Jodi Hills

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


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The twirl.

Some mothers make a path. Mine made a runway.

It was my first job out of university. Just sixty miles from my hometown, but it was a huge step – maybe all first steps are. I was to make a fashion show for wives of clients. I had never done anything like it before, but Crossroads mall was just down the road, and I had indeed been training there, with my mother since I was a little girl.

I don’t remember her first response. I wasn’t even really asking. We both knew she was going to be in it. She had loved fashion her whole life. She was made for this – the runway. Even if others in her small town didn’t always see it, I could. So clearly. What a joy. A privilege. To see someone.

We went to the mall for fittings. Confidence grew from giggles to twirls. It all went so fast. Soon the music was playing and the lights were shining. Her outfit was ahead of mine. My heart was beating so quickly. And then I saw her. At the end of the runway. Everything was in slow motion. I saw her twirl. And in that moment, I knew I could do anything.

The music, that seemed now to be coming directly from my mom, carried me down the runway.

There’s a song that asks the question, “How do we keep the music playing?” I just smile, and know, for me, it will never end.


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On Wobbly Knees.

Last night I finished reading the book Horse, by Geraldine Brooks. To simplify my review, I will just say, “Yes.” Was it good? Yes. Should I read it? Yes. Will I be moved? Yes. Will I learn something? Yes. Is it about horses? Yes. And more? Oh, Yes!!! It spans generations, covering the issues of slavery, racism, the Civil War, art, humanity — then and now. How far we’ve come, how extraordinarily far we have to go.

I suppose I was first drawn to read it because of the central figures of the horse paintings themselves. But then it became so much more. And that is the beauty of art. When it is done well, framed on canvas or bound in words, it conveys a story. A story so fluid that it carries you — carries you with the grace and elegance of chestnut legs in the Kentucky bluegrass.

But what’s it about??? Everyone always wants the short answer. I’m sorry, but the short answer is – read it.

It’s not lost on me that hanging above my head, as I turned from page to page, was my humble painting of a horse. It is entitled, “Unconditional.” And for me that is love. But how do we get there? The only path that I have found is empathy. And the clear path to empathy is education. When we know more — we do more. When we know better — we do better. So I read. And I read some more. And I write. And I write some more. I paint. And, well, more. And I just try to do better. Live better. Racing on my own fragile legs. Racing against time, and bigotry. Racing against everyone who is more than willing to bet against you. Racing away from the conditional.

There was a popular song when I was a teenager, by Dan Fogelberg — Run for the Roses. My mom bought the 45. I played it again and again. For I was, just as the song began, “on wobbly knees, with mama beside you, to help you along…” And I was carried by the melody. Carried by the words —

“It’s breeding and it’s training
And it’s something unknown
That drives you
And carries you home
And it’s run for the roses
As fast as you can
Your fate is delivered
Your moment’s at hand
It’s the chance of a lifetime
In a lifetime of chance
And it’s high time you joined
In the dance.”

I didn’t have the word for it then – this “empathy” – this joining in the dance. But I could see the path. And I wanted to be on it. I still do. I’m still wobbling along, but I’m still learning. Maybe we all can. It’s more than “high time.”


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Bound.

I wanted to do some sketching yesterday. Whenever I need an idea of what to sketch, I fall back on the human figure. It is timeless. The purpose of figure painting, or any depiction of the figure in art, relates back to one of the main functionalities of art, and that is the communication of human experiences. It has been practiced since the beginning of time. It rests on the sides of caves, the walls of the Louvre. And just at the fingertips of our hearts.


I have many art books. I pulled a small one off the shelf, entitled Figures. I recognized the scent of the book, or should I say the bookstore. A mixture of wisdom and mildew, that only comes from words lived. The linen cover felt like home. I turned the book over to see if there was a sticker to confirm my memory. Yes. A tag from Magers and Quinn — one of my favorite bookstores in Minneapolis. I love all bookstores, but this was a favorite because of the figure that managed the store — Gary. Yes, the human experience. As we read books. Sold them. Held them. I learned of his life. Personal stories of his loves, his losses, his interests, his health, his heart.


Gary was my friend. We shared love – love of words on the page. It occurs to me now, that we, all of us, are just the words, looking to be bound together. Only making sense when we combine to make a story. An experience. The human experience.


So I paint the figures. Tell the stories. Hoping to connect. Because in this connection there is no time, no distance. When you tell me, “I needed this today,” or “I so related to this,” or “this was our story,” — my heart is full. We are in this together. Humans. Bound.


