Different portraits show different personas: Godie the Impressionist, Godie the kid, Godie the wealthy socialite. Though personal preference, possibly combined with the effects of mental illness, kept Godie on the streets (poverty was not the issue), she was a gifted salesperson, able to use her self-portraits as promotional tools to sell her paintings. Instead of, or in addition to, a signature, Godie might sew one of the pictures onto a painting. This is one way Godie subverted the “outsider” label so often affixed to her. “She knew how to work it,” says Patterson. “If you were late paying your money, she would charge you more. If she didn’t really like you or liked your boyfriend instead, she would charge you more. It was kind of this micro-art world in how subjective and unregulated it was.”
As the stories have it, Godie would stand on Michigan Avenue (where, according to my grandmother, she sometimes rented a hotel room for a night) or the steps of the Art Institute
and roll her paintings down halfway. If she liked the look of you walking down the street, she might unfurl a work and sell it. If not, she rolled them up. I guess there was something about my grandmother that struck Godie the wrong way.
Though her homelessness made her an outsider in the most literal sense, to fixate on this aspect of her life is to miss the work itself. “I always felt the term ‘outsider’ really stopped any investigation,” says Patterson. It’s a categorization that deprives Godie, and many other artists, of agency, relegating them to distant satellites, mere novelties orbiting planet Art World. But Godie “knew what people were drawn to and what makes compelling art,” adds Patterson. Even if one walks away from this exhibition less sure about the artist’s true self than ever, the works demand to be seen on her own terms.