Lee Godie: Homeless by Choice

Margaret Hawkins

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Lee Godie, “Lee — City’s Murrielist, Sincerily Yours,” photo booth photo, 4 3/4 x 3 3/4”

In 1968 a strangely dressed woman with a face painted from a tin of watercolors showed up on the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago, hawking her paintings and calling herself Chicago’s French Impressionist. The paintings, which were decidedly not impressionist, but bold and primitive in the style of what was then and is still sometimes called outsider art, sold for as little as $20 (cash only). But the artist wouldn’t sell them to just anyone. If she didn’t like your looks, you were out of luck, and she wouldn’t just withhold a sale. She might insult you, or slap you in the face. 

The artist, of course (to Chicagoans), was Lee Godie, who has been gone for thirty years but in some ways never died. Now her memory has been resurrected by filmmakers Kapra Fleming and Tom Palazzolo in their documentary “Lee Godie, Chicago French impressionist,” released in October 2021 and to be shown at Chicago Filmmakers, February 27–March 5. 

 

Fleming and Palazzolo, artists themselves who knew Godie, tell her story through extensive interviews with those who remember her. The stories are colorful, tender, funny, priceless. Gallerist Carl Hammer, who became Godie‘s art dealer and still represents her estate [A show of Godie’s  paintings, “Sincerely …  Lee Godie,” is on view at Carl Hammer Gallery through February 26—Ed.], tells how she lured prospective buyers by slowly unfurling a painting, then rolling it back up when she changed her mind. Chicago painter Judith Geichman quotes Godie saying she wanted to study at the School of the Art Institute to learn how to paint eyelashes. Palazzolo says she promised him a portrait, then tried to wrangle a kiss, to better paint his lips.

 

“Lee Godie, Chicago French Impressionist” is about the artist, but it’s also a rare look at an art community, the people who knew Godie, who not only bought her art but brought her snacks and panty hose and put her up when the weather was dangerously cold. The film captures Godie’s theatrical voice. It includes rare footage of one of her color-coordinated sunrise openings in Grant Park (decades before Millennium Park and the Bean), parties where the food and the art matched. People recall drinking tea with her, which some claimed she brewed from the same tea bag she carried with her for years.  

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Lee Godie, “Untitled,” 26 x 36 3/4”

Godie was a street person, and the street was Michigan Avenue. That’s where she lived her life, made her art, conducted her business. At an age when most people are thinking about retiring to an easier life or even a warmer climate, she was often homeless, defiantly so. She was seen wandering the streets looking for shelter on the coldest nights, and often refusing it. Sometimes, when she had money, which she increasingly did thanks to brisk sales, she stayed in transient hotels. But more often she slept in the park. More than once she was arrested for vagrancy.

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Lee Godie, “Waiter,” paint and ballpoint pen on canvas, 24 /12 x 16 1/2”

One of the accomplishments of this film is that is does not present Godie as a pathetic figure, but as an accomplished one. She lived according to her vision of herself as an artist. She had an art career, with a roster of collectors many artists would envy. She even had freelance bankers, people who took care of her money for her when she got too much cash. At the very end of her life, at age 85, it turned out she had family, too. A daughter, Bonnie Blank, from one of the two marriages Godie disappeared from, tracked her down through the flurry of press that surrounded her after a retrospective at the Chicago Cultural Center. Although Godie wouldn’t allow her to use the word mother, at the end it was Bonnie who arranged for her care, then provided for her burial in a small rural village 50 miles west of Chicago.  

 

Having gained something of a mythical status, Godie is a Chicago legend, proof of something we’re proud of here, though what exactly is hard to say. Independence, maybe. Durability, perhaps. Collectors smart and lucky enough to buy her work in the seventies and eighties display it proudly. It holds up. (Though the materials don’t always. She used the cheapest stuff, sometimes painting on window shades.) Often the work is beautiful, sometimes it’s innovative. The edgiest is her painted-over photobooth self-portraiture, taken in the Greyhound bus station. There, she vamped herself up into the glamorous character she knew herself to be. Lisa Stone, curator of the Roger Brown Study Collection and gallery manager for Carl Hammer in the 1980s, compares her role-playing photos favorably to Cindy Sherman’s. 

Ill and hospitalized at the end of her life, Godie was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She had the markings all along — the imperious sense of being in tune with some higher vibration, the paranoia, the eccentric costumes, the speech peppered with imaginative neologisms. (One particularly ingenious example is The Publik Camera, her term for her beloved photobooth.)  But such a diagnosis, while it describes Godie, doesn’t begin to explain her, or why she would choose a harsh physical life on the street. Was it to preserve the other life in her mind? And why are those incompatible? 

 

Godie, at least, had people around her who saw her as a person of value. Watching this film, in the dead of another Chicago winter, makes us wonder about the people currently lying in heaps on the cold pavement. What does it say about us, that we can’t figure out how to make life a little more comfortable for people who have this particular difference? Of course, not all homeless people are “mentally ill.”  Most people without homes would gladly accept housing, as Godie did not, but just can’t afford it, for a multitude of tragic reasons, all of them linked to the dearth of affordable housing.  

 

Over half a million Americans are homeless. For some it’s a temporary condition, living in a car until a job comes through. For others, like Godie, it’s a way of life. Chicago has a terrible homelessness problem. It’s estimated that nearly 60,000 people in Chicago are without homes. The number isn’t as high as it is in cities on the west coast, where the weather is milder.

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Lee Godie, “Untitled (Hello Everyone).” Collection of Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, gift of Judy A. Saslow, 2018.23. Photo © John Faier

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The toll, in the cold, is worse. The very places Godie hung out are now populated by a new generation of homeless, still wearing layers of clothes, parked on cold cement. And just like Godie, they’ll tell you their names, talk about their lives. Some will spin wild stories. Some hit you up for money, some dole out blessings and religious philosophy. I’ve yet met to meet anyone selling paintings, though I once was talked into buying a poem. 

 

Godie’s life begs many questions, among them: what is mental illness? Or rather, who among us, motivated by artistic compulsions or just discomfort with conventional ways of living, are not mentally ill, if to be mentally ill is to be suspicious of society and to believe that one has uncanny powers of creation. Herman Melville was said to have replied to a friend who wrote to him about a real whale that rammed a ship, that he believed his “evil art of imagination” was responsible. Moby-Dick did it, Melville thought, because he hadn’t killed him off in the book. Maybe he was joking, but maybe not. Such is the belief system of an artist. Lee Godie didn’t just paint pictures. She created an alternative universe, and maybe she needed to free herself from society to do it. The “bag lady” that passersby saw was a distorted perception of the person Godie knew herself to be. Fleming and Palazzolo’s film gives us a glimpse of that person. Maybe by humanizing her they do the same for others who are a little bit like her. 

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