In conversation with Melanie Hodge

I met Melanie virtually thanks to Jan Phethean whom I interviewed earlier this week. I find her works truly magical, they have this energy that brings you to a world filled with light, colour and wonder!

Have a watch at the video conversation I had with Melanie:

S: Tell me a bit about your background?

M: I was born in the US and moved to the UK/ Europe in 1999 when I met my English husband during a gap year of travelling. We lived in Belgium and Croatia for his job, and it was in Zagreb where I initially learned to paint on glass from a Croatian Naive painter, Ivica Fišter. I had a few sessions (3 maybe?) with him and through him met a number of other artists. I picked up what I could from observing them at work as most of them didn’t speak any English and my Croatian isn’t that great. They welcomed me into their circle though which was a huge boost to my confidence and thanks to so few formal sessions I can lay claim to being almost entirely self-taught.

I’ve been a member of ABNA since 2016 since 2016 and of Outside In since 2018. I balance painting with caring for my son who has autism. 

Rendezvous West Dean (central panel in a triptych) © Melanie Hodge 2019
Done as part of a research residency organised by Outside In at West Dean College of Arts and Crafts. I was able to read some of Leonora Carrington’s letters to Edward James, art patron and founder of the College at West Dean, and it’s the best bit of art research I’ve ever done. I hope to bring even more surrealism into my work as I go forward. 

S: What inspires you?

M: Hope and imagination. The natural world. Fairy tales. Playfulness. Kindness and curiosity. Wonder. If I had to settle on one for inspiring my work though, I think it would be wonder. It captures both a sense of awe and Alice’s endless curiosity in just one word. 

S: How important is the quality of the materials you use?

M: I was told early on to buy the best quality you can and I totally believe it. Not only do materials and tools last longer, but the quality, especially of oil colours through glass, shine through. The initial expense also ensures I respect my materials which means I look after them better. 

Storm in a Teacup © Melanie Hodge 2014
Signature Piece

S: Which is your signature work?

M: For a while my ‘Storm in a Teacup’ was my signature work and it’s still on a lot of my packaging/ publicity materials. It grew out of my own immigration story and a love for Alice in Wonderland, but it has gained layers almost from its first inception and now I find it a problematic work to promote. 

In the first, because of the Union Jack motif on the teacup which now rings with echoes of a Brexit—fuelled nationalism that isn’t me at all. Brexit hasn’t even begun to bite yet, but it has already hurt those of us with close ties to European friends and family. Also, the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean kicked off while I worked on this, so that I can no longer look at it without thinking of all the migrants and refugees who have been turned away from the UK or died while chasing their dreams. In so many ways I find this painting haunts me more with every year that passes. It was conceived in innocence as a lighthearted visualisation of the idiom “a storm in a teacup” whilst I was trying to decode what exactly constitutes ‘builder’s tea’, and now – well. I can’t look at it without mourning those who have been less lucky than me. 

S: What would you advise artists that are just at the start of their artistic career? 

M: An art teacher from my university days told me once that ‘You can always come back to art.’ At the time I didn’t see how I could turn my hobby into a career (and to be honest, I’ve still not done that!), but it has been the one bit of advice I’ve always come back to. Because it’s never too late to start again. And each time, I’ve come back wiser and more experienced so nothing’s lost. 

Detail of work in progress, from a goddess series that has evolved from my West Dean / Outside In research project in 2019 © Melanie Hodge 2019

S: What’s the most valuable advice you’ve ever got regarding your artworks? 

M: Be true to yourself. And I probably read this somewhere, but if it doesn’t scare you, it’s not worth doing it. I say that because every breakthrough I’ve had with my painting has come from taking risks and pushing through the fear, uncertainty, and boredom of thinking I know what might be coming next. 

S: Which is your favourite colour and why?

M: ALL of them. Though mostly in bright, vivid, technicolour hues and often paired across the colour wheel. Turquoise with orange, red with purple and green, deep indigo blue instead of black.  I gave up on watercolours coz I could never make them vivid enough, so richness of hue wins every time. That said, phthalo turquoise blue is my most favourite colour to paint with. Which is stupid as any artist will tell you. It’s the one colour guaranteed to end up everywhere even when only used in micro amounts. Still, the colour is worth it every time.

Somewhere Else Instead (SEI) © Melanie Hodge 2014
A miniature study (15x15cm) in phthalo turquoise and indigo. The flower moon motif appears often in my work, originally inspired by early blossoming magnolias in Zagreb.

S: Do you paint more when you are happy or unhappy?

M: I have it on my website that painting ‘keeps me sane’ only pandemic times have proved that isn’t entirely true. I paint when I am well and my family are well. When all of our ‘needs’ have been met, I paint and it gives me something to obsess about other than the endless bureaucracy that goes with caring for someone with a life long learning disability. In that way it keeps me ‘sane.’ But in pandemic times I have found I do not have the mental bandwidth to dive into a painting and to stay focused long enough to accomplish anything. Instead I have rediscovered fabric and taken up ‘therapy sewing.’ It’s tactile and gives quick results which are doubly rewarding. The brighter the fabric, the better too – so at least I’m consistent. 

S: What was (is) your biggest challenge in art?

M: Finishing anything. Marketing it after it’s done. Restoring the studio to a tidy state. And if I’m deep into a painting, to the point where I am painting more than I’m not, it’s using words again. 

Panels 1 and 3 from Rendezvous West Dean: Muse of Abundance (left) and Goddess of the Pools (right) © Melanie Hodge 2019 Mixed media, reverse oils on glass over original sketch (reversing of the sketch in order that the final painting is in the right orientation, not pictured!) I love how presenting this as ‘work in progress’ has opened up more of my working practice to others.
Again, I’m looking to bring more of this into my work going forward. 

