Rachel Hodge shares her story about quitting her job to become a full-time artist
“This is really my happy place,” Rachel Hodge says of her art studio. “I just love this room. I don’t know if it’s the lighting, or… you know, I still don’t quite know what it is that does it for me in here, but I just love it.”
She and another artist have shared a spacious studio space on the second floor of LibertyTown Arts Workshop for nearly two years. But Hodge has felt an attachment to the space since taking her very first art class.
“My first ever art teacher said that she would give me extra credit if I went to any art gallery downtown,” she recalls. “So I came here, and she said I had to sit and draw three pieces of artwork that I saw. So I found this [studio]. There used to be a woman named Betsy Glassie up here, she’s downstairs now. So I remember sitting here on her couches and all I did was draw her flower paintings.”
When Glassie moved downstairs, Hodge applied to be a studio artist at LibertyTown and began working in the space.
“It feels really weird to be here in my favorite teenage place as an adult,” she shares.
Hodge spent many late nights and early mornings in her studio while working as an art teacher at Spotsylvania High School until the summer of 2022, when she decided to quit and become a full-time working artist.
But it wasn’t always clear that Hodge would be an artist. “In high school, my extracurricular was not art, it was band,” she shares. “I played the flute, and I played for years. I think that’s what my family really thought I was gonna do for a living. I was very good at it, and I absolutely hated it.”
In her senior year of high school, Hodge forged her mom’s signature on school papers to drop out of band and take her first art class.
“I have a very vivid memory of my mom being like, ‘okay, honey, when’s your Christmas recital?’ And I was like, ‘here’s this self portrait,’” Hodge recalls. “And she cried.”
While she always knew that she would like to be a teacher, Hodge treated her art as a hobby in high school. It wouldn’t be until college that she began to see her art as being a part of her future career.
“I actually thought I was going to teach history. So I was at Longwood University, I was a history education major. And of course you have to take your general ed requirements.”
She took a class called Intro to Life Drawing to fulfill her school’s art requirement.
“From that moment on, I never left the art building. I would leave to go to other classes, to study at the library, and to sleep. It got to the point where I was like, obviously I want to be here more than I want to be in the history building. It just sort of happened naturally.”
But Hodge had to put her studies on hold after becoming a single mother to her only daughter. She took all sorts of jobs, including at a bakery and an accounting firm, and began making and selling her art on the side to support herself and her daughter. She notes that the tone of her work during those years was far more gloomy than anything on display in her studio today.
“I went through a really dark phase when I was a single mom. I just felt very lonely, I think, when she was first born. I was angry,” Hodge shares. “So I had all these paintings that were like women screaming, and all these dark things.
“Artists can only paint what they know. Anything else is forced, and it’s going to be not good. So at the time, I was in pain and I was painting things that were equivalent to the pain I was feeling.”
Hodge was able to finish her degree thanks to a friend from college who had since become the owner of Backdoor Gallery. “She reached out to me and asked me if I’d like to work for her.
“So I worked for her for a year and a half, and one day she pulled me aside and was like, ‘Look, I will either pay for you to be a yoga instructor or I will pay for you to finish your art degree.
“We’re talking fifteen grand, maybe. She paid every penny of it.”
So Hodge enrolled at the University of Mary Washington and finished her art degree.
With her bachelor’s degree, Hodge was finally eligible to become a teacher. After a few months spent substituting at Chancellor High, she began working as an art teacher in Spotsylvania High School, in the same classroom in which she had taken her first art class. “It’s really weird the way it worked out,” she remarks.
“Going back to the exact classroom where I went to high school and teaching the kids that are from my demographic – you know, they’d mention an area, and I grew up in that area. So I felt very connected to them in that way.”
Working as a teacher helped Hodge shift from exclusively painting with oils to using mixed media as she introduced her students to new mediums, and it challenged her to push her artistic boundaries to be a better example.
“My paintings became a little more advanced when I started teaching because I started tackling things that were more difficult. If I’m telling the kids that they can paint whatever they want but I won’t paint, you know, an image looking through glass, then I have to get past that.”
