Archive for April 5th, 2012

I have a real soft spot in my heart for self-taught and outsider artists, the untrained artists who are driven to create by forces that no one truly understands.  There is something about their passionate need for expression that really fills in the voids of the work they do,  making their sometimes unsophisticated creations sing as a reflection of the artist.  Many of these artists have interesting stories or lives that have been overtaken by their need to create their work.  One of these is the late Lee Godie.

Godie (1908-1994) showed up on the steps of the of the Art Institute of Chicago in the late 60’s and for the better part of the next three decades was a fixture there, hawking her rolled canvas paintings to museum-goers and art students.  Her work was often made in ballpoint pen and watercolor and depicted mainly figurative work, often fashionably attired people in a style resembling fashion plates.  Over the years,  her work and her persona became almost legendary in the Chicago area and there was a career retrospective of her work at the Chicago Cultural Center in 1992,  just two years before her death.

I mentioned her persona, which may have been the biggest part of her work. While little is known of her life before her years as an itinerant artist on the steps of the museum, she was a big personality.  Although not French and with work that was not of the Impressionist school of art, she called herself a French Impressionist and often attached the title to her name on the back of the canvases she painted.  It was actually a nod to the inspiration she got from the Imprssionist paintings she saw in the museum.  As she said of her favorite artist , “Renoir was the greatest artist of all time. He always said he painted beauty. Now I always try to paint beauty, but some people say my paintings aren’t beautiful. Well, I have a beauty in my mind, but it isn’t always easy to make paintings beautiful.”  

Like many Outsiders, Godie lived a hard and homeless life, often sleeping in the bus terminal or, when sales were good, in flophouses.  But it didn’t deter her search for beauty.  One of the interesting things she did was to take advantage of the bus terminal photobooth, taking a series of photos over the years of her in different personas, often in heavy stage makeup.  She would often touch-up these photos with the colors with which she painted, creating photos that in themselves are as much works of art as her paintings.

I didn’t know much about Lee Godie before stumbling across her work but there is something quite special in her work, a childishly naive yet full view of her world that reaches out beyond the surface.  Knowing a bit more of her story makes that sensation even more profound.

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