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River North, Gold Coast, Near North Side

City Hall Fixture George Blakemore Finds ‘Joy,’ ‘Freedom’ Selling Colorful Umbrellas, Jackets And More

Chicago's "concerned citizen" is garnering more attention on social media for his art. "I paint, and I dance, and I sing out of tune. And I just give 'em hell."

Blakemore sells one of his quintessential jackets to a fan at his 80th birthday party.
Mack Liederman/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — George Blakemore is known for grilling city officials at meetings — but in recent years, he’s found a creative outlet painting vibrant designs on umbrellas, canvases and leather jackets.

Known as Chicago’s “concerned citizen,” Blakemore, 80, has attended public political forums for decades, and his activism is what he identifies with most. But he’s also become known for painting one-of-a-kind designs and selling his work on the streets.

Blakemore began his artwork about five years ago, but his colorful painted umbrellas have recently garnered attention online.

Blakemore said he likes to think he has two callings, and they are intertwined: being a Black political activist and an artist.

“My name is George Blakemore, and I wear many hats,” he said.

Credit: Mack Liederman/Block Club Chicago
Blakemore brought his signature umbrellas to sell at his 80th birthday party.

Blakemore said he is not sure what compelled him to start painting umbrellas, which he would sell in their original state years ago, but he enjoys using his imagination and making each one unique.

“Everything wants to be loved and everybody wants to be appreciated and everybody wants be free, and this is one way I’m free,” he said. “I’m Black, I’m African American and my people have a tough time in America. But I get such freedom and joy and recognition with these umbrellas.”

Blakemore grew up picking cotton in Fort Worth, Texas, and went on to work as a high school political science teacher. He joined the front lines of Chicago’s social justice movement after moving to the city in the ’70s, and his political ideologies are fiercely Black nationalist, he said.

Blakemore has attended city meetings since the ’80s, which is how he said he got his “PhD in civics,” he said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
George Blakemore speaks at a City Council meeting in February 2020.

Art has been therapeutic for Blakemore, especially during the pandemic, he said. Beyond painting, he finds joy in song and dance, which he often shares videos of on Facebook.

“I paint and I dance, and I sing out of tune,” Blakemore said. “And I just give ’em hell. And that’s all I can do.

“This gives me therapy, a way to express myself and my pain. Because it’s very stressful to be an advocate and an activist for Black people, especially here in Chicago.”

The pandemic has been devastating for artists, and Blakemore struggles to promote his work online, he said.

“I’m 80, and you can’t teach a dog new tricks,” he said, laughing.

Blakemore said he’s painted many beautiful umbrellas and wants to spread that joy — and make some money to buy and paint new ones.

Blakemore sells his artwork in the Gold Coast, where he has resided for more than 50 years, and he can often be found on Saturdays at Lincoln Avenue and Clark Street.

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