a gravel driveway lies the studio of painter Henry Wingate. The foyer and hallway of the Madison house is cluttered with faces gazing out of framed portraits. The cavernous studio is brimming with larger-than-life paintings, costumes and easels. Busts wait to be sketched by students, a bouquet of his wife’s flowers and a bowl of apples wait to be immortalized in a still life. A colossal north-facing window lets in all the natural light the artist needs to turn canvas and paint into lifelike pieces of art. 

In school, art was always Wingate’s favorite subject. He avoided abstract art, preferring the challenge of capturing reality with paint and brush. After years of painting, he believes working from life, or using models rather than photos, makes all the difference. “I try to make things look not just three dimensional but true to life,” he said. “(I try) to draw and paint in a way that our eyes work in real life. The things that come to your eye first should be painted that way and the things that melt into the shadows should melt into the shadows.”

As Wingate reached adulthood, finding someone to teach him this classic approach was harder than he expected. In the mid-1980s, modern art seemed to dominate in the art departments of the Virginia universities he was interested in. So with the encouragement of his father, he went to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and played on the sprint, or lightweight, football team. “I kind of gave up on art at that point,” he said. 

After graduating in 1988 with a degree in history, he went to flight school for two years, becoming an F-14 Tomcat pilot stationed near Virginia Beach and on board the USS Kennedy. He enjoyed the challenge of learning to fly and the traveling that accompanied his service. “I (flew) over the Nile River, over the desert of Algeria, over Cyprus,” he said. But he fell in love with Italy. “I got to see Florence and Venice and Rome and Sicily and Naples — just such a beautiful country. I try to go back to Italy as often as I can just for the influence, the beauty of the place, the architecture, the art.”

When he finished his service at age 28, he contemplated his future career. His dad spotted an ad in a magazine for an atelier, or working studio, teaching painting in the representational style he’d always loved. After some research, Wingate moved to Boston to study with artist Paul Ingbretson in 1994. He spent five years under his tutelage in addition to short stints in Florence with painter Charles Cecil, who like Ingbretson, was an adherent of the Boston School’s more traditional style of painting. 

“I was thrilled when I found Ingbretson,” said Wingate. “A lot of modern artists think that this is so old-fashioned, it’s all been done before. But just because many portraits have been done, there’s still always new people coming along who could be painted,” he said. “(People are) so interesting, so varied. Working from life, you get to spend time with people and try to get some of their characteristic poses or gestures into the painting. That’s what might make the painting so much like them.” 

After years of studying, he started earning a living from his art around the same time he married his wife, Mary. The couple now have seven children — Agnes, Henry, Cecilia, Evelyn, Esther, Julia and Anna — and are parishioners of St. Peter Church in Washington, Va. While at the beginning his work was mostly portraits, he’s increasingly been commissioned to do religious pieces for churches. In the Arlington diocese, he has paintings in the sanctuaries of St. John the Baptist Church in Front Royal and St. Raymond of Peñafort Church in Springfield.

Henry Wingate created a painting of the Holy Family for Oakcrest School in Vienna. COURTESY

 oakcrest nativity

His most recent piece is an 8-foot-by-9-foot painting of the Holy Family for the chapel of Oakcrest School in Vienna, an independent school for girls in grades 6-12 guided by the teachings of the Catholic Church. Collaborating with the school at each step, he determined the right shape and size for the painting above the altar. He began sketching the models, eventually deciding Mary should be positioned cradling baby Jesus with Joseph gesturing toward him. He then scaled the whole thing up, sketching the scene on his studio wall with an ox, donkey and two sheep cuddling. Little nods to Oakcrest were included throughout, including the school’s uniform tartan subtly tucked in a basket.

Wingate enjoys creating art that will not only decorate a church but hopefully teach people about the faith. He remembers someone telling him they would gaze at his depiction of the Annunciation while praying the Joyful Mysteries. “My favorite, best compliment has been someone at St. John’s saying, ‘This really helped me to pray.’ ”


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021