Charlotte Hodes is an artist currently based in London. She began her training as a painter and now works in many mediums including collage, ceramics and glass. She is a professor in Fine Art at London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London. Her website is www.charlottehodes.com
Interviewed by Stephanie Boulton
Edited by Amy Goldfischer
What has your experience of the art world been as a female creative? How do you think your experience has differed from a male creative?
I finished my studies at the Slade School of Art, University College in London in 1984. When I was a student I thought of myself as an artist, not necessarily a female artist. In that time female artists who were working strongly with a feminist agenda were not working in painting – they were working in film, installation, performance art, etc. I think that was quite difficult for me because my background was in painting from the beginning and I was inspired by abstract expressionism, which was hardly a feminist environment. It was dominated by a male artist voice and so I didn’t really fit because I was working in painting, which had a strong male tradition both in America and in England. I wasn’t able to find a place as a woman artist, and I suppose I didn’t look for it particularly; there weren’t really role models for me. When I was a post-graduate at the Slade I was very fortunate to be taught by Paula Rego. She was not only a woman but had a family and that was an important influence on me from the beginning both in the way she worked but also how she went on to have a very important career. I was looking at paintings like Patrick Heron because of the color and the celebratory nature of his work but it just doesn’t really fit when you are trying to be a female artist. It was only later on that I became much more conscious that my voice was a female voice, even though I think it was probably there from the beginning.
So do you now consider yourself a feminist artist?
I think I wouldn’t have called myself a feminist artist in that time but now I definitely consider myself a feminist artist. I think it would have helped me to have done that when I was younger, but the feminist movement was associated with a different medium than what I was working with. I was working within a tradition that had a hierarchy that I was unable to come to terms with, and that meant I was quite slow to develop. But now I consider myself a feminist artist and I think my work comes from a female internal viewpoint. Whilst my work is about responding to what I see around me - I work from the outside world - what I construct is through the eyes of a female.
I came across an interview online where you discussed your relationship between your creative life and your life as a mother. Do you think there is a link between your conscious realization of being a feminist artist and the time in which you became a mother?
I always believed that motherhood and your creativity are two very different things and I don’t think motherhood is that creative. It might be for some people but it wasn’t for me. So when I had children I felt very strongly that I had children and I was an artist. There was no complication for me in my mind. The physical space and Virginia Wolff’s ‘A Room of One's Own’ is a fabulous reference, amongst others – the idea of space, money and time. I made it absolutely clear that children were not allowed in my studio. Being a mother made me more aware of the issues faced by women artists. I think there are many women for which motherhood does fulfill a creative role in their lives but when I was at the Slade it was not so long before that Reg Butler made a speech about the fact that when women had children their creativity went out the window. The sense was that the Slade was there for women to study art and become sympathetic spouses for their genius husbands. Coming from a middle-class family and being a woman I did sometimes get grenades thrown at me about how from this background I was likely to be fodder for the men. It wasn’t quite put in such aggressive terms but it was there.
When looking at your portfolio of work, I became fascinated with your collection of ‘Bathers’ pieces; what really stood out to me was your concept of female form. Were you conscious of capturing the female form and projecting a way in which you wanted women to be perceived in these pieces?
What I am interested in is the fact that we understand ourselves through the art history that we have looked at. The paintings, sculptures and artifacts of life shape my own vision. Although I work from what I see and I draw directly from my surroundings I am very interested in the way that making images is a constructed process, and how has many equivalents to theatre. A lot of the work that I do references the historical both in terms of the imagery I use but also in the way I put the fragments together. I feel that the silhouettes are contemporary. I want to give the sense that she is a silhouette that has come from history and that she is part of a feminist continuum. We catch her in this particular moment but she is very much passing through.
You seem to fit the figures from your work into the extended discourse of women in history and I think that is really special – particularly with regards to the ‘Surfing History’ collection. Do you think it is important for females of creative and also non-creative industries to have an awareness where they are within the grand history of the female?
For ‘Surfing History’ I selected paintings and photographs of women in history who for me were heroes, or have been thought of or depicted as heroes. When it comes to an awareness, I think that if you ignore it you might be not taking advantage of an opportunity or not making the best use of your situation. I think it’s very important to be aware of not only one’s contemporary placement but also the historical. Since I am an artist rather than an art historian I have the privilege of plucking what I want from different time periods and sources - I have freedom in that. Sometimes I pluck from all sorts of places (and of course I record my sources) but sometimes I am quite sloppy about it and I look at them as images that draw me in, without necessarily having the historical background at all times. I don’t think it’s possible to have too much experience of what has gone by.
As you are currently here in Philadelphia on exhibition at The Clay Studio, I wanted to ask you a question in relation to Betty Woodman – a contemporary female ceramicist. I recently went to her exhibition at the ICA in London and went on to research her experience as an artist during the second wave of feminism in the 1960s. I discovered that she described the ceramics world of the 1960s as overtly ‘macho’. We are sitting here today in a gallery over 50 years after the interviews where she made these statements and I wondered what your contemporary take was of the ceramics world today. Would you still say that it is a ‘macho’ world or do you think it has changed?
I think that there are now many women in the ceramic world. The art world in general is a macho world; I think that is why I have gradually moved away from painting to papercuts. I now draw with a scalpel blade; within the fragility but also the arrangement and putting together of my work, and within the medium of collage itself, there is a feminist agenda.
Often in art literature critics like to discuss ‘the domestic’ when writing about female ceramicists – something that I feel would never be said about a male ceramicist. I know that you in the past have created full dinner-sets which almost feels like optimum domesticity; however, I think what you place onto them breaks them from this domestic ideology and makes them feminist. The motifs you use are not of domesticated women and this creates such a beautiful contrast with your choice of dinner-set as canvas. To see an independent non-sexualized woman printed onto a plate that 50 years ago a suburban housewife would have been laying on their dining room table is really so special.
Men perhaps wouldn’t engage with a domestic ideology, as for them the domestic isn’t worth noticing, but for me the domestic is absolutely at the center of my experience of being female. The plate for me as a canvas allows me to ground my imagery in the domestic. Historically plates were where imagery entered the house for everyone who wouldn’t be buying paintings. Even though I haven’t had my plates mass produced yet (maybe one day!) I would be very happy for that because I am interested in its potential as a democratic art form.
What do you want people to ultimately take away from your work?
I like them to have the idea that the female is independent and autonomous, that she has control of her environment and of herself but also that she is still vulnerable and she only passes through for a certain period of time. I capture that moment. From an aesthetic point of view, I use pattern and ornament to draw the viewer in, through the physical pleasure of the decorative, in order to engage them in the ideas embedded in the images.