From the late 1960s until the very end of the ’80s, the artist Lee Godie staked her claim on the Art Institute’s steps. She hawked her paintings, drawings, and photographs to museum patrons, students, and passersby on Michigan Avenue. Living on the street by choice, Godie, who passed away in 1994, kept her wardrobe and art supplies in department-store lockers and frequented bus-station photo booths to take self-portraits—an idiosyncratic aspect of her diverse and public practice. “Lee Godie: Self-Portraits,” at at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art , is an exhibition exclusively focused on more than 50 of these automated self-portraits.
“More than her drawings or other objects she made, the photo-booth self-portraits reflect that eccentric personality that so many of us remember about her,” said Michael Bonesteel, adjunct assistant professor of art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Bonesteel (who wrote “The Mysterious Master of Michigan Ave.,” a lengthy story about Godie that ran in the January 8, 1982, issue of the Reader) curated the artist’s 20-year retrospective at the Chicago Cultural Center in 1993. “The experience of interacting with her,” he said, “participating in her strange social rituals, and ultimately purchasing a work of art were all part of what might be termed ‘the Lee Godie experience.’ ”
For her bus-station self-portraits Godie would elaborately set up each shot: she included costumes, makeup, and props, and sometimes she’d tint her skin with instant-tea crystals to create a more dramatic image. She would also incorporate rolled-up canvases, art-supply-store bags, or money in her portraits, a sly way of alluding to her practice. In Untitled (photo booth self-portrait) she shows off a brand-new set of watercolors, with several canvases lodged underneath her right arm. Godie didn’t manipulate the print, but in other instances she would draw on the photograph after it developed; she’d highlight her eyelashes, lips, and clothing with thick marks of color.
The exhibition was originally curated for the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, by Karen Patterson, who learned about Godie’s work as a curatorial assistant at the SAIC’s Roger Brown Study Collection. “The photo booth was a world in which she could see herself,” Patterson said. “She was out there without a barrier, and didn’t have a studio or home to go back to in many cases. I see the photo booth as a private moment where she could both see and embolden herself as an artist in Chicago.”
“Lee Godie: Portraits” reinforces Godie’s significant role in the Chicago art world. But it also highlights the intimate moments she experienced when she was face to face with herself, momentarily secluded from her public life on the city’s streets. v
Correction: This article has been amended to reflect the correct title of the exhibit.