Overlooked no more: Lee Godie, eccentric Chicago street artist

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Overlooked no more: Lee Godie, eccentric Chicago street artist
Lee Godie, Female Portrait with Artist Self-Portrait photo attached holding this painting. Estimate $3,000-5,000.

by Jeremy Lybarger

NEW YORK, NY.- Anyone who passed through downtown Chicago in the 1970s or ’80s might have encountered a weathered blond woman wearing a rabbit fur coat and men’s orthopedic slip-ons as she hawked her art on Michigan Avenue. If you looked like a prospective buyer, she would slowly, seductively unfurl her latest canvas as you approached.

Sometimes she would recite an old tune in her lilting voice; “Oh! Frenchy,” a racy hit from World War I, was her favorite. If you were exceptionally lucky, she would treat you to hors d’oeuvres: Oreo cookies whose cream filling had been replaced with cheese; instant iced tea made with water from a civic fountain. The eccentric “bag lady,” as she was often called, was Lee Godie, one of the city’s most iconoclastic artists.

For almost 25 years, Godie lived mostly outdoors and slept on park benches, even during subzero temperatures. She stashed her possessions in rented lockers around the city. Her studio was wherever she happened to be — an alley, a bridge, atop a deli counter.

She was prolific, producing paintings, drawings and watercolors on materials that included canvas, discarded window shades, cardboard, pillowcases and paper. In the 1970s, she took hundreds of self-portraits in photo booths at the Greyhound bus terminal and in the train station. In these black-and-white snapshots — which she often embellished with paint or a ballpoint pen — she portrayed her many sides: a coquette; a Katharine Hepburn look-alike; a rich lady flashing a wad of cash; and above all an uncompromising artist whose work can be found today in American museums.

Jamot Emily Godee was born in Chicago on Sept. 1, 1908, one of 11 children raised in a Christian Scientist family on the Northwest side. The Godee house was small, and the sisters slept in the attic.

Because Godie was intensely private and a fabulist regarding her own life, it can be difficult to decipher truth from self-invention. She claimed to have once worked as a telephone operator, although her real ambition was to be a nightclub singer. In 1933, she married George Hathaway, a steamfitter with whom she had three children; a son died of pneumonia at 18 months, and a daughter died of diphtheria at age 7.

Godie married again in 1948 and moved to Tacoma, Washington, under the impression that her new husband, Austin Benson, would champion her singing career. Instead, she found herself marooned on his chicken farm, pregnant yet again. She ran away shortly after, abandoning her family for good.

Godie disappeared for some time after that. Kapra Fleming, who last year released a documentary film, “Lee Godie: Chicago’s French Impressionist,” said in an interview that she couldn’t find any record of the artist between 1952 and 1968. Then Godie, at 60, suddenly appeared on the steps of the majestic Art Institute of Chicago, declaring herself a French impressionist who was “much better than Cézanne.”

In a 1982 profile of her in The Chicago Reader, Alex Wald, an early collector, recalled for writer Michael Bonesteel the first time he saw Godie: “She had big orange balls painted on each cheek, painted eye shadow and eyebrows painted above her actual eyebrows, all from the same paint box she was making her pictures with.”

It’s unclear when Godie began painting or what inspired her to sell her art in public. She liked to claim that a red bird had told her to pick up a brush. Her clientele were initially students from the nearby School of the Art Institute of Chicago, who purchased her works for bargain rates of $5 to $20 apiece. (Godie would write the “real” value of her art — usually $2,500 or more — on the verso.) She occasionally included cheap brooches or live carnations as bonuses to sweeten a sale. She also sometimes sewed her photo-booth portraits to a canvas as a kind of advertisement for herself.

“She lived in a fantasy world,” Marianne Burt, one of her student customers, said by phone. “In her mind she was a world-famous artist. And everything was about France.”

Godie even pronounced her name with a French accent, as in go-DAY. In a 2008 exhibition catalog for Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago, where Godie’s art has been shown, curator Jessica Moss conveyed Godie’s rapture over a French impressionist show at the Art Institute.

“To save herself from passing out in such a revered institution,” Moss wrote, “she devoured a small piece of cheese that she had been saving in her armpit in case of an emergency.”

