Affectionately referred to by friends and colleagues as the “modern day Alma Thomas,” Antionette S. Hodges began her career as a full-time professional artist after retirement. For thirty years, she taught art in the District of Columbia Public School System, and taught for a year part-time at Sandy Spring Middle School in Olney, Maryland. In 1999, she had her first solo art show at Trinity College in Washington, DC titled Yesteryears and, thus, began the journey toward “following her dream.”
Since that time, Hodges has participated in a number of juried and group art shows. Her painting Music by Moonlight was featured on the cover of the November 2006 issue of applause at Strathmore magazine and, in 2014, her painting Feelin’ the Rhythm was chosen as the cover art for Harlem Blues, a book written and published in France by Christine Duale’ and L’ Harmattan publishers. She also has two paintings on display at Mulebone restaurant, formerly Eatonville, located at 14th and V Streets NW in Washington, DC.
Though Hodges’ career as a professional artist started later in life, she has always been creative. Her father was one of her earliest influences. He was also creative and made a lot of things. He even sewed clothes. While a student at West Virginia State College (now University), Hodges took art classes and studied the abstract expressionists, who were in vogue at the time. It was not until after graduating from college that Hodges learned more about Black artists, and studied their work. William H. Johnson, Horace Pippin, and Jacob Lawrence’s art, in particular, served as sources of inspiration for her. To Hodges, their work is accessible. She wants the viewer to not only be stimulated by her art, but to also understand what is being expressed. She wants people to look at her work and say, “that reminds me of…”, and Hodges has several stories of people who have bought her work for just that reason. For Hodges, too, it is important that she make her art personal so the viewer sees what she sees. Several of her paintings imitate real life, she says, and her imagination, life situations, or photographs inspire much of her subject matter.
“Images by ASH,” her exhibit now showing at Congress Heights Arts & Culture Center, represents some of the themes, subjects, and styles she has been exploring over the past several years.
Displayed in the room at the entrance of the exhibit are Hodges’ music themed art works. Music, especially jazz, has played an important role in her work, as subject and as inspiration. Hodges is particularly interested in art works created by jazz musicians, such as Yusef Lateef and Miles Davis. Hodges says she almost always listens to music when she paints. This not only inspires her subject matter but it also inspires her technique. Typically, Hodges explains, she works on just one part of the canvas when creating a piece, but when she listens to jazz music while creating, she tends to utilize the whole canvas and work in an improvisational style, much like the jazz musicians she is listening to.
Hodges has always been interested in creating backgrounds for her paintings that will achieve a particular effect. In a series of paintings titled Tangle Improv, Hodges experiments with tangle art as a background. Tangle art, inspired by the Zentangle method, is described as a collection of patterns that build upon one another and are used to create an abstract or nonrepresentational design. The intention is to allow the designs you create to unfold without planning ahead and without correcting so called mistakes. Tangle art, as a background, becomes the perfect accompaniment to the images of musicians playing various instruments in this set of paintings.
Art as Therapy and Healing
In 2006, Hodges moved home to Buffalo, New York to care for her mother who had Alzheimer’s. During this time, Hodges began to experience pain and discomfort that she believed was associated with having a heart attack. After going to the doctor, and talking to him about what was going on, it was determined that caring for her mother and dealing with the reality of her mother’s disease was taking a physical toll on her. As a form of therapy and healing, Hodges started working on a series of paintings that would come to be known as Toni-Kins. Though her name is Antionette, friends and family call her Toni. “Kins” refers to the women in the paintings whom she came to describe as being “kin to Toni.”
Hodges had no set plan except to paint as an outlet for her stress. The only thing she knew was that she wanted to work on an 8×11 surface. So, after she got her mother settled down and off to sleep, Hodges would sit at the kitchen table and paint. As she began to create, faces came to mind. This became the format of her Toni-Kins. The facial features are, for the most part, consistent but she experimented with various skin tones, hairstyles, and adornments. She also used different backgrounds for each Toni-Kin, reminiscent of color field painting.
Mark Rothko, an American artist well known for his color field paintings, believed that art was an “anecdote of the spirit.” This seems a fitting way to describe the way in which Hodges’ Toni-Kins created a sisterhood of spirit women, and a healing narrative for herself.
Hodges describes much of her work as celebrating African American life from the past and the present, and showing the strength, beauty, and diversity of African American people. Her paintings featuring women in hats are one example of this. Hodges’ mother, and other women of her generation, inspired these paintings. For Black women, wearing a hat was not solely associated with church or about making a fashion statement; it was also about asserting a sense of dignity, respect, and elegance at a time when black women were not regarded or looked upon as such. And for women like Hodges’ mother, you were not fully dressed without a hat.
Black Girl Magic
Perhaps the most powerful piece in the exhibit is Stars and Stripes. This “unapologetically black” painting is of two young girls, and was inspired by Hodges’ twelve-year old granddaughter. Initially, Hodges painted the two girls as lighter skinned, but she felt that something was missing. Darkening the skin, she believed, made the painting more impactful. She also used layers of paint to highlight the texture of each girl’s hair. In thinking about clothing for the two girls, she started by painting a red and white striped shirt on the girl in the background. She began thinking about the American flag but did not want to be so literal in her interpretation so she clothed the girl in the foreground with a shirt that was green and had blue stars. It is hard not to look at this painting and not consider the Black Girl Magic mantra and hashtag. This painting is a celebration of young black girls in America, in as much as it also reminds us that their black lives matter.
There will be a closing reception for Hodges’ exhibit on Friday, April 22, 2016 from 6-8pm at the Congress Heights Arts & Culture Center located at 3200 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE.