Jodi Hills

So this is who I am – a writer that paints, a painter that writes…

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…and then the beauty comes.

My grandfather was perhaps the first to teach me about color. Each year he planted in the black dirt. He worked under blue skies. Prayed under gray. And with the daily stroke of his hands turned the field from green to gold. It was the most beautiful canvas I had ever seen. Were it not for him, would I have seen it? I can’t be sure.

I often speak of the Sainte Victoire mountain. It rests in our daily view. Cezanne was perhaps the first to point it out to the world. Painting it again and again. Showing its beauty in every light. Dominique was the first to point it out to me as he drove me from the airport. Would I have seen it? Would I have felt it? Would I have painted it without either of them? Probably not.

Georgia O’Keeffe had her own mountain. Her own “Sainte Victoire.” She painted the big mountain (as she called it) again and again. Braving the heat and the cold. The solitude. The doubters of women. All to show us the beauty of what was around her. The beauty of what she saw.

I suppose all of it was unlikely. Seemingly almost impossible at times. But this is what gives me hope. This is what enables me to put my grandfather, Rueben Hvezda, alongside Paul Cezanne. Alongside Georgia O’keeffe. To write about him. To write about my grandmother making kolaches and quilts. My mother dressing in the crispiest of whites, even on her most crumbling days. OH, my beautiful mother! Were they artists? (…a rose by any other name…) They took what was in front of them, inside of them and made it beautiful. Not only showing me, but showing me how.

So I make the pictures with paint and words. Each daily stroke, with brushes of Rueben and Elsie and Ivy — my open fields, my sturdy mountains. What are we here for, if not to show each other the beauty? The beauty of living.

You have something. Right here. Right now. Live it. Something beautiful will come. The world is waiting to see.

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Still life of Elsie.

I’ve often wondered if Cezanne hadn’t seen the beauty in fruit, in the mountain, would I have seen it?

My grandma didn’t have matching dishes. I don’t remember the table ever being “set.” We knew the contents of the cupboards, and we grabbed what was needed. A plate. A fork. A glass. As children we drank out of these multi-colored aluminum tumblers. They were indestructible. You could dig a hole with it in the dirt to bury a treasure, wash it out with the garden hose, then fill it with milk and Nesquik – chunky style because you didn’t have the patience to keep stirring. The color of tumbler chosen worked as our first “mood rings.” Blue was sad. Red, you had a temper. Green was kind. Gold, surely a winner! They could be swapped, dropped, thrown, and fit perfectly into our sweaty, chubby hands. So much adventure. So much beauty.

I’ve seen them now, these tumblers, in antique stores. Over priced, surely, but never overvalued. I smile because I did see it. We saw it together — before anyone told us it was beautiful, that they were beautiful.

My grandma never went to France. I doubt that she knew of Cezanne. But make no mistake about it, long before I studied in school, she taught me about art appreciation. How to see the beauty of everything. My real education.

When I paint the most simple still life, (my long lost treasure uncovered) I think, yes, I would have seen it. Not because of Cezanne, but because of Elsie. My grandma Elsie. I hang the painting, my heart knowing, she did make it to France after all.

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The unobstructed view.

We pass by the Sainte Victoire mountain almost every day. I can see why artists like Cezanne painted it again and again. Every day it changes colors. The shapes are magnificent from every angle. I want to capture all the variations, but the problem I face is finding the unobstructed view.

There is an angle that is absolutely stunning on the road to Meyreuil. We have pulled over so many times, trying to capture it with different lenses, but something is always in the way. The freeway. The road. The poles – oh, the poles. The poles with their wires. If I want to create the image, I will have to paint it. See beyond the obstructions and paint what I love so dearly.

I’m willing to do that for my art. I hope I’m willing to do that for my life, for the lives of those around me — see beyond the obstructions. And there are many. It’s easy to get lost in the politics, the religion, the language, the color, the age, but I want to see beyond, into the hearts and minds of others, and even myself. Because look, just look at the view, beyond all those poles and wires, it’s pretty amazing! YOU are amazing! Can you see it?!

