Lee Godie (1908-1994) was an outsider artist who spent three decades living rough on the streets of Chicago—with the occasional respite in a flophouse when she had cash.
When you read about Godie there’s always the sentence that states she “spent almost 30-years homeless” or “lived on the streets for nearly thirty years.” The “nearly” and “almost” make it sound cosy—make it all sound like an heroic failure—as if she didn’t quite succeed in living rough for the full thirty years—as in the way we say—she nearly came first in the race or she almost won the lottery. One night sleeping rough on the streets is hell enough for anyone—especially in those cold Chicago winters where the temperature can drop to -30 in the windchill and the radio broadcasts give advice on breathing in through the mouth and out through the nose to prevent nosebleeds.
Somehow Godie managed to live and work while she was homeless between the 1960s and 1990s. She made drawings and paintings with whatever materials she had to hand. She then sold them to commuters on their way to work—but only if she liked the look of you. If she didn’t—then Godie rolled up her portfolio of pictures, put them under her arm, bid you “Good day” and moved on to the next potential buyer. That’s an enviable, if bloody-minded determination.
For Godie chose to live on the streets. She had money—enough to keep her dry, warm and snug. But she preferred living rough. Why? No one seems to be quite sure. At night, in sub-zero temperatures Godie slept on “a concrete bench…clutching her large black portfolio” of artworks. How Godie ended up homeless is open to conjecture. What is known she was married twice and had four children. After the deaths of two of her children, Godie began her life living on the streets in the 1960s.
The drawings and paintings were usually done while sitting on a park bench or on the steps of the Arts Institute. But perhaps her biggest and best known artworks was a series of selfies she made using a photo-booth as her studio.
For these self-portraits Godie dressed-up in her thrift store clothes and posed with props bought from Woolworth’s with the money she made selling her paintings. A Godie painting that was sold for $30 bucks back in the 1980s can fetch over $15,000 today. Godie’s photographs show her playing different roles—the child, the muse, the rich sophisticate like those 1920s Daisy Buchanan flappers she seemed so enamored by in her paintings.
When a newspaper story about Godie—the eccentric homeless artist—appeared in 1988—her daughter Bonnie Blank made contact. One day she was seen sitting beside her mother drawing pictures. On one occasion even sleeping rough with her. Eventually the daughter introduced herself to her long lost mother. Not long after this, Godie was admitted to hospital suffering from dementia. On her release, she went to stay with Bonnie where she remained until her death in 1994.
More of the Lee Godie’s photobooth art, after the jump…