Lee Godie

Lee Godie, née Jamot Emily Godee, was born in Chicago in 1908 into a large, Christian Scientist family. She was raised with her ten 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. Godie felt an affinity for the museum’s collection of works by French masters and 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, she slept on concrete benches in downtown Chicago with her portfolio of work clutched tightly. In later years, Godie would set up shop at either Bloomingdale’s or the historic Water Tower.

Along with traditional surfaces, Godie 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. She had many classic subjects: self-portraits, portraits of others, Prince of Chicago, Prince Charming, waiters, botanicals, vases, flowers, hands on piano keys, and the John Hancock building. She also produced works on double-sided sewn pillows stuffed with newspaper as well as sewn diptychs and triptychs. Godie would regularly add sketches on the back of her paintings and drawings, along with descriptive commentary, dedications, and price listings. A lesser known but now sought after part of Godie’s oeuvre is her photography. One of the cameras that she is thought to have used was the black-and-white photo booth at the Greyhound Bus Station on Harrison Street in Chicago. Godie would often pose with props: paintings, money, 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. Godie would often sew or staple these photos to paintings or drawings, usually at one of the bottom corners.

Godie was not only eccentric in terms of her dress and speech, but she was very particular about whom she interacted with and to whom she sold her art. One of the people Godie befriended was Chicago gallerist Carl Hammer, who staged Godie’s first solo exhibition in 1991 as well as a retrospective in 1993. Hammer was fond of Godie and felt her work epitomized his gallery’s mission. In early 2022, Carl Hammer Gallery hosted Sincerely … Lee Godie: Chicago’s Inimitable Street Artist, at which a new documentary by Kapra Fleming and Tom Palazzolo aired entitled Lee Godie, Chicago French Impressionist. 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 eighty-five. Blank is now working on a book about her mother’s life and art.

Even with the increased interest in Lee Godie, an air of mystery lingers around this beloved Chicago street artist. Given her humble origins, Godie’s prolific career late in life is atypical and amazing. While her art is accessible, it also challenges the viewer to look at the world in new ways. 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, and other notable institutions.

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