As much as she loved teaching, Hodge soon found that her commitment to the job was preventing her from making her own art. She took on responsibilities as the head coach of two athletic programs and ran the school’s art club, in addition to teaching full time.
“I was painting maybe four hours a week,” she says. “And painting has been my whole world since I was seventeen.
“I could continue to be a teacher and risk not really ever giving myself the chance to be a painter. But I’m at that age where if I don’t choose happiness right now, it will only get harder to do that.”
In the space of a few months, Hodge quit her job to paint full-time, got married to her “definite hardcore soulmate,” and organized her first post-COVID art show, Elsewhere, a collection of pieces created within the past three years that she has never shown before. These newer paintings reflect a healthier state of mind than that in which Hodge created her darker “screaming-lady” pieces.
“Now, I’m in such a different place, and I am so happy, and I feel very balanced as a person,” she comments, “so my work has become dramatically less dark, which is interesting. I wouldn’t say I’m a happy painter, but you can see that I’m in a better place, which I think is awesome.”
A portrait artist first, Hodge’s favorite subjects include her daughter, her husband, and Michelangelo’s David.
“The story of David has always been, like, totally wild to me. So I kind of paint him over and over and over. I don’t know. Maybe it’s – I think of him as being the bravest person that ever existed – I don’t know.”
But her portfolio also includes unique mixed-media animal paintings, often with a “glitch” effect. The featured piece in her upcoming show is a rabbit imagined in the style of a superhero, inspired by a rabbit she and her daughter encountered on her honeymoon.
“There was a rabbit that kept following us around this campsite in South Dakota,” Hodge explains. “I taught [my daughter] how to put on the big camera lens, so there’s like nine hundred pictures of that bunny.
“I said, ‘well, what if he was protecting us?’ and then I thought I would paint a heroic bunny, and so it became, like, Portrait of a Bunny!”
Portrait painting can create a lot of pressure on an artist, Hodge explains. These light-hearted animal images allow her to avoid monotony and cool off any accumulated stress.
“I use animals as taking a break from portraits, because portraits – if anything’s off, anything at all, it doesn’t look like that person anymore, whereas that adorable barn owl that I saw is going to look like an adorable barn owl. No one looks at that and says, ‘Well, that’s clearly not that barn owl that she saw that one time.’
“Painting animals feels like getting down to the spirit of something, whereas painting people sometimes is not like that.”
These animal paintings allow Hodge to try out new techniques, styles, and mediums without worrying about obscuring the identity of the subject.
“I’ve been really into mixed media lately. I got bored with the process lately, and I think I was just hitting an artistic rut. I was doing a lot of really close-up realism.”
While these realistic paintings look great and require lots of skill and dedication, Hodge explains, they don’t satisfy her creative urge. She found herself recreating images without adding a personal touch.
“I learned to love [painting] again when I started adding other material. One day, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to do a drawing, or a painting, or what type of paint, or if I wanted to try spray paint, so I decided to do all of those things.”
Hodge’s mixed-media show, Elsewhere, will be her first show as a full-time working artist.
“I think because I’m a full-time working artist now, I’m feeling a bit more of the pressure,” she shares. “Not in a bad way, but in a ‘this is gonna be your thing, you have to take it very seriously’ type of way.”
After Elsewhere, Hodge hopes to earn museum representation by applying to juried shows around the world. She has her eyes on Canyon Road in Santa Fe, saying gallery representation there would be “a dream come true.”
She recognizes her goals are lofty for an artist so early in her career, but rejects the idea that she should temper her ambition.
“I hate that stupid saying that’s like, ‘the average living artist isn’t known until their late fifties.’ Unfortunately, that’s pretty true for the most part. But you know what? If Basquiat was running around New York talking to Picasso at nineteen, I can do this.”
Elsewhere will display at the Sunken Well Tavern from August 11 to September 7, with an opening reception on August 11 from 6PM to 9PM.