The Croatian Language School Chats To Artist Melanie Hodge Who Practices A Specialist Form Of Art – Painting On Glass In The Reverse Oils Technique – Using Skills Honed In Croatia
Melanie Hodge was born in California and grew up near Santa Cruz. She graduated from Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, in 1996 with a degree in English literature. She also studied art, took Russian language classes, and worked in the library and backstage in the theatre. She travelled all across Europe with a sketchbook in her hand, meeting her future husband along the way. Since then she has lived in London, Brussels, Amman, and Zagreb. It was in Zagreb in 2010 that Melanie began painting on glass, in the reverse oils technique, and met several Croatian artists who helped her develop her skills and techniques. She now lives in the heart of West Sussex, 10 minutes from the South Downs Way and 40 minutes from the sea. Read the full interview below
1. You had a very broad range of interests at University. When did Art start to become a primary focus?
I took an art class every term at university as a way to play away from more academic studies. I’d always doodled in my notebooks, but never really saw art as viable career choice as I couldn’t see how I might make a living from it. When I decided to take a gap year, a friend made me promise I’d only send her handmade postcards and I used the challenge to develop my skills. Only after meeting my husband did I understand how making art was my best, most portable career option. Even then, it wasn’t until our return to the UK in 2012, with both kids settled into school (I have two, one with special needs associated with autism), that I have been able to spend enough time on it to consider it my primary focus away from parenting.
2. Of the many places you have lived, what stood out about Zagreb?
I couldn’t believe how lucky we were living in a beautiful city like Zagreb. On the school run I would drive over the foothills of the Medvednica Mountains towards Šestine past the church ‘with the flower roof’, picturesquely situated under the Medvedgrad fortress, once home to the Black Queen. You can see the church, and it’s blue tiled roof with a yellow diamond pattern, in some of my first glass paintings. As a treat on the way home I’d drive the kids past ‘the rainbow church’ in Gornji Grad (aka Sveti Marko). On summer days we’d go to Tkalčičeva, the street of a thousand cafes, to have ice cream at Ivica I Marica. Named after the Croatian for Hansel and Gretel, we called it ‘the witches house’ as the coloured tiles over the door made it look as though it were made of gingerbread decorated with sweets. During the summer we’d spend every other weekend on our sailboat at the coast playing pirates. As a result, I remember Zagreb as a fairy tale city, and Croatia itself was full of stories, magic, and adventure at every turn.
3. Could you describe to us your personal style of art and how it has developed?
Another artist has described my work as ‘Magic Folk Art’ and I am happy to embrace that description. I have always loved fairy tales and magic myths, especially the way in which they can imbue every day environments with wonder and possibility. Early on I tried my hand at illustrating children’s books, and I still have several sketches set aside for future imaginings of the stories I love best. But really the thing that has most influenced my personal style is that I like drawing and painting in this way. I love the spiralling lines, bright colours, and wrap-around landscapes that tie together the elements I feel are most important. I also love the way the lines warp and wobble as I clean paint away for crisp edges, and the meditative time needed to add hundreds of toothpick-dotted stars onto clean glass. The sensory input from the way I work is very satisfying and often takes my initial ideas in unexpected directions.
4. What exactly is the reverse oils technique on glass and is it a Croatian speciality?
When asked to describe my painting medium and/or process I start by asking my audience to imagine a clear-clean piece of window glass. And the very first thing I do with it? I sign my name … backwards. That’s because I am painting on the ‘back’ of the glass and the viewer will see the final work from the front. This means I need to add in all my fine foreground details first, adding layers as the paint dries. Some ulje na staklo (oil on glass) artists paint in sections in a single layer of paint, but I like the detailed work so work across the entire piece, from fine detail to background in accruing layers.
Reverse glass painting has been around for centuries and appears in all cultures where glass has been made. In the UK it’s most commonly used in sign writing – think gilt lettering backed by enamel paint advertising wares for sale, London has more than a few of these signs and some quite recently done. But in Croatia, the tradition is figurative rather than literary, and it originated only in the 1930s. That said, there has been a continuous tradition of naive, often self-taught, artists painting on glass since then and, at its height in the 1980s, Croatian glass paintings were being sold to major collectors around the world. Today you can find many examples in naive art galleries and tourist shops in Zagreb, Dubrovnik, and other tourist destinations, while specialist museums can also be found in the Podravina region where many of the first and second generation of artists lived. Artists still working in the medium today also welcome visitors to their home studios year round.
5. Are there any people whose work you particularly admire and/or have helped you along the way?
I was first introduced to reverse glass painting by the artist Ivica Fišter. His landscapes, where the hills are butterfly or bird wings, made me see the Croatian tradition very differently and from him I learned the basics of putting paint to glass. Through Ivica, I met Katarina Krvarić, whose work has had a major influence on finding my own way of working on the glass. I also spent time with Željko Seleš whose garden landscapes are full of tiny flowers and leaf details. From the non-glass Croatian naive tradition, Ivan Rabuzin is another of my favourites for his playful use of scale and his love of more-than-life-size flowers. I feel that there is a continuing conversation between these artists and myself as my work continues to develop: technically but also visually, and often influencing my response to the work of other artists I admire from outside of Croatia.
