This police officer defended the Capitol on Jan. 6. Now he paints to remember

‘Some people have forgotten about it already … or want to,’ says watercolor artist Winston Pingeon

Capitol Police Officer Winston Pingeon holds a self-portrait of himself in riot gear. “It was just a devastating day for me, for the Capitol Police and for our country,” he says of Jan. 6. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Capitol Police Officer Winston Pingeon holds a self-portrait of himself in riot gear. “It was just a devastating day for me, for the Capitol Police and for our country,” he says of Jan. 6. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 30, 2021 at 6:00am

The most liked watercolor on Winston Pingeon’s Instagram account is a rare self-portrait. He stands in the middle of New Jersey Avenue at night, the United States Capitol Dome lit brilliantly directly behind him, the nation’s flag waving just over his right shoulder. The artist is clad in all black as he holds the tools of his trade — a nightstick and helmet — by his sides and confronts the viewer with pained blue eyes.

“Self Portrait II” depicts Pfc. Pingeon, United States Capitol Police, late on the night of Jan. 6, 2021, hours after a horde of self-described patriots stormed the Capitol he swore to protect. Pingeon spent most of that day on the West Front of the building, getting punched in the face. “I was knocked back and beaten and kicked by the crowd. And then, when I was inside the building, I was pepper sprayed,” he told CQ Roll Call. “It basically was hand-to-hand combat for almost four hours.”

In some regards, Pingeon is like any other Capitol Police officer. He always wanted to be a cop — he liked the idea of helping people and didn’t like the idea of sitting behind a desk all day — went to college in D.C., interned for various law enforcement agencies, and picked the Capitol Police because of its mix of training opportunities and good benefits. Like most of his peers, he’s still angry about the 6th, still in disbelief that it happened, struggling to find the words to describe what it was like or how it feels to guard some members of Congress who now downplay the day’s violence.

“It was hard to even comprehend or fathom what was happening, even in that moment, even as it’s striking me in the face, literally — it’s just not something that I think myself or fellow officers would have ever imagined would have actually taken place,” Pingeon said.

“It was just a devastating day for me, for the Capitol Police and for our country,” he added. “It’s just sad that it happened and that some people have forgotten about it already … or want to.”

Unlike most of his peers, though, Pingeon has found an outlet through painting, a passion he’s pursued since childhood. “With some pieces in particular, I pour so much of myself, of my experience into my work in ways that I can’t necessarily describe,” he said.

Speaking with CQ Roll Call on a warm late summer day, Pingeon points to a picture of a statue with the Capitol Dome behind it. It shows the Peace Monument, which stands in the traffic circle just west of the Capitol where Pennsylvania Avenue meets First Street Northwest. The statue, a memorial to sailors who died in the Civil War, portrays Grief weeping on the shoulder of History. Pingeon’s painting shows it how it was after Jan. 6: sharp angles of fencing envelop the foreground, the classic figures mourn in the center, the Capitol behind, all set off by negative space.

“Instead of telling people about what I experienced that day, I would rather show the beauty of the Capitol Dome contrasted with this harsh fence and razor wire, and kind of let that image speak for itself,” he said.

Pingeon works with watercolors, which lend themselves better to seascapes and scenes of leaves turning color in autumn than to night scenes of police and the intricate details of one of the most famous buildings in the world. Painting himself on the night of Jan. 6 challenged Pingeon technically as much as it did emotionally.

He started selling his paintings at the urging of his friends and colleagues, who’ve kept Pingeon especially busy with commissions of local architecture and homes. It’s only recently that he’s done more personal pieces that draw upon his experience policing the Capitol.

In addition to his regular duties, Pingeon serves on the Capitol Police’s ceremonial unit. As a member of the honor guard, he has witnessed history and stood watch over his fallen coworkers Brian Sicknick and Howard Liebengood, who died after Jan. 6, and William “Billy” Evans, who was killed when an attacker breached some barricades in April. That experience “has had a profound impact on me,” he said.

Pingeon painted himself as he looked on the evening of Jan. 6, after hours of “hand-to-hand combat” with rioters. (Courtesy Winston Pingeon)

He also worked on Inauguration Day, which is where the idea for his public self-portrait came from. “After many long shifts and no days off, I’m finally back in the studio,” he wrote on Instagram in March, alongside a painting of him saluting. That effort got such a positive response, he decided to do it again. He turned to the photo a coworker took as they left the Capitol on the 6th. While his image — particularly the two shocks of blue eyes above a white surgical mask — centers the painting, the lines of cars and office buildings beside him draw the viewer’s gaze upward, to the illuminated Capitol Dome haloed against the night sky.

Pingeon said he wanted to capture the bewilderment he was feeling in that moment. But that’s not all.

“I wanted to also highlight that — despite what I’ve been through and what my coworkers had been through, and despite the unfortunate death and destruction of that day — the Capitol still stands and our democracy is still intact.”