S: Who is your favourite artist and why?

M: I’ll give you two: Frida Kahlo and Leonora Carrington both for their senses of self and surrealist imagery. There are many more obviously, but I’ve already broken the rule of one. 

S: Are you influenced by a particular style?

M: Yes, definitely the Croatian Naive tradition, in particular the artists Katarina Kvarić, Ivica Fišter, and Željko Seleš –  all painting today – because I found not only a technique that worked for me (against all common sense odds, I mean glass/ oils/ backwards?) but a vocabulary and variety of approaches in their practices that have given me confidence to find my own path. 

Phoenix Dreams © Melanie Hodge 2015
Reverse painted oils on clear glass against a white background to highlight the shadows. If this were easier to photography and show off, this would be my preferred signature piece. It hangs in my kitchen and is one of the paintings I am most unlikely to part with. 

S: Do you think there is art that’s purely decorative?

M: Yes – though if you apply it to something useful then it could also be useful. I primarily paint on the back of window glass though so it would be a bit much to claim it was anything other than purely decorative. After all, I take something useful (a transparent window) and paint it in such a way that it’s not longer transparent and, as an artwork, is also ridiculously easy to destroy. Someday I might paint a table top though (on safety glass obviously), and that would be both useful and beautiful. But then, it’s the process I find so engaging, not necessarily the finished product so I don’t mind that it’s not useful. 

S: Are you collecting something?

M: Minimalism is not my thing. Neither is consistency as I collect all sorts of things. If I had to settle on one guiding principle in adding to my collection though, it would be that I prefer supporting artists I know and whose work I love, perhaps making me more of an artist-patron than a straight up art collector.

From Melanie’s private collection, left to right: reverse oil on glass paintings by Željko Seleš, Ivica Fišter, and Katarina Krvarić :

S: Do you think you are born or made an artist?

M: I think we are all artists in search of our medium. It may be that the medium is paint, or stone, or words, or baked goods, or a bicycle design. Whatever the medium is, at the heart of it is a drive to create something new that expresses who you are and makes a mark on the world. The hardest thing though is often just having the confidence to say “This is who I am, and I am an artist.” Especially if you’re self taught or work in a medium or method that is outside of more classic art traditions. Some people may have that confidence from the get go, but for the rest of us it is a journey that is constantly evolving. 

S: Have you ever created a piece of artwork that you were afraid to show? 

M: Not really. I have had many pieces that I am nervous about making but mostly that’s because I am working outside of my comfort zone. But I tend to work towards wonder and delight so there’s not much that I create that I wouldn’t be happy to exhibit or talk about. 

Detail of work in progress.

S: Describe your work process?

M: Sloooooooooow. An idea might appear out of nowhere and turn into a sketch which might be revisited multiple times over a period of weeks, months, or years. I’ve started paintings which also take weeks, months, and (yes!) years to finish. And in the time I spend painting, details emerge, layers are added, things change and evolve – I honestly have no idea what might emerge by accident or design. Even when I work quickly things happen in a work that I don’t expect and can’t explain, though afterwards I know it couldn’t have been any other way.  

Jack and Jill Windmills, from my Sussex Series © Melanie Hodge 2014
This series is still developing as I add familiar landmarks from the South Downs National Park and Sussex regions.
Painting local landscapes became one way of rooting myself after our move from Zagreb to Mid Sussex. These are also smaller works which I’ve made up into prints for more modest budgets. 

Coming in the future (near/far, who knows when exactly) are Charleston House and Gardens connected to the Bloomsbury group artists, Monks House home to Virginia Woolf, and Farleys House where Lee Miller and Roland Penrose entertained the Surrealists. 

S: The first thing that gave you reassurance in your art?

M: It was a combination of things. It was having Ivica Fišter compliment my watercolours and agree to teach me the basics of painting on glass because he must have seen promise. It was failing to paint a pear on glass to his directions and then succeeding on an abstract exercise to both of our surprise. It was Ivica’s recommendation of me to Katarina Krvarić as a fellow artist worth meeting. It was being promoted to ‘colleague’ rather than student on my 3rd session as I asked a question Ivica couldn’t answer. In the end, the thing that really convinced me I was on the right path though was finishing my first fully independently created piece and turning it over for the first time to a sudden and visceral sense of recognition. Literally ‘I know this.’ I’d never produced anything like it ever before, but it felt so right and so unexpectedly, yet wholly me, that while I’ve often doubted my skill or experience, I’ve never doubted the path.

And when I showed Ivica the work and he asked me how I’d done it, it was his equal measures of delight and confusion that anyone would be mad enough to paint with toothpicks, that hardwired in the dopamine hit of delight that I get from magicking wonder out of clear glass and a pin head of paint using nothing but a toothpick. 

Melanie in her studio with ‘Christmas at St John’s’ (left) and ‘Rendezvous West Dean’ (right) and small originals above, including ‘Somewhere Else Instead’, ‘A Kiss for You’ and one of her ‘Cottage by the Sea’ series.

S: What do people say about your paintings?

M: My work has been described as ‘magic folk art’ and I’m more than happy with that. More recent work is tending more towards surrealism following a residency course with Outside In at West Dean College of Arts and Crafts … but given I’ve only finished the triptych I completed as part of my research since then I’m not sure how much of it will stick around. 

Bears Dream © Melanie Hodge 2011
My first large format painting on glass, inspired by the Medvednica Mountains behind Zagreb (Medvjed is bear in Croatian). A bigger glass leads, inevitably, to even more stars painted by toothpick.

Feel free to explore more of Melanie’s magical works on her website: https://mjhodgeart.co.uk

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