A reclusive Chicago artist’s work set to become subject of a court battle

Henry Darger died in 1973, leaving behind hundreds of pieces of his artwork and writings. Now, a court may have to decide who really owns his work.

SHARE A reclusive Chicago artist’s work set to become subject of a court battle
Installation view of the Henry Darger Room Collection at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, 756 N. Milwaukee Ave.

A recreation of Henry Darger’s room, being displayed at Intuit - The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, 756 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Photo © John Faier

For almost 40 years, Henry Darger lived alone in a one-room apartment on the North Side.

He rarely spoke to anyone. He had almost no visitors, but people in the hall outside his apartment sometimes heard voices coming from the other side of the door: what sounded like a little girl shouting, Darger himself arguing with one of the nuns at the hospital where he worked as a janitor.

It wasn’t until 1972, after Darger had moved out, that a secret life was revealed, in a room cluttered with dozens of pairs of broken eyeglasses, hundreds of his own watercolors, collage paintings and, in a trunk, a 15,000-page typed fantasy novel titled “In the Realms of the Unreal.”

The next chapter in Darger’s story is expected to unfold Wednesday in a courtroom on the 18th floor of the Daley Center.

Almost 50 years after Darger’s death, a lawyer representing one of the artist’s distant relatives is expected to begin laying the groundwork for a legal claim to his assets. Dozens of other names are listed in the Petition for Determination of Heirship as potential relatives in documents filed in the Circuit Court of Cook County.

Darger, who never married and had no children, is now considered one of America’s greatest “outsider” artists. Much of his work is housed at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. The Art Institute of Chicago has some pieces. One Darger piece sold at auction for about $680,000.

Henry Darger, artist and writer, in an undated photograph.

Henry Darger, artist and writer, in an undated photograph.

Sun-Times files

Kristin Klein, 39, is among those listed as a potential heir.She works in the service department at a car dealership in Connecticut. She’d never heard of Darger until she got a bulky package containing court documents about two weeks ago.

“I kind of think that us being relatives, yeah, we deserve part of his estate,” Klein told the Chicago Sun-Times. “Just because we weren’t around when he was alive doesn’t mean that people who weren’t related to him deserve to have his entire estate. It should have gone to family to begin with.”

Darger’s landlords, Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner, took possession of the contents of his apartment after he, in failing health, moved into a nursing home. He died in 1973, at age 81, and was buried in a pauper’s grave.

Nathan Lerner asked Darger after he’d moved out if he wanted to keep anything from his room.

“I have nothing I need in the room. It is all yours. You can throw everything away,” Darger reportedly said.

Henry Darger lived in a one-room apartment in the 800 block of West Webster Avenue in Lincoln Park until 1972. He died the next year, and a dispute over control of the contents of his cluttered apartment, including his artwork and an original manuscript, is now being played out in court.

Henry Darger lived in a one-room apartment in the 800 block of West Webster Avenue in Lincoln Park until 1972. He died the next year, and a dispute over control of the contents of his cluttered apartment, including his artwork and an original manuscript, is now being played out in court.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Darger was born in the city in 1892. His mother died when he was 4 years old. His father, a tailor, became too sick to care for the boy. He was put in a Catholic boy’s home and sent to public school. But an odd tic and his self-described “willful nature” eventually led to him being sent to the Illinois Asylum For Feeble-minded Children in Lincoln — a place from which he eventually escaped, making his way back to the city. He spent his days working as a janitor or a dishwasher at various Catholic hospitals.

To the outside world, he was a mumbling, shuffling, unkempt loner — but also an astonishing mime, able to imitate many different voices.

“We knew nothing about his artwork. His room was very crowded, filthy, dirty. You wouldn’t want to go in there,” said Betsy Fuchs, who began living in an apartment on Darger’s floor in the late 1960s.

But what no one knew until later was the vast world of his imagination — a world of epic battles of good versus evil, in which children were enslaved and later freed from the evil Glandelinians, stories possibly inspired by his own difficult childhood.

Darger’s inner world blossomed into countless watercolors, collage drawings and his writings.

“The more we learn about Henry Darger, the more I am convinced that he was quite sophisticated,” said Deb Kerr, president and CEO of Intuit - The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art on the Near West Side. “He had the Wizard of Oz books, he’d read ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’ He had read ‘Alice in Wonderland’ — all of which influenced his writings.”

The center has recreated Darger’s North Side room, complete with many of its original furnishings.

Debra Kerr, CEO of The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art.

Debra Kerr, CEO of Intuit - The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art.

Provided

Kerr was reluctant to talk about the upcoming court hearing. She said she’s spoken to the center’s legal counsel, and isn’t “especially worried” because the center doesn’t own any Darger art.

As for her opinion on who is the rightful owner of his work?

“I really need to be Switzerland on this. … Just from an objective standpoint, all the stories I’ve heard have been about that Henry was pretty much on his own and it appears to me that his last few years were made easier mostly by the charity of [the neighbors living on his floor] and Nathan and Kiyoko.”

Nathan Lerner is no longer living. Kiyoko Lerner could not be reached for comment.

Christen Sadowski, who is seeking to be appointed to represent Darger’s distant relatives, also could not be reached. Sadowski, who lives in Clarendon Hills, told the New York Times earlier this month: “We’re asserting the rights of the family — taking any and all action to restore his legacy. To understand that someone took what was his life’s work and has capitalized on it — it’s about righting a wrong.”

Sadowski’s attorney, Michael C. Diedrich, declined comment.

Len LeRose Jr., a Chicago probate lawyer, said the issue of whether a gift was freely given is something probate courts deal with frequently. What’s unusual, he said, is a dispute stemming from an incident decades ago.

“If you’re talking about gathering evidence [from] 30 or 40 years ago, there could be an obvious hindrance. Records may not be around, witnesses may have died or you can’t find them anymore,” LeRose said.

LeRose said courts don’t necessarily need a paper document to prove Darger freely intended to give away his possessions.

While a written document is always best, “You can prove it with circumstantial evidence,” he said.

Either way, “There has to be clear intent to transfer title and ownership and possession to the … person who is receiving the gift, unqualified without any strings prior to his death.”

A recreation of Henry Darger’s room, being displayed at Intuit - The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, 756 N. Milwaukee Ave.

A recreation of Henry Darger’s room, being displayed at Intuit - The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, 756 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Photo © John Faier

Fuchs, now in her 70s, has her own opinion about who should own Darger’s work, but she won’t say. It’s clear in her mind that whoever ends up with it will own something extraordinary. She said she’s read almost everything written about the man whose apartment she entered only to deliver food when he was sick.

“He was a man who was incredibly bright and smart and had a great imagination, and was just kind of in his own world,” Fuchs said. “Anybody who created what he created had to be brilliant.”

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