SHEBOYGAN, Wis. — Lee Godie was an outcast of society who lived on the streets of Chicago. Despite her harsh living conditions, her self-portraits, taken at a bus station photo booth, are flooded with warmth, humor, and the will of a woman who shapes her own destiny. The images are fascinating, funny and, at the same time, disturbing.
Lee Godie: Self-Portraits, is the first exhibition exclusively dedicated on Godie’s photographs rather than her paintings and drawings, and is now presented at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, WI. It includes a catalogue with an essay by curator Karen Patterson and more than 50 of Godie’s self-portraits that are exhibited.
Lee Godie, untitled, n.d., gelatin silver print and ink,15½ x 14¼ in (all images courtesy John Michael Kohler Arts Center)
It's remarkable that this great artist lived on the streets, storing her belongings in train station lockers, washing in hotel bathrooms, and selling her paintings on the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1968 until several years before her death in 1994 at age 85. She called herself a French Impressionist and became well known while she was alive and well respected after her death, with exhibitions at London’s Hayward Gallery, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, the Museum of American Folk Art, the Chicago Cultural Center, and Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, in Chicago.
Jodie took herself portraits at the downtown Greyhound bus station’s photo booth, which generated 5 x 4 gelatin silver black-and-white prints. She was dressed up for the images and imitated the poses of movie stars, changing her hair, posture, clothing for the various shoots. The images are revealing about herself, her life and her dreams as living on the streets is so tough that sometimes you have to forget reality and somehow to reinvent yourself just to keep going. Godie, through these portraits, succeeded not just to create art but essentially to keep her dignity and her inner beauty unaltered and narrate her story. Against all the odds.
Lee Godie, untitled (in white fur stole with heart-shaped cameo), n.d., gelatin silver print, 4¾ x 3¾ in.
In many images, she embellishes them with ink, eyeliner, or lipstick, accentuating her eyes and eyebrows, adding touches of color. In one, Godie’s blond hair hangs freely around her shoulders. She wears a fur coat with a scarf and holds four carnations. Drawing on the surface of the photograph, Godie has eyelined her eyes and darkened her brows with ink and colored red on her lips and pink on the flowers. The resulting image is strong and beautiful but also sadly far away from the society's standards.
It is said that Godie would sometimes use instant iced tea mix to artificially tan her skin for portraits. Other times she painted onto the image to darken her face.
‘Lee Godie: Self-Portraits’ installation view
As an artist, Godie often painted glamorous, movie star–influenced portraits of men and women, birds and plants. She might paint a doorman or waiter in his uniform, or an image inspired by Joan Crawford, Grace Kelly, or James Dean. By photographing herself, she visually joined these famous people as a kind of larger-than-life heroine, revealing that true beauty can sometimes grow from the toughest of climates.
Lee Godie: Self-Portraits continues at John Michael Kohler Arts Center (608 New York Avenue, Sheboygan, WI) through February 8, 2016.
Lee Godie, untitled (detail from 12 photobooth self-portrait set), n.d., gelatin silver print, 12½ x 61 x 2½ in.