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The audacity to just enjoy!

We went to Margaux’s dance recital. The young girls clearly ranged from elegant to stumbling. It was easy to tell them apart, but not if you looked at the parents and grandparents in the audience. Everyone beamed and clapped – to them, us, there was no difference, only the beauty of the dance. 

During my college summer vacations, I worked for the Recreation Department. In the mornings at the high school gym, I helped teach gymnastics to very young girls. Some were there because they had potential, and others maybe just to get a grip on a slight weight problem. Either way, I spent the summer getting kicked in the head spotting wayward aerials. Just as with dance, we held an exhibition (and I use the term loosely) at the end of the summer. Some had improved. Others still barely fit into their pink leotards, but again, everyone beamed. They were a part of something bigger than themselves. 

Children have it right. This daring to be imperfect. This courage to attempt. This audacity to just enjoy!  I don’t want to lose this. I don’t want anyone to lose this. I suppose to make this happen we have to continue to see the world with our hearts. To see others, strangers, in the same light as we do these misstepping young dancers, these fumbling gymnasts. What if we saw each other in this way?  Wouldn’t that be something to applaud! Something to make us all beam!  

Maybe today, we can all try a little harder to find our way to this light. Enjoy!


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Above the gap.

We were in an elevator in Chicago. The Lenox House Suites. I was just out of college. My first job in advertising. The magazine I placed ads in had comped rooms at this hotel. Twice a year I would take my mother. We stayed for free. More than that, I suppose, we were free! Free to be whomever we wanted. Free from the knowledge of our pasts. Free from judgements or any “should-haves” or supposed-tos”. We were brand new. As new as the city after the great fire. (And we had lived through our own.)

The small elevator was filled with eager visitors — ready to hit Michigan Avenue. It was always slow, but this ride seemed a little more clunky. It lurched its way to the ground floor,and then fell about a foot or so lower. The doors opened. Everyone froze. Should we move? Were we safe? Murmurs of “someone should do something…” “should we call someone?” “someone needs to do something…”  

I heard my mother say quite loudly and clearly, “Not me,” as she elbowed her way from the back of the elevator, clearing a path for her and me, and she hoisted herself above the gap, turned back for me, and we were off.

I suppose that’s what I love most about her. She decided. (Still does.) When her world was falling apart around her, she decided, “not me.”  Just like Peggy Lee, she seemed to ask, “Is that all there is to a fire?” “Is that all there is????”  We were dancing on Michigan Avenue before the others even left the elevator.

Today, I, we, hoist ourselves above the gap, and keep dancing…


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Heart song.

My mother had just begun piano lessons. Only a little girl. I don’t know how many lessons she had, but not many, and it was in these few moments that this piano teacher (and I loosely use the word teacher, because clearly she was not, as you will see in a second), it was this awful woman that said, not to my grandparents (which would have been bad enough) no, she said it to my mother, this sweet little hopeful fingered girl, she told her, “You’re wasting your parents’ money.” I’m still aghast! What a soul crushing thing to say. Now, my mother may have never become a concert pianist, but we’ll never know. And it was only for her to decide. But she didn’t get that chance. Then.

Most of our children of the world will not become professional athletes, professional singers, or dancers, or painters. But we aren’t raising “professionals,” we are raising humans. Humans with thoughts and hopes and dreams and souls. And it takes a long time to build a soul, filling it with music and movement and kindness and possibilities. And we should never be defined by money (I guess that’s what we are basing the word professional on). We can still be dancers, even if we make our living at the bank. We can be singers if we sing. Painters if we paint. And we get to decide.

It took a long time, but she got there, my mother…After all the tears and questions she realized that only she could decide if her heart was disposable or not…and it wasn’t. It was bruised and possibly even broken at times, but the amazing organ that it was, is, it kept beating, keeping time to her own true rhythm, the beat that would soothe her, save her, and play once again, the lovely heart song that only she could create.


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Little dancer.

Two weeks ago when we arrived in New Orleans, just before the whirlwind of Mardi Gras had started, we were, for the most part, alone. Proof of this, we walked up to the Cafe du Monde and got an order of beignets in one minute. No line. Delicious in so many ways. We left New Orleans to travel the south, and returned yesterday to the crowds, donned in beads and noise and purples and greens and golds. The line for the Cafe du Monde stretched around the block. We smiled at each other, knowing, that just a moment before, it was ours. We tasted it without the validation of a long line.