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I bought a postcard at MOMA in New York. It had been marked down twice. Two red stickers. Priced at one quarter. Twenty five cents for a postcard from Cezanne’s sketchbook. Nobody cared. I did. I stood in line and brought it back with me to his homeland. 

I draw and paint in my sketchbook every day. Does it matter? I suppose it’s all in how you define the word matter. Will people stand in line to buy it? No. But does it give me great joy? Yes! Does it improve my skills? I think so. So for me, it matters a great deal! 

The sketches on Cezanne’s postcard are of his young son. I can’t say why exactly, but the images reminded me of my cousin Brent. Not the likeness really, but the halt in the becoming. I will never know what became of that young boy on the postcard. Nor for my cousin. Brent’s life was cut short in a construction accident, when he was barely in his 20’s — just a baby really. When I think of myself at 20, I didn’t even know who I was – who I would become. What a thing it is to be cut short. What a blessing it is to live another day. And then another! 

To honor these days, I will stand in line for a twenty-five cent postcard. I will remember a cousin I barely got to know. I will paint images that most will not see. I will write words and act like it all matters – because it does! My life, your life, a scribbling on today’s page, forever a work of art.

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Nothing wasted.

“Inspire” is a tricky word. I think a lot of people want someone or something to inspire them. They want the “other” to do the work. But I’m not sure that can really ever happen. You have to want to be inspired. The receiver has to do the work. For example: living here in France, I can say that I receive a lot of inspiration from the Sainte Victoire mountain. Now, this giant rock isn’t really doing anything. It sits there. But if I watch it – watch it change colors in the different light, watch it turn black and gray under a cloud, turn so white that it’s almost lavender in the summer sun – if I do this, really see it then I am inspired. If I climb up its steep and rocky slope, breathe from my belly to my toes, rubber my legs, pump my arms, reach the summit, then really let it take my breath away – then I am inspired! If I paint it. Photograph it. Wave at it as we drive by – I receive all that it has to give. Inspiration is in the work of the receiver.

Cezanne painted the mountain countless times. He painted a simple apple again and again. He created his own inspiration. Some might look at my sketch book and ask, Why are you painting so many apples? Paint something different. But you see, I am. Every apple IS different. Every apple is unique in its shape and color. But you have to want to see it. And I do want to see it. I want to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. I want to find the inspiration in everything – every day. It is on me to find it. Feel it. Use it. Enjoy it.

Today’s yellow sun jumps from the sky into my hands and onto the page. Nothing wasted.


Pull over

Cezanne painted the Montagne Sainte-Victoire again and again. Living near it, I understand why. Every day it looks just a little different. Clouds, sun, sky, even my mood, can change the colors, change the view. But always, it is beautiful. Cezanne was lucky though, there weren’t the obstructions of today. Electrical lines, buildings, bridges and freeways can really distort the lines of vision.

I am always looking for that pure view. When I paint it, I can take out the obstructions, but it’s very difficult to see it, in all its majesty, without something clunking up the line. We have pulled the car over many times, thinking, this might be it, this might be the view, and then I take out the camera, and there it is, in the camera lens, that wire, that pole, that rooftop.

Yesterday, we were driving to Vauvenargues to see Dominique’s mother. On the way there, I caught a small glimpse of “maybe…maybe it’s the view…” So on the way home we did the ever hopeful pull-over, walked the side of the road, jumped over a ditch, and raised the camera. A sea of lavender rolled into the mountain under a sky of blue. Wait, what? No lines? No obstructions. Just nature. Just purples and violets and greens and blues and whites and grays. It was beautiful. And we got to see it. Smell it. Feel the lavender breeze against our skin, and the strength of the mountain, holding us together. Simply amazing.

I guess it’s the same with people. There are so many distractions. So many things that block our view. It’s so easy to turn away. Just pass by. But maybe if we took the time – really took the time – to see people in their own natural light, we would see what makes them amazing. We would see the beauty of all their changing days, both sunny and dark, and we would be gathered in.

What if I did that for you, and maybe you did that for me? Simply amazing. Again and again.