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Thursday, May 15, 2003 02:20 pm


Salisbury’s folk art empire

George and Winnie Colin
Ginny Lee

George Colin doesn't exhibit at the Old Capitol Art Fair. He doesn't need to. The 74-year-old Colin has become a folk-art phenomenon since he retired in 1977 from Pillsbury Mills, where he sacked flour for 30 years.

Actually Colin did show some paintings at the very first Old Capitol Art Fair in 1962, but one fair was enough. He and his wife of 40 years, Winnie, are partners in Colin Folk Art, the gallery next to their home in Salisbury. They may seem like simple, "aw shucks" small-town folks, but they're both savvy in their areas of expertise. Winnie is the sales person and bookkeeper. She excels at schmoozing customers ("Haven't you lost weight?"). Colin is more laid-back, but he still likes to joke around ("I thought you were from the Indiana Times!").

Colin began his art career in the 1950s, after taking a Norman Rockwell correspondence course in commercial art. First he painted in oils, then switched to chalk pastels in the mid-1980s and hasn't looked back. He uses beautiful Arches black paper, which makes the vibrant pastels pop right off the surface. A typical Colin pastel shows a farm scene with rolling hills and a farmer on a tractor. But is there a typical Colin? George is nothing if not versatile. His early landscapes were representational, while his recent work has become more abstract, including studies of ballerinas, dogs, even turnips. Abraham Lincoln is a familiar icon in Colin's work. "This one of Lincoln would look good in the new Lincoln Presidential Library," he muses.

Colin is also known in these parts for his one-of-a-kind furniture. His whimsical, colorfully painted benches made from scrap lumber grace many a front porch and living room around Springfield. Dazzlingly bright flowers, cigar store Indians, and mermaids adorn Colin's boxes, benches, and chairs, but in the past few years he has given up three-dimensional art.

Though he calls himself a folk artist, Colin doesn't fit into the unschooled or outsider art genre. "He practices in a naïve, folk artist way, but he's not--he's very sophisticated," says local architect Mike Jackson, an early admirer and collector of Colin's work. Jackson was enamored of Colin's small sculptural pieces in the 1980s and was incredulous that the artist sold them for a pittance. Jackson made slides of Colin's work and showed them to Chicago galleries, but some thought the art was too derivative. "George is un-self-conscious about mimicking other artists," Jackson says. Colin remained undeterred. Hints of Picasso, Matisse, even Arshile Gorky can be found in his work.

Colin's clientele now includes the rich and famous--Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan own pieces; the Band used a Colin pastel for the cover of its 1998 album, Jubilation. Senator Dick Durbin is a longtime customer and has Colin's drawings hanging in his home, as well as his Washington, D.C., office. James Thompson was an early supporter, giving Colin a show at the Governor's Mansion in the 1980s. "I got to sleep in Abraham Lincoln's bed," Colin beams. Recently Winnie packed up a pastel of Abraham Lincoln to ship to Sweden.

Regular folks also wander out to Salisbury to see Colin's latest work. Last week Kerry Trueblood of Petersburg was in the showroom buying a pastel of ballerinas for his wife, who was completing her schooling to teach art.

In the 1980s Colin sold his work at Georgeart, a Chicago gallery featuring just his work. That gallery closed in 1990 and now the only other place to find Colin's drawings, other than Salisbury, is the Art Stop in LaGrange, Illinois.

From his modest beginnings as a painter, Colin now has enough of a reputation that his business card reads only: "Colin, Nationally Known Folk Art and Pastels."

Colin Folk Art is a hop, skip, and a jump away--on Route 97 in downtown Salisbury, halfway between Springfield and Petersburg. The Colins are right next to the Morning Star Mercantile and Café and the Garden Path shop, so you can make an afternoon of it in Salisbury. For hours and other information, call 626-1204.

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