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Winnifred Birts


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Winnifred Birts didn't want to leave Rogers Park, but in December her building went condo. She was riding the bus crying when another passenger asked her what was wrong. When Birts told her, the bus rider said, "Girl, go talk to my landlord. They're pretty good, and they take Section 8." Birts considers her new Albany Park one-bedroom something of a miracle. But the real miracle is that Birts is here at all. At age 20 she was shot in the back of the head while trying to stop a domestic dispute. A piece of hollow-point bullet embedded in her central nervous system; now 49, she still suffers grand mal seizures as a result.

Birts began making art in the mid-80s, when she was doing time for burglary at Cook County Jail. A teacher smuggled in some colored pencils and pens for her (only regular pencils were allowed), and by her release in 1987 she had a thriving business drawing greeting cards and portraits for prisoners in exchange for commissary scrip. She continued to draw after her release, and when she "had a nervous breakdown and tried to kill somebody," she received a court order to attend an art program for people with mental disabilities at the Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner Foundation. The foundation hooked her up with the Judy Saslow Gallery in 1990, and since then Birts's works have sold locally at Carl Hammer and Printworks as well as at Sotheby's and in Paris. In most of her pictures there's a clock somewhere. "It takes time to do anything, and life ain't nothin' but time," she says. "While I'm here I want to make myself known in some way. I don't want to be unknown, uncared for. I want to do something constructive with that time I've been given."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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