Quite the character

The homeless artist who turned bus-station photo booths into her private studio

A new exhibition spotlights the whimsical self-portraits of Lee Godie, Chicago’s prolific and beloved artist who lived an eccentric life of transience

In the past half century, few women have left as indelible a mark on the city of Chicago as Lee Godie. She was a famous artist, and she was homeless. Born in 1908, Godie is best known for her paintings and drawings, which she created and sold in downtown Chicago between 1968 and 1990. She was a familiar figure in the area, and could be seen painting on street corners, browsing the gift shop at the reputable Art Institute of Chicago, or sitting in the library drawing. Godie was no amateur. Her work gained international acclaim, and has been shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Hayward Gallery in London, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

But despite her life in the public eye, many details about Godie’s life remain a mystery. She never disclosed why she lived on the streets, and little is known about her family. She evaded many attempts by reporters to uncover details about her past. For a 1985 article for People magazine, one journalist reportedly asked her where she was from, and Godie replied, “I say we all came from embryos,” then, “quit following me, please!” before ducking into a parking garage and sneaking out the back entrance. In decoding Lee Godie, the clues we’re left with exist, for the most part, within her works of art.

Now, an exhibition on view at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin is showcasing Godie’s little-known photographs taken in bus station photo booths. The photos, which might today be classified as “selfies,” offer a glimpse into the psyche of the mysterious artist. “I was struck by the idea that these moments behind the curtain of the photo booth might have been some of the very few moments of privacy,” wrote exhibition curator Karen Patterson in an email interview with Women in the World. “As an artist living on the streets, she had no barrier between her and her world, no studio or home to retreat to, so I see the photos as a very intimate understanding of the artist and ideas of self-invention.”

Lee Godie, Untitled. (Courtesy of The John Michael Kohler Arts Center)

Lee Godie, Untitled. (Courtesy of The John Michael Kohler Arts Center)

Using props and an eclectic mix of costumes, Godie struck poses and later manipulated the images with paint and ink. Her photos show the face of a woman marked by hardship and time, but they are also defiant and full of youthful energy. Sometimes adding a hue of pink to her cheeks or a stroke of red to her lips, Godie exudes a sense of Hollywood glamour and playful experimentation.

Through Godie’s self-portraits, we’re able to see beyond how the public perceived her and her homelessness, and better understand how she perceived herself. “When I first saw her photos I was blown away. Not only are they visually arresting, they present a powerful juxtaposition of the many rough realities of life on the streets in downtown Chicago, and her perceived grandeur and success,” said Patterson. “Although her life on the streets was no doubt a struggle, she was seen as tough – an artist who lived her life unburdened by the false pretenses of the art world.”

Indeed, much of the lore surrounding Godie, most of it from stories of locals who ran into her on the street, paints a portrait of a woman who took herself and her art very seriously, but whose personality was bright, eccentric, and at times unpredictable. “I think a lot of people would describe Lee as mentally ill,” said Ken Walker, a gallery director who worked extensively with Godie, in the aforementioned People magazine article, ”but I think Lee is quite functional, and I think she is very happy in the life she is living.”

An installation view of "Lee Godie: Self-Portraits" at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Chicago. (Courtesy of The John Michael Kohler Arts Center)

An installation view of “Lee Godie: Self-Portraits” at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. (Courtesy of The John Michael Kohler Arts Center)

Many speculated that Godie was homeless by choice. A security guard in downtown Chicago claimed that when he tried to bring her in from the cold one night, she showed him a bank account containing approximately $100,000. Other stories point to the possibility that Godie experienced a tragedy that led her to the streets. Patterson stressed a desire to remember the genius of Godie’s work, regardless of her circumstance. She said her goal for the exhibition was to “not focus on labels and not sensationalize the circumstances of her life, but rather to focus on her creative output and contribute to and celebrate her legacy as an artist.”

Godie retired from her life on Chicago’s streets when she began suffering from dementia, and was admitted to hospital. Since her death in 1994, the legend and legacy of Lee Godie lives on. Her life, and her art, serve as a testament to the struggles she faced, her fierce commitment to her art, and her ability to leave an impression on everyone she interacted with, even briefly. “There are so many people who live, or have lived and studied in Chicago who are eager to share the specific impact that Lee Godie had on their lives as artists, teachers, or otherwise,” said Patterson. “She was a friend for some, a muse for others, but no doubt a force to be reckoned with for anyone who knew her.”

Lee Godie: Self-Portraits will be on view at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center through February 8, 2016.

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