George and Winnie Colin, folk art

George and Winnie Colin, 1987. This outtake from the first State Journal-Register story about the Colins is featured in a photo essay, “The Life and Work of George Colin,” by former SJ-R photographer David Spencer. The essay, first published in 2013 and updated in 2017, includes several dozen examples of George Colin’s art. (Courtesy SJ-R)

George and Winnie Colin came as a set.

George (1929-2014) was the artist, self-inspired and self-taught. He produced drawings, paintings, wooden cutouts and quirky sculptures at an amazing pace from a studio in tiny Salisbury.

Colin’s style was variously described as folk-art, primitive and (his own characterization) “post-naïve.” Commentators said his approach, while influenced by Picasso/Matisse/Chagal, was transmuted by Colin’s vision and color sense into a style all his own.

Chicago graphic designer Bill Sosin, who owned 17 Colin paintings, told a State Journal-Register reporter in 1990 he liked Colin’s “vitality and freshness.”

“His work just flows out of him like a spring – and that kind of energy is rare in the art world,” Sosin said.

Winnie (1929-2017) was George’s partner, foil, booster and bargaining agent. George might complete a half-dozen drawings in a day, stacking them in giant piles as he went. “Pick out what you want and we’ll give you a price,” a visitor would be told. Then Winnie would step in.

“Bargaining with Winnie was part of the fun of the whole project,” Rod Buffington said at a Springfield Art Association gathering focused on the Colins in April 2024 (Buffington, an artist himself, headed the Springfield Art Association from 1985-1995.)  “She was a character.”

“George had a big heart, and Winnie was fun,” agreed Polly Poskin, a Colin patron.

A young George Colin (Lanphier High School yearbook, 1947)

George Colin attended Lanphier High School and spent more than 20 years filling flour sacks at Pillsbury Mills. His only art “instruction” was a correspondence course with the Famous Artists’ School.

But art was always in his heart, and Colin finally decided to try it full time. It was a gamble – he had a pension of about $100 a month, but Winnie worked at Holiday Inn. At first, Colin drew with dime-store chalk on paper left over from local printers.  Eventually, his career change paid off.

“George quit the 9-to-5 grind for art in the mid-1970s,” SJ-R columnist Dave Bakke wrote when Colin died.

“Good decision. His sculptures, furniture, paintings and drawings earned a national reputation. His work was sold in metropolitan galleries, including Chicago, and hangs in the homes of celebrities and regular folks all across the country.”

SJ-R writer Elizabeth Bettendorf provided one of the best descriptions of George and Winnie’s approach in a 1987 SJ-R article. It was datelined Salisbury, and it was the first time the SJ-R had taken notice of Colin’s art career.

“The barn,” 1990s (“Life and Work of George Colin”)

“There’s no mistaking it as the home of anyone but folk artist Adolphe “George” Colin and his wife, Winnie,” the story began.

Out front of their teeny-tiny frame cottage are hulking wooden Indians in full headdress; lawn furniture adorned with painted watermelons and hot pink poppies; and a water tank with palm trees, sailboat and a steamy tropical sun dabbled on the sides. There also are wooden cardinals, ducks, whales, turtles; abstract crucifixes painted silver, pink and yellow; and a pair of brightly painted toucans nailed to the side of an old barn. …

“His work reminds me of carnivals and people dancing,” Winnie muses.

Says George, “I like bright, strong colors. I want to suffocate the objects I paint. That’s why I’ll dash red and yellow together.” …

He sells most of his work to people traveling on Illinois 97 past his house.

Visitors who come to browse or chat are besieged with offers of coffee and homemade Amish cookies.

Winnie keeps an old-fashioned glass pot of coffee warming all day on the stove.

“I give a pound of coffee away a week to guests,” she says.

“Cotton Pickers” by George Colin (

At the time, Colin kept his drawings, thousands of them, in an old house/studio they called “the barn,” Bettendorf wrote.

The barn is dark and piled waist-high with paintings – oils, charcoals, even work done in Magic Marker. Kittens hide in the darkness and slink around the stacks of artwork.

Some paintings are passionate and abstract. Others are more realistic. There are several Chagall-inspired circus scenes with plump young girls twirling in tutus and ringmasters poised with their whips.

Winnie, with her shock of red hair and penchant for chatter, will gladly whirlwind interested visitors around the property. “Tourists just want to look and take pictures,” she says.

The late Gov. James Thompson, who collected art as well as antiques, was Colin’s most important celebrity patron. Thompson bought several Colin works and promoted the artist to others. Eventually, Colin’s work was displayed at the Smithsonian and the American Folk Art Museum. He illustrated a children’s book, The Little Turtle, published by the Vachel Lindsay Association, and Colin’s work adorned “Jubilation,” a 1998 album by The Band.

According to, the highest auction price ever paid for a Colin drawing (“Cotton Pickers”) was $3,000 in 2017. However, Colin told a Lanphier High School class in 2002 that he received $18,000 in a private sale for a caricature of his father “smoking a pipe and a tear of blood running down his face, because he had had it pretty rough.”

“I about fell over,” he said of the price.

Despite Colin’s production and popularity, he and Winnie never became rich – after both died, in fact, there was no money left in the estate for burials. For a while, Winnie’s son reportedly carried the couple’s cremated ashes around in a plastic bag.

One reason for the lack of funds apparently was the failure of GeorgeArt, a gallery in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood that specialized in Colin’s works. The venture flamed out in scandal and lawsuits.

“The stories I heard,” Buffington said at the 2024 Art History Happy Hour, “they sold it (George’s art) out the back door and robbed him blind.”

Gravestone of George and Winnie Colin, Rochester Township Cemetery (SCHS photo)

But Colin’s niece, Yvonne Brandis, said that wasn’t the only reason. “Well, he loved to gamble,” she said at the same event. Colin would sometimes spend all day at the Peoria riverboat casino, Brandis said.

The Brandis family eventually had the couple’s ashes interred in the Brandis family plot at Rochester Township Cemetery.

When George Colin died, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, another politician who owned several Colin originals, was among those who paid tribute.

“George Colin,” Durbin wrote to the State Journal-Register, “was an American original whose joyful art with its bold colors and amazing themes will continue to brighten our lives.”

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society. Learn how to support the Society. 

This entry was posted in Arts and letters, Photos and photosets, Prominent figures. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *