Lee Godie: Chicago Outsider Artist
by Aron Packer,
What can you say about Lee Godie? There has been so much discussion about her as of late! In addition to a long overdue documentary on her life being released, Lee Godie, Chicago French Impressionist by Kapra Fleming and Tom Palazzolo, Godie’s paintings, drawings, and photographs have achieved strong sales at auction, including many results at Toomey & Co.
We have had the privilege of offering various works by Lee Godie lately and there are more slated for our auctions in the months to come, in particular, our second annual Folk, Outsider & Self-Taught Art + Americana sale on Tuesday, October 11. Godie had such a natural, true star quality and was an artist’s artist. She deserves all of the attention that she is getting currently.
Lee Godie’s Humble Origins and Life on the Streets
Godie was not only an Outsider artist, but she was homeless by choice for the most part starting at the age of 60. Many people helped and befriended her over the years, but her life was tough and complex. While Godie was very disinclined to share personal information about herself, the details of her early years are somewhat known.
Lee Godie, née Jamot Emily Godee, was born in Chicago in 1908 into a large, Christian Scientist family. She was raised with her 10 siblings in a small home on the city’s Northwest side. After marrying twice, and bearing four children (two of whom died young), Godie abandoned family life.
Her whereabouts from the early 1950s to the late 1960s are uncertain, but, around 1968, Godie started showing up on the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago with an armful of paintings, drawings, and photos to sell.
The Art Institute, and its associated School, appealed to Godie for its clientele of students, artists, and art appreciators. Likewise, Godie felt an affinity for the museum’s collection of works by French masters, as she unironically dubbed herself a French Impressionist.
For the next two decades, Godie made her home on the streets and created art in all kinds of weather. Only when temperatures grew extremely cold did Godie ever opt to pay $10 for a room at a budget hotel. The rest of the time, Godie slept on concrete benches in downtown Chicago with her portfolio of work clutched tightly.
Encounters with Lee Godie in Downtown Chicago
In later years, Lee Godie made her way down Michigan Avenue to hang out near Bloomingdale’s, but her most well-known spot after the Art Institute was the Chicago Water Tower. That is where I saw her when I was getting interested in Outsider Art.
At the time, I was working at Water Tower Place and walking to and fro from the nearby Chicago ‘L’ station. I would see Godie often then. I never purchased any of her artwork, though. I wish I had some substantial interactions with her, but I did not. To be honest, I was always kind of afraid of her.
On the few occasions when I asked her the price of her pieces, I never had enough money to spare. Once I became a gallerist, I did have the opportunity to purchase 30 great works from an important, early Godie collector, which I have sold over the years and now they are all gone.
Lee Godie’s Artistic Profile and Legacy
Godie was an authentic outsider. There are not that many of those. Her extended career late in life demonstrated a single-minded drive to be a street artist free from convention. While she lived and created in close proximity to the Art Institute of Chicago, and regularly signed “French Impressionist” after her name on her works, Godie was not only eccentric in terms of how she dressed and communicated, but she was very particular about whom she interacted with and to whom she sold her art.
One of the people that Lee Godie did befriend was Chicago gallerist Carl Hammer, who staged Godie’s first solo exhibition in 1991 as well as a retrospective in 1993. Hammer was very fond of Godie and felt that her work epitomized the mission of his gallery. Earlier this year, Carl Hammer Gallery hosted another Godie exhibition, Sincerely … Lee Godie: Chicago’s Inimitable Street Artist (January 7 – February 26, 2022), at which the new documentary by Kapra Fleming and Tom Palazzolo aired.
Word of Lee Godie gradually spread beyond Chicago, with articles on her appearing in both People magazine and The Wall Street Journal. The latter account served to notify Godie’s estranged daughter from her first marriage, Bonnie Blank, that her mother was an artist living on the streets of Chicago.
After Blank reunited with Godie, who had by then developed dementia, she became her mother’s legal guardian in 1991 and subsequently moved Godie to a retirement home west of Chicago in Plato Center, Illinois, where Blank lived. Godie died in 1994 at the age of 85. Blank is now working on a book about her mother’s life and art.
Despite her modest background and position as an Outsider artist in Chicago, Lee Godie’s work is now part of the permanent collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, and elsewhere.
The Artistic Techniques and Mediums of Lee Godie
As for Godie’s artistic techniques, along with traditional surfaces, she would often use discarded window shades as canvases for her drawings and paintings. With these compositions rendered on shades, holes from the seams and thread appear on the edges of the canvas sometimes.
In Godie’s early works especially, the paint or ink tends to be highly saturated, with starkly defined ballpoint pen lines. In some cases, Godie liked to adorn her canvases with brooches, jewelry, and photos.
Godie had many classic subjects: self-portraits, single and multiple female portraits (frontal and side views), Prince of Chicago, Prince Charming, waiters, botanicals, vases, flowers, hands on piano keys, the John Hancock building, etc. She also produced works on double-sided sewn pillows with newspaper for stuffing as well as sewn diptychs and tryptychs of planned or seemingly random groupings.
In addition, Godie would regularly add sketches to her paintings and drawings verso, along with descriptive commentary, dedications, and price/value listings. For instance, one work has Coments Beautiful [sic] verso with two small sketches of a stem with leaves and a flower and Value $30.00. Another phrase that Godie commonly inscribed was Chicago — We Own It! (which local collectors particularly appreciated).
A lesser known but now sought after part of Godie’s artistic output is her photography. One of the cameras that Godie is thought to have used was the photo booth at the Greyhound Bus Station on Harrison Street in Chicago. The prints were black and white and sized at 5” x 4”.
Godie would go into the booth sometimes with props: paintings, cash, hats, purses, and fake fur. Sometimes she would enhance photos by rouging her cheeks and reddening her lips, darkening her eyebrows to black, and coloring in flowers and cash with messy reds and greens.
For the sake of juxtaposition, Godie would often sew or staple these photos to paintings or drawings, usually at one of the bottom corners. (Cindy Sherman is also known for this type of photography, but Godie was probably practicing it before her.)
Lee Godie’s Enduring Mystery and Appeal
Even with the increased interest in Lee Godie’s work, as well as the recent documentary on her life and exhibition at Carl Hammer Gallery, there is still an air of mystery about this beloved, eccentric Chicago street artist. From her humble origins to her unaccounted for middle age to her prolific artistic career late in life, Godie’s story is atypical yet amazing. Her work is whimsical and accessible, but it also challenges us to look at the world in new ways. It has taken me a long time to understand Lee Godie more clearly and it is hard to say if I ever will fully. Ultimately, Godie’s simple yet profound artwork speaks for itself.