For Lee Godie, the sacred space behind the curtain of a photo booth was not a place for candid snapshots documenting random moments as they are for most people. As the exhibition Lee Godie: Self Portraits—on view now at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center—illustrates with over 50 self-portraits, Godie saw this space as sacred, as a studio where she could play with femininity, personas, and her legacy.
Through February 8, 2016, this exhibition features the photographic works by a figure who is a significant thread within the tapestry of Chicago’s art history. This exhibit is unique as a survey of Godie’s work showcasing these disarming and telling self-portraits rather than her better known paintings she created on the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago. Associate curator, Karen Patterson remarked about what a rare occasion this intimate exhibition is for viewers.
“This is the first time there has been an exhibition dedicated to her photography and I think it’s important to incorporate this work into a larger discussion about her.” She continued, “I wanted the title of the show to be Lee Godie: Self-Portraits because they are worthy of investigation.” Because myth is so entwined with much of the discussion about Godie, her work often seems to be overshadowed by those stories. This is precisely what Patterson aimed to avoid, by focusing on analysis of Godie the artist instead of Godie the urban legend.
According to Patterson, having any kind of first-hand interaction with Godie was a veritable seal of approval. Artists, educators, and art lovers all wanted to have a piece of her. “You wanted to be a part of her story,” Patterson said. “That was her gift to the Chicago art scene.”
The exhibition tells a story that expands beyond the lore of an artist who lived in the elements and stashed her belongings in lockers all over the city. Sometimes, because of the intensity of her daily life, she wrote notes to herself that made their way into her work. One piece in the show has the note: “The thing is to get a key. Chicago, we own it. Artist Lee Godie.” This is a reminder not to forget her locker keys where her belongings were kept. But when this practical-seeming note is incorporated into Godie’s art, it takes on a symbolic overtone: the artist—and her viewers—hold the keys to their city.
The challenges Godie faced compelled her to focus on her skills and create a prolific body of work. Patterson said, “There are moments where this very difficult life of living on the streets of Chicago came face to face with her perception of grandeur and celebrity.” She continues, “She portrays herself as a sought-after artist, but her eyes look tired and there’s this vulnerability that is exciting and unnerving.”
Although often classified as an outsider artist, Godie knew exactly what she was doing, from the moment of creation to the marketing and promotion of her work. Patterson sees the label of “outsider,” particularly in this case, as a term referring to the market and definitely not a way to capture a tireless artist like Godie. “She was hyper aware of the art world, hyper aware of being an artist. Her whole life was dedicated to being an artist.”
According to legend, when Godie first saw the French Impressionist collection in the Art Institute of Chicago, she broke out in a sweat, the kind of sweat that occurs when you realize your life calling. That was the moment, too, when she designated herself as “Lee Godie Impressionist Artist.” Her clothing and rolled-up canvases manifested that alignment to all who visited the museum to see the Impressionists. By extension, Godie who was creating artwork right outside of the museum.
In Untitled (self-portrait, upward gaze holding canvas with orange vase) the artist holds up a canvas as she fades into the dark space of the curtain behind her. The ostensible intention here is the promotion of her work, but her weathered face, upward gazing eyes, and silky, freshly-brushed hair speaks to the melding of Chicago’s harsh climate with the daily life of an enchanting persona. The canvas takes center stage, but the intriguing artist holding it becomes the focus of the viewer’s attention, even as she fades into the background.
What is celebrated and examined in this exhibition is work from those moments Godie seemed to treasure, moments she could transform and express herself with abandon. Those whimsical self-portraits behind the photo booth curtain, documented her private time away from the streets and the deluge of people vying for her attention.
Patterson mused on the significance of these solitary moments for Godie. “The photo booth provided everything that she needed.” She had the time and privacy for introspection where she was the subject, not the object. The photographs were instantly available, so she could just keep on shooting portraits.
She would often use colored pencils or paints to heighten the drama of her photographs, a result that is wonderfully grandiose in another Untitled portrait. Here, Godie is adopting a persona of glamour reminiscent of an Alfred Stieglitz portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe. She is pondering texture here, too. Her cheeks, lips, the blanket, and sweater have all been treated by her hand, giving the portrait not only texture but depth in the study of herself as the subject.
Godie’s photo booth portraits would often accompany a painting and were desired by collectors as much or more than her paintings. There was luck involved in purchasing from her, though, as she often turned people away and adjusted prices as she saw fit at any given moment. Patterson said, “She had to both live life and work on her persona at the same time.” This dilemma is revealed particularly in Irish Rose, a work of mixed media on canvas, which is accompanied by a portrait of Godie holding the canvas. Signed “Artist Lee Godie” the photograph is just a way to trademark her work and her persona. The eyes and the hair are very important in Irish Rose just as they are very important in her self-portraits, where she lingered as she modeled her different selves.
All of these self-portraits have an eccentricity that is easy to envy. Another Untitled, in black and white, profiles Godie in a position of posed regal refinement. Her white sweater compliments her white hair, which is pulled back and rests on the nape of her neck to reveal a feminine collarbone and delicate hands.
The curation of these portraits is intimate and congenial, drawing viewers straight into Godie’s narrative by way of her stunning artwork. As fascinating Godie’s tale is, it is her work that viewers ultimately find irresistible.