6. In your career as an artist what achievement or achievements are you most proud of?
At the very beginning of my glass painting journey, I very nearly didn’t even start. I had two small children, one with special needs and each requiring much of my attention and energy in their own ways, and my art confidence was pretty low at the time. I can’t take much credit for the impulse which made me ask Ivica if he’d teach me to paint on glass as it seemed more like fate giving me a push than a conscious decision. But the fact that I repeatedly went outside of my comfort zone: learning to paint on glass, in oils, backwards, (none of which I’d done before), and in a foreign language (Ivica only spoke Croatian and I started Croatian lessons only after I started painting with him) – that makes me really proud, and after that I figure anything is possible.
7. You suggest, on your website, that your art plays an essential role in maintaining your mental health and well-being: could you perhaps describe a typical day and the importance of the time you spend on art in that day?
My art is very important to me, both in maintaining my mental health and on a sensory level. It’s not so much that I have to paint every day, but the idea that it is there every day, keeping me company when I might otherwise be over-thinking or over-stressing the parenting thing. From developing new work to resolving technical challenges, from event organising to promotion – I now have a bit of my head that is dedicated entirely to me: where I can play, free associate, and consider creative questions outside of laundry rotas, shopping lists, and school timetables. Regaining that sense of self, separate from my role as parent-carer (an all encompassing role especially when the children were younger), was and remains an important part of how I stay mentally well. Or as I describe it, sane. And the lovely thing is that, as the kids get older, that thinking space is increasing – especially on the solo side of the school run and while waiting for clubs to finish.
In terms of sensory well-being, I do the kind of painting I do because it makes me very happy when I am in the moment: from the smell of the oil paints, the mixing of colours, to the gleam of the glass and the backwards thinking required to paint the details first. I’ve also found slow drying times very helpful in navigating the unavoidable interruptions caused by family life. But because I am still a parent, carer, wife – and I long ago resolved that these things would always outweigh the frustration of having less time to paint – there are days, weeks, even months when I might not paint at all. And in that time, having the thought of what I might do next in my head or being able to walk into the studio (yes, a room of my own) and inhale the lingering linseed means that when the time to paint comes, my artist-self is ready to go.
8. Can you explain a little of your journey in the Croatian language and perhaps share a few tips with our students?
When I first arrived in Zagreb, my Russian was just enough to get me by in the markets and in the shops. That’s not to say there weren’t mistakes and misunderstandings, but more often than not those increased the more confident I became in Croatian, mostly because I began to lose where one language began and another ended. And there are several false friends – such as the word for ‘difficult’ in Russian translates as ‘pregnant’ in Croatian. I intended the first one, so did get some funny looks.
Once I started taking Croatian lessons though, despite those confusions, knowing how the language worked (declinations, modifying adjectives, non-false vocabulary friends, etc) meant my confidence shot up very quickly and I used it everywhere. Being in the country, speaking to native speakers, was/is/remains my favourite way to learn a language. It makes the vocabulary relevant so that I remember more.
If asked to give advice, my favourite way to brush up on my Croatian without homework is to tune into a Croatian radio station. With digital radio there are endless ways to access the stations, but I found a Croatian radio app and used that from my phone. I quickly settled on HRT1 as I found it a relaxing mix of English and Croatian pop music and talk radio. I loved the 15 minute ‘children’s programme’ in the mornings when I listened most regularly as I generally understood more than I expected to.
And my favourite, most recommended way to improve, is to use the language. Find a native speaker, practice in a group, but ideally go to visit the country and use it. Every Croatian I’ve met loves that I’ve spent time trying to learn the language and they are always forgiving of my mistakes.
And my secret trick? If you feel particularly nervous about declining your verbs, pretend your Macedonian. Apparently they don’t decline their verbs so much. I learned that from a Zagreb bus driver who asked if I was Macedonian rather than the usual English or Russian (I still have quite the Russian accent when speaking Croatian) – and it gave me a huge boost in confidence though my teacher at the time wasn’t very impressed!
9. Do you still get a chance to visit Croatia and/or speak the language?
I started taking lessons for the second time in 2015 via Skype with a London based tutor because of a collaborative art project I was developing. The project came and went, but I loved that my lessons were one-to-one and had no travel time involved (or childcare needs) so I continued through the spring of 2017. This year I’ve had more commitments so sadly the Croatian lessons went. I have many friends still in Zagreb though, and hope to go back again before too long. Once I have specific plans I’m sure I’ll be taking more lessons too. My Croatian gets very dusty when I’ve not been practicing. One day I’d like to join a Croatian Language School summer programme too, I think that would be a great way to brush up my Croatian.
10. And finally, what are you working on at the moment?
I am currently working on two stand alone pieces, one celebrating a local, to me, landmark at Christmas time and another my response to the works of Mexican-based, surrealist artists Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo (women whose art I greatly admire). When those works are finished I will continue developing a new body of work with the working title “Islands of the Mind” – partly inspired by my time on Croatia’s beautiful islands.
You can find out more about Melanie’s work and order prints and cards of her paintings at https://mjhodgeart.co.uk She offers free world wide shipping on all print/card orders and can advise on availability of original works.
Melanie writes a quarterly newsletter, the latest of which can be found at https://mailchi.mp/a704d8c58866/from-tiny-seeds-news-and-updates-from-the-studio-of-mjhodgeart
And you can sign up to her mailing list at http://eepurl.com/bC_dBn
You can also follow Melanie on social media @MJHodgeArt
on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MJHodgeArt/
on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/mjhodgeart/
on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mjhodgeart
on Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/mjhodgeart/