While the crowds marched through the French quarter, we took a drive. I’m not sure what led us to the house where Degas lived for a brief time just before Impressionism took hold — I say I’m not sure, but I have a pretty good idea — our hearts usually lead us — maybe it was the French flag, the statue of the little dancer girl — there was no crowd to follow, no line to get in, just the feeling of creation in the air, and we pulled over immediately. This master of fine art, lived here. Here. Maybe it was just a brief moment, but we could feel it. And it was ours.

My grandparents lived in a farm house. No one will line up to see it, but I remember each door. Each entryway. I remember the smell of damp coats hanging. The creaks of the stairs. The sink full of dishes. The sign on the kitchen counter that read, “I should have danced all night.”

My mother will be moving out of her apartment soon. Some will say it was just four walls. But inside it was coffee and conversation. Wine and dreams. Fashion shows and laughter. Tears of tenderness. Home. Here – no crowds, no lines, but with hearts fully validated, oh, how we danced!


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Grandma’s dance.

My grandmother loved root beer floats. Oh how she loved them! She kept an old A & W root beer mug in the freezer, chilled and ready. Every visit to her house, after lunch, after Days of our Lives, she would ask, “Would you like a root beer float?” “No thanks, Grandma,” I would reply. I didn’t like root beer, and ice cream made me ill. Not my treat. “I could make them for us, no problem,” she continued. “No thanks,” I said, both smiling for different reasons. She smiled because she could almost taste her favorite treat. I smiled, because we had danced this dance so many times before. I knew I would eventually say yes, she would make two root beer floats, and she would eat them both.

What a pleasure it was to see her as a human. It’s rare, I suppose, that we get that. She was an aproned grandma, and so often we can get lost in that, forget that she was once a young girl, with her hair down, falling in love with a soon to be farmer. She was a woman of this world, not just grandma. She was a woman who had nine children, 27 grandchildren and so many more greats… but in a few rare moments, alone with her on a quiet afternoon, I got to see her, when she smiled, for the simplest of things, and it was beautiful.

Yesterday, in Baton Rouge, I asked Dominique to pull the car over. I had to take a picture. It was a giant root beer mug. I danced with my grandma again.


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And so she would dance.


A writer writes. A singer sings. A painter paints. You are these things because you do them. You live them. Not because someone gives you the title or pays you to do it. You decide.


For years. I painted in my bathroom. It, (along with the kitchen), was the only place that was not carpeted. It just made sense. Large canvases I could elevate on the side of the bathtub, and a closed water closet made for a perfect seat. Really large canvases could be upright, while I stood and reached through the bathroom door. I was a painter in my studio. As simple as that. And I loved it, just as much as I love painting now in Cezanne’s back yard in the south of France.


If you’re waiting for the perfect time. The perfect place. You’ll never do anything. I’ve always believed if you really want to do something, I mean really want to do it, you’ll find a way with who you are and what you have.


The easiest thing to find in this life is an excuse not to do something. Oh, those excuses, they are readily available. Waiting, cocked and loaded. But what if we took another look.


My mother loved to go dancing at the Glenwood Ballroom. Big bands. Big shoes. Big nights. She loved to dance. The truly big names of the big bands stopped coming. She had kids to raise. A job to work. But she still found time to teach me how to dance. 1-2-3, 1-2-3. Slow, quick-quick. Step, place, three, cha-cha. A heel and a toe and polka step. We had a kitchen floor. We had music. We were dancers. Simple as that.


And I guess she taught me more than just how to dance. She taught me how to see. See what I had, right in front of me. Appreciate it. Use. it. Find a way. So today I will paint. Today, I will dance!


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…Even on fragile legs.

When I watched her dance, I couldn’t believe that those legs could be that strong. Not only to lift her in the air, but then brace her as she came back down. Simply amazing the strength. Maybe that’s why I love dance so much. This elegant combination of beauty and strength.

The champion horses in Kentucky display this same recipe for beauty. These massive animals, carried so elegantly on seemingly fragile legs. Amazing! How do they do it? I paint them with as much respect as the dancers.

Perhaps I’m only able to recognize the beauty in both because my mother has displayed this same combination of beauty and strength my whole life. I know she often worries, or says, “I want to be brave.” And she is, oh, she is! She is the dancer that doesn’t see the audience standing on their feet in awe. She is the Thoroughbred that runs through and past the finish line.

When I first started painting, even the most simple of characters, my mom would say, “oh, she looks like me…” And of course they all did. They do. I see her in everything. I guess that’s how it is when you love someone. You see their beauty – everywhere.

I paint the horse and I smile. I am a dancer. A race horse. My mother.