Jodi Hills

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


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Summer of ‘63

I was given a small photo of three boys fishing at the lake. He was commissioning me to create a large painting of the image. First I made the lake. The shoreline. The dock. Then each brother, in order of their age. Just as they would have entered this life, they appeared on the canvas. I don’t paint anything I can’t feel, but honestly, I wasn’t expecting to feel this much. Perhaps it was so emotional because this is where I, too, began. Near this lake. In this small town. Perhaps because I knew what their futures held. Part of me wanted to tell each one what was to come…but that wouldn’t be right, even if possible. For they, all three were safe in this moment. Pure. And this is where I would capture them. Forever innocent, in the summer sun of 1963. Full of hope.


I didn’t notice until I was finished the date on the side of the photograph – it was January, 1964. Clearly this picture wasn’t taken in January in Minnesota. But I imagine the photographer, the boys’ mother or father, must have been waiting to finish the roll of film. We used film back then. And if you bought a roll, of say 36, then you waited patiently, or not patiently, until you finished the roll, and then brought it to the film corner in the drug store to be developed. I imagine they finished the roll at Christmas time, and then had it developed.


Maybe time moved slower then. Summers lasted longer. Still, they, we, couldn’t stop it. Probably the best we can do is capture the moments. On film. On canvas. In our hearts. And feel everything. Feel the heat of the sun. The possibility rolling in with each gentle wave. The time when the common goals of youth kept us together. Easily. Slowly.


Today, these three young boys are fishing together in the south of France. Hopeful, excited, ready to go home.


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The horse on Michigan Ave.

The Ralph Lauren (RL) restaurant in Chicago was the reason I painted this horse. We had just finished shopping a marathon on Michigan Avenue, my mom and I, and we stopped — not really choosing this restaurant for the culinary experience, but the location. Our feet agreed this was the place for a break. Our table faced the wall of photographs and paintings. All elegantly lit. Draping our hearts in mahogany. Glasses of wine refreshing and gently embellishing the glorious minutes of the day.


We were shoppers. Not big buyers. Perhaps it was the beauty of the clothing. The curated displays. The bustling sidewalks that didn’t care how we got there, but swept us up in a sea of acceptance. We were welcomed. Good enough. So we walked each street. Entered each store. Michigan Avenue didn’t know that we used to put items on lay-a-way in a small town in Minnesota. Michigan Avenue opened its doors, and we danced in and out.


We sat in the restaurant and smiled. Held up the few items we had purchased. Laughed. Praised. Clapped even. And sighed. Breathing in so deeply as to never forget the warmth of this day. The warmth of being together. The warmth of shared experience. The warmth of shared interests. The warmth that would carry us through the coldest of days.
There was a single horse on the wall. So elegant. Such grace. And so I painted that horse. It hangs in a bedroom across the sea, and takes me back to that street — that comfort — that joy — that rest — that warmth of time well spent.


Find your way to that place. It’s waiting, just for you.


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10,000 lessons.

We’re crossing bigger waters today, but we always find our way to the comfort of shore. And how would I have ever dared without the waves that first rocked me? Gently. Easily. Each one saying, you know there’s more…we taught you well. Go see. And they did teach me well – these 10,000 lakes, this Minnesota. With each arm splashing, leg kicking, breath-losing, breath-taking wave – taught me when to dive, when to keep my head up. Gave me laughter. Washed me clean.

Today is a day to keep my head up. I won’t let my teachers down. Thank you, Minnesota.


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Called you by name.

I had just gotten my banana seat bike for my birthday. I was six years old, this 27th of March, in Minnesota, but the excitement of a new year, a new bike, a new freedom, was enough to cut through the still winter cold. I rode the most beautiful thing on wheels that I had ever seen down the hill. Past Norton’s. Into the “North End.” It sounds more mysterious than it really was, this undeveloped part of VanDyke road. But being a brand new six, on a brand new bike, riding in this uncharted territory was as close to being an astronaut as I would ever come.


There was no sense of time. I spun the tires in the gravel. Raced through rocks and grassless paths. Past barren trees. Over half frozen mud. It was glorious. My only clock was the sun, and it was telling me to go home. I heard a faint call in the distance. Louder as I got closer. It was my name. She was calling my name. Standing frantic at the end of our driveway, her hands raised in the air when she saw me. I’m not sure if I got off of my banana seat bike, or she pulled me off, but I was suddenly in her arms. So tightly held in her arms. I had been gone much longer than I thought. I hate that I had worried her, so I held on too. For the first time I remember letting go first. She was still hugging me. What a glorious feeling. Hugging me with a love, that I somehow knew, no matter where I ventured in this world, would never be lost. Feeling that, it’s my birthday, every day!


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Klickitat street

It’s no secret that our thoughts control our hands.