At first glance, Godie’s work can appear childlike, her figures rendered in a cartoonish style that verges on grotesque. She was primarily a portraitist, although one less interested in capturing a subject’s likeness than in evoking moods, like wariness or anxiety, as evidenced by the clenched teeth she depicted in a work such as “Tidle — Gay Artist Lee Godie a French Impressionist.” Her images have a deliberately exaggerated expressiveness, as in “Sweet Sixteen” (1973-74) or the undated “Smiling Girl.” Both her men and women sport garish red lips, wide eyes that are lusciously over-lashed and hair that can be unnaturally blond or orange.

“The uncanny nature of her people is arresting, sometimes disturbing and even alarming, but as authentic as the artist herself,” Bonesteel wrote in a 1993 exhibition catalog. “In the course of making her work, she psychically imprints her emotional state upon it.”

There were recurrent figures, including a woman in left profile with a topknot and bared teeth, the so-called Gibson Girl inspired by Charles Dana Gibson’s turn-of-the-century illustration of idealized feminine beauty; Prince Charming, or Prince of the City, a patrician figure with a bow tie and parted hair, often portrayed in front of Chicago’s John Hancock Center; and a waiter, a mustachioed man with sideburns, based on a real waiter whom Godie found handsome.

Some of her female figures resembled actress Joan Crawford. Other common motifs were birds, leaves, insects, grape clusters and hands playing piano. Godie sometimes wrote on her canvases, too: “Staying Alive” and “Chicago — we own it!” appear with the frequency of personal mottos.

Godie hosted themed parties to showcase new work. The “red party,” for example, was held around dawn in Grant Park and featured red appetizers and art with red palettes. In the 1980s, she streamlined her enterprise by tracing compositions she had made and selling the copies, essentially mass-producing her greatest hits. She reportedly earned as much as $1,000 a day, which she squirreled away in her shoes, underwear and hidden pockets of her coat. On brutally cold nights, she splurged for a $10 room at a flophouse.

As word of Godie spread, so did reports of her combative behavior. She was notorious for refusing to sell to buyers who ran afoul of her mood or who otherwise displeased her; women who wore pants rather than dresses were blacklisted.

Frank Zirbel, a bike messenger at the time, recalled Godie throwing pizza at police officers. Marga Shubart, who developed a friendship with her, once saw Godie smash a stranger’s camera in front of a Bonwit Teller department store.

“It was a windy day,” Shubart said by phone, “and Lee said, ‘Pictures don’t turn out on windy days.’ ”

But Godie had a soft side. She was known to dispense quirky advice, like telling people to eat crunchy peanut butter so that they would “possess the refreshing breath of peanut aroma at all times,” according to Bonesteel.

In the mid-1980s Godie befriended Chicago gallerist Carl Hammer, who gave her her first solo exhibition, in 1991. (A new exhibition, “Sincerely … Lee Godie,” will be on view at his Chicago gallery through Feb. 26.)

“I had a love affair with her work,” Hammer said in an interview. “She was one of the most special people in my life. She was the epitome of what I was doing in the gallery.”

A retrospective at the Chicago Cultural Center followed in 1993.

Godie was also the subject of articles in People magazine and The Wall Street Journal. The Journal piece caught the eye of Bonnie Blank, Godie’s estranged daughter by her first husband; she hadn’t known of her mother’s career on the streets of Chicago. Blank lived in nearby Plano, Illinois, and reunited with her mother, who by then showed signs of dementia. Blank was granted legal guardianship in 1991. (She says she is now writing a book about her mother.)

Shortly afterward, Godie was moved to a nursing home, where she died on March 2, 1994. She was 85.

Today her work is in the permanent collections of the American Folk Art Museum in New York, the Smithsonian, the Philadelphia Art Museum and others.

Godie was a tangle of contradictions: a flâneur in patchwork clothes and safety pins who considered herself a fashion plate; a short-tempered bohemian who insisted on decorum; a camera-shy woman who ruthlessly dramatized her interior states. She was an artist who savored beauty even in her harsh concrete environment.

“I always try to paint beauty,” she wrote in her journals, “but some people say my paintings aren’t beautiful. Well, I have beauty in mind, but it isn’t always easy to make paintings beautiful.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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