AS A HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT IN New London, Conn., Paul Goodnight wasn’t an artist for art’s sake. On days he didn’t like what he saw in his lunch bag, he sold pencil sketches of nudes, at 25 cents each, to fellow students and used the proceeds to buy something hot in the cafeteria. “That was just me hustling,” he says. “I would sell them during English class. I never took it seriously.”
Now, at 50, Goodnight does take his art seriously—and so do a lot of other people. His paintings reside in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Museum in Washington. More noticeably, perhaps, they are also on display in some of the most visited rooms in America: the interiors of prime-time TV sitcoms.
His breakthrough came in 1982, when a Goodnight painting titled Cousins by the Dozens graced a Huxtable family wall on the The Cosby Show. Since then, his work, most of it depicting African-American scenes, has made it onto the sets of Seinfeld, ER, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Family Matters. Now living in Boston, Goodnight also created a limited-edition print for the Summer Olympics in Atlanta and is designing the stained glass for the newly rebuilt Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta’s Martin Luther King Jr. Historic District.
Goodnight’s success is testimony to his own ability to overcome. The younger son of a nightclub owner and a social worker, Goodnight was born in Chicago and—after his father left the family and his mother put him in foster care—brought up by policeman James Lockett and his wife, Essie, in New London. “I was raised by a foster family that really loved me,” says Goodnight. “There were five boys and two girls, and we’ll never be anything less than brothers and sisters.”
At New London High School, despite the clamor for his nudes, Goodnight concentrated on sports, not art. Then came a traumatic tour of duty in Vietnam. He returned in 1969 with a stutter and developed a drug problem. Four years later, he was scared clean when an Army buddy, who had also been taking drugs with him in Boston, committed suicide. “When someone that close to you dies,” says Goodnight, who found the body hanging in a doorway, “you have to believe that could have been you. I thought I’d been given a reprieve.”
Goodnight promptly cleaned up his life. He says he kicked his habit by himself. He also started taking speech therapy for his stutter, which was eliminated, and took art classes at a community college and, later, at the Massachusetts College of Art.
He was still struggling to make a living from his painting in the early ’80s, when a friend suggested he try to place his work with a California dealer whose shop was frequented by Hollywood types. “At that time,” says Goodnight, “there wasn’t a lot of black artwork on television shows.” That changed rapidly after the Cosby people spotted Cousins and put it on the show. “It probably was only two or three times that they showed it,” he says. “But it was exciting because I could tell my friends.”
Soon Goodnight’s work was getting prime network exposure. Financial success followed, as one producer after another favored his work. But Goodnight—who has a 12-year-old daughter, Aziza, with art publisher Bernice Robinson—still lives in the Piano Factory, a haven for artists in Boston’s South End, where he has resided for 20 years. Prosperity, though, has given him a chance to spread his wings. Working with artists and business leaders, Goodnight is raising money for a 90-foot monument in Boston Harbor commemorating victims of the slave trade. The group hopes to erect related monuments in Africa and Brazil.
“I see myself continuously working and traveling and making connections between where I was and where I am now,” he says. “I’d like to go as far as I possibly can. I don’t care where—as long as the food is good.”
TOM DUFFY in Boston