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Lee Godie: An Art Institute Icon

Lee Godie, "Untitled (photo booth self-portrait)," 1970s, gelatin silver print, 4 3/4 x 3 3/4”

A woman sidled over into a black and white photo booth – it was the 1970s, and she was dressed in an overly furry coat with a spread of cash fanned out in her right hand. She hit the button and paused to look up to the right with her mouth slightly open, a stance that no doubt reminded her of a haughty rich woman, flaunting everything she had. This photo would stay black and white – she wouldn’t color red onto her cheeks or her lips this time around. The woman stepped out of the booth, and instantly, her reality where she could be anything she wanted, was shattered. To any unsuspecting person, she appeared to be a raggedy, dirty homeless woman dressed in a coat she probably didn’t buy. But soon, more opportunities would arise for her to be whomever she wanted, and to show the world the face of Jamot Emily Godee (Lee Godie), a face Chicago would never forget.

Today, you do not have to walk down the street for more than a minute without seeing a person holding their phone up in the air, trying to capture that perfect angle. Often, this selfie past time is assigned to young adults. However, Lee Godie was arguably the first ever selfie sensation. The artist was over 60-years-old when she began selling her photos and artwork, and has become a much sought after artist in Chicago.

Lee Godie, Untitled (in white fur stole with heart-shaped cameo)

Godie was mostly known for her self-portrait photos in which she dressed up as children and upper-class women, but she was also known for her paintings and drawings, which MIR has had the opportunity to handle in person. One day, in 1968, after the loss of two children and a divorce, Godie plopped herself down on the stairs of the Art Institute of Chicago and began to sell her artwork. She convinced people about how her paintings were comparable to the acclaimed Paul Cézanne’s, probably to be received by the scoffs of many onlookers. She fought back just as hard. She would give people she deemed favorable the privilege of viewing her paintings, but if she got a whiff of undesirable air from someone, she would hide her paintings and refuse to sell it. One method of hiding and flashing her paintings was storing them inside her massive fur coat. She would open it to reveal her masterpieces to those she deemed acceptable. She was not out to sell her pieces to anyone – she chose who had the privilege of buying from her, and in this way, she gained respect and power. She was not hurting for anything, and she let people know that. Her dignity was her own. As well, if you insisted on approaching her after she had hidden her canvas from you in disdain, she would make you pay extra for the work, merely because you rubbed her the wrong way.

No one took advantage of Godie. If a person did not get the funds to her soon, she would charge them extra.

Godie did not stumble into fame. She deliberately chose every step she took, even living on the streets among the people. She earned her renown, and it was what she was striving for from the beginning. She was a keen business woman. Carl Hammer, a man who owned a gallery in Chicago, noticed Godie and found interest in her work.

Not only did Lee know how and where to sell her art, she also knew what to sell. She knew what the people wanted, and therefore she could work the crowd in any possible way to gain success. She painted the John Hancock Center as well as bugs and small, overlooked things like leaves and sticks. She painted people she watched. She captured the real-life Chicago, and people saw that value. Her works now sell for hundreds of times more than the five to twenty-five dollars they sold for back then.

Today, Godie has made a name for herself in her exhibitions in the Chicago Cultural Center, Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Carl Hammer Gallery. Sadly, in 1994, the beloved Jamot Emily (Lee) Godee passed away at the age of 86, and nearly ten years after she passed, she received a place in the same building that housed Cézanne’s work– the Art Institute of Chicago. Now three of her drawings hold a permanent spot in this fine establishment. Godie started on the steps of the Chicago Art Institute, and she ended up indoors.

Works Cited

"Antiques Roadshow | PBS". Antiques Roadshow | PBS, 2018, outsider-artist. Accessed 24 July 2018.

Kaplan, Isaac. "Searching For Lee Godie, One Of Chicago’S Most Collected Artists". Artsy, 2018, chicago-s-most-collected-artists. Accessed 24 July 2018.

"Lee Godie - Artists - Carl Hammer Gallery". Carlhammergallery.Com, 2018, Accessed 24 July 2018.

"Lee Godie". En.Wikipedia.Org, 2018, Accessed 24 July 2018.

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