My grade school travels were never alone. For a good two years I was accompanied by Beverly Cleary’s kids from Klickitat Street. Cleary was one of my favorite childhood authors. Yesterday, making the blog journey back to my own Klickitat Street (which we named Van Dyke Road), my thoughts were consumed with Beezus and Henry and Ribsy and Ramona.


It wasn’t like I stayed with them all day, but subconsciously, they must have wandered through my head, in their wide-legged, hurried steps of youth, because when I sat down to paint, there she was — slowly emerging with a smile that said, “I knew you’d come back for us.”

Beverly Cleary. Smiling. In the certainty of black and white – the certainty that maybe only lasted those two years I spent with them on Klickitat Street. The certainty I carry with me today when I need sure footing. When I need my thoughts to be pure.


Because our thoughts lead to actions. Have you ever heard yourself say, “I’m just so tired of this… just sick and tired of it all…” What have you claimed? What have you made yourself. You’ve secured that fact that you are sick and you are tired. We become our thoughts. I know only because I do it. We all do it. But when I find myself there, I try to go through my list? My list of haves… my list of blessings… and almost always, those thoughts can magically make the journey from my head to my heart to my hands, and I can walk in a better day. A better day — maybe not perfect — there are so many things out of our control, I know. But I think it’s always a good day if I can take a walk on a path of joy, a path of hope, a path of positive action. Who knows where it may lead? Who will join you?


I give thanks for all the fictional and nonfictional characters — (and yes, please let me be surrounded with the wonderful world of living “characters”!) — they, you, bring me so much joy — a joy that only makes me want to do more – be more — and be better! Today I call you Beverly. Tomorrow, by your name. I will come back for you. Again and again.


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A place to land.

We never used the front door of my grandparents’ house. Well, not the door, but the small cement staircase in front of it, yes, always. It was a place to rest. We chased round and round the house in our summer worn tennis shoes. (We never played tennis in them.) Not Nikes, or Adidas, but colors. I liked blue. Some of my cousins had white, or black. I didn’t care about the brand, the mark, I only remember asking when trying them on at Iverson’s shoes, “Are they fast?” The answer was always yes, with a smile. And so we raced in white and black and blue streaks around the apple trees. Grass stained and out of breath, we’d flop onto the front stairs, chests heaving with the satisfaction of youth. These stairs contained breath, and lemonade, and watermelon slices, (and black seeds), and the welcome of home.

Yesterday, I framed this painting. Painted on panel, the edges seemed so incomplete. Nowhere for your eye to land. And this painting needed it, a place to land, I suppose just as much as we do. The frame, simple, vintage, does just that. Gives the eye, the brain, the heart, a place to rest. Without it, all the feelings just wander off and get lost. You might not even know that’s what’s happening, but you can feel it.

On my grandparents’ front steps, I don’t suppose I knew exactly what was happening, but I felt it. I felt it as sure as the heat of the summer air. A warmth that would take us through every cold winter that followed. A strength, a solid, that would ground us in every storm. Even just in memory, hold us in the comfort of home.

I smile now, knowing the salesperson at Iverson’s shoes was completely right, those shoes, those summers, were certainly fast!


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Looking up

The track meet was nearing the end when the coach approached us on the grass. I had one event to complete, and Colleen was finished for the day. The mile race was coming up and we had an extra space to fill. It didn’t have to be filled of course, but if someone competed in this spot, we were sure to get a point just for completing the race. That point could make a difference on whether or not we won the meet. He was looking at Colleen. She seemed confused, because she had never been a miler. I could feel the inner shaking of her head. It would be really difficult. You need to train for something like that. Just jumping in at the last second would surely be almost impossible. Clearly she wouldn’t win, and probably would be embarrassed. There could even be puking. The coach would never force her to do it, he only asked. She got up. I smiled. I was so proud of her! That’s my brave friend, I thought. There were no real surprises. The other contestants raced out in front of her. She kept running. Her heart and lungs fought for her attention. She kept running. Her legs turned to stone. She kept running. The others finished. She kept running. And running. She could have stepped off the track. No one would have blamed her. But she kept running. She finished. I hope she was proud of herself. I hope I told her just how amazing I thought she was! I can’t tell you if we won the meet. If we had a good season. But I do know this – at sixteen – I witnessed strength. Courage. And pure will. When I saw her going around that track, she wasn’t just running, she was flying, and the most beautiful bird in the sky!


My mom ordered a dress from the Sundance catalog. It should be arriving today. Why is this a significant event? She is currently surrounded by friends and family who are giving up. And she could do the same. Who would blame her? But she keeps believing. She keeps dreaming. She orders the dress and believes in a tomorrow where she looks beautiful! And she will. Because she keeps running. I have never been more proud of her. She will put on that dress of blue and teal and white, and she will be the most beautiful bird flying in the sky!
If you want to believe in miracles, sometimes, you just have to look up!


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What remains

I remember my first blow dryer. It’s easy to do because I got it when I started grade school and brought it with me to college. I wore the name off, but it still worked. I stopped counting after that. It seems I need a new one every few months. Planned Obsolescence – things are built not to last. And it would be easy to become swept up in this trend – (I wish it were only a trend) – but I want things to have value, to last.


