First published: Fall 2019

Newly discovered details about the Chicago artist's life story offer clues to her identity-shaping paintings and photo portraits

The personality, mannerisms, witticisms and outrageous behaviour of the Chicago-based Lee Godie (1908–1994) help to explain, even more than her art, why this homeless self-taught artist endeared herself and became so important – and occasionally off-putting – to the people who knew her. Interacting with this artist, participating in her unusual social rituals, and ultimately purchasing a work from her were all part of what might be termed “the Lee Godie experience”. Time has fine-tuned the legends that developed around Godie, transforming her into more of a caricature than the complex human being she actually was. In fact, she was so unique that, for those of us, like myself, who knew her, it is impossible to convey an accurate sense of her aura.

Perhaps partially for this reason, now, in the early 21st century, her photo-booth self-portraits have become increasingly noteworthy, so much so that their significance seems to have eclipsed that of her paintings and drawings. Her photographs palpably reflect her eccentric personality. In her photographic prints, which she sometimes embellished using black eyeliner or red lipstick and rouge, she highlighted various facets of her persona: a glamorous, Edwardian-era vamp; a gritty, sun- and wind-burned street person in worn-out, pieced-together clothing; a self-proclaimed, French-Impressionist bohemian holding up her paintings; and a savvy businesswoman, waving a fan of money as evidence of her capitalist prowess.

 

This is Lee with a cameo and chain, c. 1980–85, 3.5 x 5 in. / 9 x 13 cm, courtesy of Carl Hammer Gallery 

Today’s preoccupation with identity politics might help explain why Godie’s self-portrait photographs have attracted considerable attention. In a text that accompanied the John Michael Kohler Arts Center’s 2015–2016 exhibition “Lee Godie: Self-Portraits”, that museum’s former senior curator, Karen Patterson, wrote, “Blurring the lines between reality and representation, Godie’s self-image was by far her most poignant creative output. Nowhere is the concept of self-invention more visible than in the self-portraits she created in the photo-booth[.] [...] In its highest form, the photo booth and the portraits created inside it are an identification of self and world, a sheltered site in which her experiences in the outer world come face to face with her innermost self.” 

In comparison with such images, Godie’s ballpoint-pen or mixed-media line drawings on window shades or canvas cannot be dismissed as unsophisticated or simplistic. Their guilelessness may account for much of their charm, yet they exude an edgy strangeness as well. The archetypal figures she repeatedly drew over many years, such as the Gibson Girl, the Lady-in-waiting, the Prince of the City, the Waiter, and her most ubiquitous image, which has been identified as either the movie actress Joan Crawford or Godie herself, all underwent a surprising evolution as her style became more mannered and cartoonish.

Her other works also attest to her innovative approach. They include her two-sided “pillow paintings” (each consisting of two painted canvases sewn together back to back and stuffed with newspaper); her “piano hands” paintings (horizontal keyboards with her own traced hands dancing over them); her “dip-tics” and “trip-tics” (multiple-image works sewn together side by side or top to bottom); and in at least one instance, a painting “book” (a long canvas, folded and stitched along one edge, with multiple images that can only be viewed by turning its “pages”).

The Chicago-based filmmakers Tom Palazzolo and Kapra Fleming have been working for a number of years on a documentary film (its working title: Lee Godie, Chicago’s French Impressionist), which is scheduled to be completed later this year. In researching Godie’s life story, Fleming followed a trail that led from Chicago to Niagara Falls, New York, and on to Tacoma, Washington, before returning to Chicago.
 

This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #103.

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