12.11.15
John Foster | Accidental Mysteries

Lee Godie

Jamot Emily Godie (1908–1994), or Lee, as she was called, was an artist in Chicago and homeless for the last thirty-plus years of her life.

She often painted and sold her work on the steps of The Art Institute of Chicago, a place she selected to give her work the status she felt it deserved. She slept in public parks when the weather was clement, and in bus stations when it was cold. During her life, Ms. Godie had a reputation in Chicago as being a rather cantankerous individual, a woman with such high self-esteem she called herself a “French Impressionist.” As a painter, her work was nothing close to the art that period, but she lived her life believing so and that was that. If you met her, there was no guarantee she would give you the time of day, much less a chance to talk or buy an artwork. All that depended on a number of mysterious variables—the day you happened to meet her, what you were wearing, if she liked the way you were wearing your hair that day.

I know people who lived in Chicago and never got past a simple “Hello” with her. Some have said this aloof, standoffish demeanor was just part of a clever way to market her work, but I believe she was true to her own persona. One had to be tough to live on the streets—and Lee was no different.

Much has been made over the years of Lee Godie’s drawings and paintings—indeed her work is in some major museums and esteemed private collections. Her paintings have always been collectible, but I believe it's her self-portrait photography that she should be remembered for. Lee never used a hand-held camera, instead choosing to use a photo booth at the Chicago Trailways bus station. Many photos included props she found or bought at the local five-and-dime. Behind the drawn curtain of the photo booth, her intent was to change her persona for each photograph. Godie would often darken her face with charcoal or dirt, change clothes, and later—after the image was developed and fixed—hand color it with a pen to redden her lips or enhance her hair. Words or descriptions would also be added, all part of her larger mission to be identified as an artist—and a famous one at that. The photographs were often pinned or glued to her drawings or paintings, her way of adding a “bonus” to the buyer. 

Godie was keenly aware and took advantage of the photo booth process. She knew that before inserting her money, she could choose to get one 4” x 5” image, or four different poses on the same sheet. When Godie selected the four-pose photo, she would actually utilize the position of the photos as part of the overall concept (see Lee in a Camera below). In this example, Godie removed herself from the booth during shots 2 and 3—fully aware of the effect it would achieve to the overall composition. It was really quite brilliant.

Photo booth art, as it was being done in the 1970s and 1980s, was occurring at about the same time as Cindy Sherman was changing the photo world with bold transformational self-portraits. Godie was doing the same—differently and unbeknownst to Sherman. Both Godie and Sherman were in separate but similar orbits, two artists on a similar mission within the photo universe.

Over the years, the self-portraits of Lee Godie have witnessed a significant escalation in price. One reason might be scarcity—comparatively, there aren’t many self-taught (outsider) photographers in the world. Back in the late 1990s, a person could have purchased a photo from Godie herself for around $50. By 2005, ten years after her death, her photos sold in galleries for about $2,000 to $3,000. Today, you might be lucky to buy an original for $15,000. The images are rare, creatively unique, and highly sought after by photography and self-taught art collectors.

A solo exhibition of Godie’s work is being presented now through February 16, 2016 at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, WI. This is the first solo exhibition of Godie’s work since 2008, and will present a rich selection of the artist’s self-reflexive paintings and photographs to illuminate a complex and deeply expressive persona.

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Lady in Hat with Long Hair (left) and Girl with Pink Ear (right)
Courtesy of Carl Hammer Gallery

Untitled
Collection of Scott H. Lang, IL
Photo: John Michael Kohler Arts Center

Untitled
Collection of Scott H. Lang, IL
Photo: John Michael Kohler Arts Center

Untitled 
Collection of Scott H. Lang, IL
Photo: John Michael Kohler Arts Center

Untitled
Collection of Scott H. Lang, IL
Photo: John Michael Kohler Arts Center

Untitled (pillow), c. 1980
Collection of Carl Hammer, IL
Photo: John Michael Kohler Arts Center

Installation view of Lee Godie: Self-Portraits at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, 
September 2015. Photo: John Michael Kohler Arts Center


Lee—A Girl with Roses in the Shadows
Collection of Kevin O’Rourke, MD
Photo: John Michael Kohler Arts Center

Untitled
Photo: John Michael Kohler Arts Center
 
Lee in a Camera
Collection of Kevin O’Rourke, MD
Photo: John Michael Kohler Arts Center


Untitled (with a red background) 
Collection of John Turner, CA
Photo: John Michael Kohler Arts Center
 


Posted in: Accidental Mysteries, Art, Photography


Comments [1]

Awesome..!! All are awesome.........Love so much. Thanks for sharing..
Taposy Rabeya
12.11.15
11:57



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