It is in our nature to create things that will continue, that will stay, that will survive the beating of time. That’s why they painted on the cave walls, carved statues, built Coliseums. When I visited Rome for the first time, it didn’t take my breath away, it gave me breath – breathed a life into me that I too wanted to create – a life that continues, that matters, that lives. And so I paint, and I write, not that these canvases or books will live forever, but that you will know my heart, and it will help you see your own, and others see theirs. This can last forever.


A few days ago, I posted the blog about picking rock at my grandpa’s farm. Someone shared that post and someone saw that shared post. This stranger shared his story of picking rock, of how he didn’t cry when he hurt his finger on the rocks, how he felt like a man for the first time. He shared his story, and someone else liked it. My story lived again and again.


I can’t change the passing of time, but I can decide what is disposable, and that will never include my heart. That will never include your heart. Pass it on.


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Show your work

When I was in tenth grade at Jefferson Senior High School, I was getting A’s in all of my classes, even math. I loved my English classes, composition, literature, all of it. I loved art and history. I didn’t have the same feeling for math. So when the teacher would say, “show your work,” I wanted to draw a picture of me laying on my bedroom floor crying into an open math book — but I guess that’s not what he meant. Apparently he didn’t understand my struggles because he asked if I wanted to join the math club. There was a club for this torture? No, I assured him that I didn’t want to join.


Every kid questions something in school – “I’ll never use this!!” they claim. (And truth be told, they aren’t always wrong.) But I have to admit that I do use something I learned in all of those required math courses — I learned the value of doing the work, even when I didn’t love it, and most importantly the value of showing my work.


I wasn’t sure what I wanted to “become” in college. I knew I loved writing, and I knew I loved art. But what would I do with that? I didn’t really want to become a professor, and I had no examples, in my circle of people, living creative lives. So at first I tried advertising. That seemed to put some of my skills to use, but I didn’t feel the love – I wasn’t crying on the bedroom floor, but sometimes kneeling…


It all made sense when I combined the two. I started telling stories with each painting. Sometimes a phrase, a word, and even full stories. I began “showing the work.” Each painting was not just the colors, but the life lived behind each color. And that’s what people seemed to gravitate to – the story – the work.


I don’t know why we have to go through all of the things we do. It doesn’t always seem fair, and I’m not sure I believe “there is a reason for everything…” – that maybe is too simple. But I do believe this — we will each spend our time on the floor, questioning, crying, but if we get up — show ourselves that we can in fact do it! — show others that we have in fact done it! — then there is more than just the lesson learned, there is the lesson lived! In my humbly educated opinion, I’d have to say, that is art at its most beautiful!


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Opportunity

Opportunity.

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Thomas Edison

I knew my parents went to “jobs,” but my first real lesson in work came from my grandfather. My mother dropped me off at the farm in the morning. It was a day that my grandfather was going to pick rock. (clear the fields of the big rocks so it could be prepared for planting). I told him I wanted to go with him. At first he said no, it was too hard, but my quivering lip made him give in and off we went. He told me that he couldn’t “glamorize the dirt” – it was dirt, and the rocks were heavy, but all you had to do was pick up a rock and place it on the trailer. That made sense. Seemed easy enough.

Each rock seemed to give birth to another. I was so tired. But Grandpa didn’t seem to be. He just kept picking those rocks, one after the other. He seemed to get stronger. There was precision in each movement. I watched carefully. It was like an oil pump that didn’t have a beginning or an end to its motion, but just kept going. I had been throwing the rocks with anger, but he moved them with purpose…and that was the difference. That’s how he could take such a mess and later make something grow out of it. He seemed to be grateful for all of it. The black that surrounded us would turn to green and gold. It amazed me and I wanted to be a part of it. It was hard, but that was ok. I kept picking.

People often ask me how to start their own art business. Like there is some magical solution. The simple answer is – you do the work. You have to pick the rock. You paint. You paint over again. You dig through the scrap pile and find your wood. You stretch your canvas. You study. You feel. You paint. You do it because you have to – you want to – you need to – and that is when you have something green that grows, something gold that shines. You make the work. In between all of that you study the masters. You improve from your mistakes. And you learn all of the other lessons of marketing and selling and collecting. There is work. And it’s not all glamorous, but it is wonderful!

I guess it’s true for any profession, and not only that, just for living. You have to do the work. You have to do the work just to get through the challenging days.

My mother, just like her father, is still teaching me. She picks the rocks of her cancered field every day. When she goes to the hospital, she puts on (not her overalls) but her best dress, her most joyful outfit, and she radiates in the hospital waiting room that illness seems to cover in gray. She is grateful for each day. She is green. She is golden.

There is work to be done. Every day. I tell you now, as I tell myself, “Clear the fields. The opportunity is here! Please don’t miss it.”