On this day Lee Godie is dressed to the teeth—of which she has only a few. She’s wearing a beret, a graying skirt-and-sweater ensemble, a scruffy mock-fur jacket adorned with safety pin and cameo brooch and men’s shiny black shoes. For extra effect she’s blackened her eyebrows and reddened her cheeks with her watercolors and apparently dunked herself in a vat of perfume. Peddling her striking wares to the lunchtime crowd outside Marshall Field’s, she looks and smells like an apple doll some months after the fall.
“I have the painting you ordered,” she says to a passing businessman. She’s never met the man before, but he knows her by sight and reputation.
“Oh, really? Can I see it?” he asks.
“You’re not smiling,” she says, vamping shamelessly, while unfurling an ink-and-watercolor painting of a yellow-haired lady in a dress of yellow leaves. “I heard on the radio, ‘If they smile, they’re going to buy.’ ”
The man smiles and forks over $65. An hour later he’s back again, this time dropping $60 for a pair of exotic-looking women with eyes big as saucers. “I think these are definitely long-term investments,” the businessman confides, even as the artist blows him a parting kiss.
The word is out on Lee Godie: The 60ish baglady is hands down Chicago’s most collected artist. Indeed, Godie—who makes her home, studio and gallery on the sidewalks of Chicago’s Loop—might be referred to as the Grandma Moses of the Midwest. She might, except that, as art critic Dennis Adrian, who owns his share of Godies, is quick to say, “She’s far more interesting than Grandma Moses, far bolder and stronger.” Godie is the darling of the city’s serious art collectors and critics, who revere her work as outstanding examples of “naive and outsider art.” She’s just as popular with the casual passersby who’ve bought thousands of her works on impulse. Though she sleeps in transient hotels or outdoors, security guard Dennis Baker claims that when he attempted once to bring her in from the cold, Go-die showed him bank accounts containing more than $100,000.
The question is, who is she and where does she come from? Alas, she does not suffer reporters gladly, especially since a long article in the Wall Street Journal made her a hot story for the media. Earlier in the day, a small posse of reporters tracked her to the Trailways Bus Terminal, where she was feeding quarters into a series of storage lockers that contain most of her worldly goods: plastic bags of unidentifiable possessions, some canvases and clothes, dry milk and doughnuts. Asked if she would stand still for an interview, she hissed, “No speak English!” in some sort of pseudoaccent. Try again, thought the reporter. “What kind of paintings did your mother do?” “No speak English!” she repeated. Then, a few moments later, in a conspiratorial whisper, “Nothing but oil.”
Lee Godie is a puzzle even to her friends. John C. Jones, avid Godie collector and vice-president of Ultimo, the swank clothing store on Oak Street, thinks she’s from Wisconsin. “All I know is that she admires her father,” he says, “the reason for which I can’t remember.” Ken Walker, director of the influential Betsy Rosenfield Gallery, has dedicated an entire wall of his folk-art-filled loft to Godie, whom he describes as “a really extraordinary artist.” Walker met her in 1968 when she first hit town and he was a student at the School of the Art Institute. “What we’ve pieced together,” he says, “is that Lee had a normal middle-class life. She has talked about a husband and a daughter. Lee, I think, wanted to be a professional singer when she was a young woman. She’s mentioned that her husband never allowed her to do that. When he was gone—none of us know what happened to him—she felt it was too late to be a singer, but she could be an artist. I think she began her art in 1968. She’s mentioned that her daughter died somehow. That may have been the tragedy that transformed her life.”
Last winter Walker and his roommate, painter Mark Jackson, ran into Godie on an arctic sub-zero night. “We got her a room in a hotel for several days,” he says. “I think she was quite frightened. I don’t see how she would have survived.” He recalls that she was picked up once by the police in the early 1970s and was taken to a mental health center, where she was held, angry and terrified, for a few weeks, until eventually she walked out. “I think a lot of people would describe Lee as mentally ill,” says Walker. “But I think Lee is quite functional, and I think she is very happy in the life she is living.” Walker talks about joining his friend for dinner, at her invitation, on a park bench. “Dinner usually consists of a package of Twinkies or a little piece of cake. She carries tea bags around. Our duty is to run and get the hot water.” On such occasions, he says, she’s shared some “very poetic ideas. I remember they were tearing down a building on Michigan Avenue and she said, ‘Oh, Ken, it’s so interesting. They got tired of the design of this building, so they’re tearing it down. They’re carrying all the bricks over there.’ She pointed to another place where another building was going up, and said, ‘They’re just taking all the bricks and redesigning it.’ ”
Back on State Street, an hour has passed and Godie has sold a total of three paintings for $185. She picks up her portfolio, turns the corner and walks north between the El tracks and Marshall Field’s. Was she free for lunch? a reporter asks. She seems ready to accept, then pulls back like an animal scenting a baited trap.
“I mostly eat chocolate anyway,” she divulges, a dietary precaution she says she adopted because her brother and father died of heart disease. “They say chocolate is good for the heart, so chocolate is my daily diet, every day. I didn’t want to die—it was early. I was so young! Both of them died early, of heart trouble. That’s all I want to tell you about.”
The reporter tries again. Where is she from, originally—Chicago?
“I say we all came from embryos,” she reflects. Then, “Quit following me, please!” This said, she ducks into a parking garage, where she crouches behind a car and eventually sneaks out the back entrance.