One day a few years ago police officer Daniel Godsel was browsing at a bookstore while his partner looked for a Christmas present. “While she was off shopping,” Godsel says, “I picked up a book on an artist. There was this guy in a suit next to me, and he’s staring at me and I’m ignoring him. I’m reading this book and he says, “Oh, are you interested in art?’ I said, “Yeah.’ And he said, “Well, that’s a refreshing thing to see, a cop reading.’ I was very offended by that–to think that because I’m a cop I’m illiterate. Not only was I reading a book but reading a book on art, of all things.”

When the 26-year-old officer, who’s been with the Chicago Police Department for about four years, isn’t working as a member of a tactical gang team on the west side, he’s busy painting and working on his BFA at the School of the Art Institute. He and 12 other Chicago police officers will be showing their work during March in the Fine Arts Building Gallery exhibit “Off Beat: Art From the Heart”–many, like Godsel, for the first time publicly. The exhibit was the idea of painter Chris Basick, who saw an officer shopping for art supplies last year and asked, “Are there more of you? Are there more police officers who make art?” Says Basick, “That’s not an image I would expect–seeing a police officer looking at brushes.”

Godsel says his life as a police officer and his life as an artist are completely separate. “I don’t take something that happened to me on any given day and make a picture of it,” he says. His paintings–whether in watercolor or oil–are highly personal; often he chooses objects that have a personal significance to him or someone close to him. “I’m trying to get deeper into my own mind. So in a sense they’re like self-portraits. I like the idea of somebody seeing a really personal painting and drawing their own conclusions–not so much as far as getting an insight into my own emotion but maybe seeing some of their own.” A series of multiple-figure paintings he did a couple years ago (two of these–In My Mind and What Am I to Do Here?–are included in “Off Beat”) are examples of this. “There was a bit of searching going on,” Godsel says. “I think that’s what that series was about. A bit of confusion. In What Am I to Do Here? there’s a single figure and a portrait-type head that gazes straight out–that’s intended to be confrontational. The figure is sort of unto itself, sort of reflecting, and probably appears to be a bit tense or going through some sort of dilemma.”

Godsel was an artist before he became a police officer. While he was in high school at Quigley South he enrolled in the School of the Art Institute’s Early College Program. After graduating from Quigley in 1987 he went to the Art Institute full-time until, for financial reasons, he had to drop out during his senior year. Looking around for a job, he first considered the fire department–his father is a fireman and so was his grandfather. And “with one [day] on and two off I figured I’d have a lot of time to paint,” he says. But the fire department wasn’t hiring at the time so he ended up taking the tests for the police academy, which he entered in December 1991.

At the School of the Art Institute Godsel usually doesn’t tell the other art students what he does for a living. “I’m sort of guarded,” he says, “because sometimes there’s a stigma. But that might be a preconception of mine.” When it does come out that he’s a police officer, he says, “some of them are very interested and others leave it at “Oh.”‘ It’s a different story when his fellow officers find out he’s a painter. “At first they’re shocked. But some of them are fascinated and ask a million questions. They’re very open-minded about it, from my bosses right down to my partner.”

Being a police officer and an art student (as well as a father–he and his wife, Zlata, have an 18-month-old son and are expecting another child in September) doesn’t leave Godsel a lot of time to paint. Still, he tries to paint every day, working in the basement of his northwest-side home. Once he finishes his BFA he plans to pursue a master’s degree, hopefully at the School of the Art Institute. He likes his job but says that in the long run “my dream is to just make art.”

“Off Beat: Art From the Heart” opens tonight with a free reception from 5 to 8 PM at the Fine Arts Building Gallery, 410 S. Michigan, room 433. The show continues through March 30. Gallery hours are Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 6. Call 913-0537 for more information.

–Bonita McLaughlin

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