Adolph George Colin was born Oct. 12, 1929, in Hollywood, California, to parents of French ancestry. The family made its way to Springfield when he was seven years old, and he graduated from Lanphier High School. His father was a coal miner.
After working for the local Pillsbury plant in Springfield for 30 years, he retired in 1977 and began painting in oils, then switched to oil pastels in the mid-1980s. He also painted chairs, benches and tables in a folk art manner, with bright colors and themes of mermaids, flowers and cigar store Indians.
For his pastel landscapes he used beautiful black Arches paper, which made his vibrant colors pop right off the surface of the paper. Colin was at ease making portraits as he was drawing a farmer in the prairie landscape. Abraham Lincoln was a frequent subject, as were dogs, vegetables and flowers.
He sold his work in a small gallery near his home just off Rt. 97 in Salisbury, between Springfield and Petersburg. He and wife Winnie, who was bookkeeper and gregarious salesperson for the enterprise, lived next door to the gallery. Most days they were up at 4 a.m. and worked until 5 p.m. every day, according to Winnie.
It didn’t take long for art collectors to discover George and his distinctive work. Gov. James Thompson, an early supporter, gave Colin a show at the Governor’s Mansion in the 1980s. “I got to sleep in Abraham Lincoln’s bed,” Colin said in a 2003 interview with Illinois Times. His lush pastel paintings and whimsical chairs and benches grace many a home in Sangamon County. Many clients enjoyed conversations with Winnie and George – George having less to say than Winnie – as much as buying art.
For several years Colin’s work was sold by the Georgeart Gallery in Chicago. By 1990 he had customers all over the country and was considered a folk art phenomenon. Georgeart closed in 1990, but Colin’s fame continued to spread. His clientele includes the rich and famous like Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan and George and Laura Bush, as well as regular folks. Senator Dick Durbin is a longtime customer and has Colin artwork hanging in his home as well as his Washington, D.C., office.
Local architect Mike Jackson, an early admirer and collector of Colin’s work, said, “He practiced in a naïve, folk artist way, but he was very sophisticated.” In the 1980s Jackson was enamored by Colin’s small sculptural pieces 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 was un-self-conscious about mimicking other artists,” Jackson said. Hints of Picasso, Matisse, even Arshile Gorky can be found in some of his work.
Colin knew art history and admired the French impressionists and their use of intense color. His only art training was a Norman Rockwell correspondence course in commercial art in the 1950s. He is remembered by many for his unassuming nature, as well as his artistic brilliance.
Winnie described George as “the most giving person anyone ever met, the most trusting person and the most honest person.” The couple met when Winnie was working at Myers Brothers Department store in downtown Springfield and George was playing trumpet in a band at Curt Winter’s Tavern on East Washington Street.
Colin studied to be a priest as a young man, Winnie said. “The man could quote the Bible like no one else.” George was also a very handsome man. “I was lucky to be his partner,” Winnie said.
Several years ago Colin contributed his pastels to the children’s book The Little Turtle, a poem by Vachel Lindsay. In 2002 he was inducted into the Lanphier High School Hall of Fame.
Teresa Marrandino and Karen Slavik of The Art Stop in La Grange, Illinois, approached Colin some 15 years ago to carry his work. “George had a God-given talent that came from his soul,” co-owner Teresa Marrandino said. “He was a pioneer artist. And his wife, Winnie, was his muse.
“The biggest thing George gave me was the gift of seeing the sky differently than I’d ever seen it,” she added. “Somewhere along the line we became friends. We understood each other.”
Prairie House Custom Frames at 2833 S. Sixth Street in Springfield also carries a selection of Colin’s pastels.
Colin died Sept. 1. He had developed Alzheimer’s Disease five years ago, then lung cancer.
“We had 48 years together,” Winnie said. “I asked for an angel, and I got George.”
Winnie, still as lively as ever, reopened the Colin gallery recently, and it is open most days. George’s body was cremated, and his ashes rest in an urn in the gallery. “George is in heaven, but his spirit runs this place,” Winnie said.
Ginny Lee, a longtime contributor to Illinois Times, is a Springfield photographer and writer.