Coming from a family of steelworkers and trades people, Ontario-born Chris Hodge laughs, “I grew up in Hamilton; if I told anybody I was interested in art they would beat me up!
Hodge is retired from a career as a computer programmer with his own software company. He moved west to be with family about 14 years ago and his life took on a new focus. He became the artist he’d always wanted to be.
“It’s such a huge difference,” he says of being immersed in art, which he describes as a “benign addiction.”
He's always been interested in art, despite pursuing a career in technology.
"I actually was accepted at Dundas Valley School of Art, a small art college in Hamilton," he says. "I was getting ready to do a portfolio for OCAD University ... I just looked around and there was no way of earning a living. I really didn't do it again until I retired, but I've always hung around art galleries."
Hodge continues to hang around art galleries now that he lives in North Battleford, including the artist run centre downtown where he has a studio space, and his work is about to be featured at the Chapel Gallery. The exhibition, titled Centred, will run from Oct. 2 to Nov. 22. On display will be about 40 abstract paintings and nine sculptures.
"I find abstract to be more honest," he says. "You’re not trying to fool somebody into thinking it is a tree or a wood or something. It's paint on canvas, or plywood, or whatever you're using."
He would like to think every piece he creates is something different to each person who sees it.
"It’s paint on a canvas, and any feelings you get from it, those are your feelings."
He adds, "Just because I put paint on a certain surface doesn't mean I want anybody to see exactly the thing that I did."
He'd even prefer not to name his pieces if he didn't have to.
"I have a terrible time putting titles on paintings," he laughs. "What business is it of mine to be telling somebody that's what it is? You do it, you put it up and you let people look at it."
It would be hard to show and sell work without titles and signatures, he admits, but he'd rather the work stood on its own.
"What difference does it make if Chris Hodge did it, or Dean Bauche did it or Holly Hildebrand did it?" he says. "Just look at the painting, don't look at me."
For his show, Hodge has chosen not to put them all on stretcher frames, giving them authenticity. He says leaving the edges of the canvas as is allows him to paint without restriction and presents a true view of the canvas.
He also chose not to frame the paintings that are done on plywood, to "keep it honest, not trying to disguise the fact that it’s on a piece of plywood."
He did frame the pieces he did on TerraSkin. More and more artists are using this environmentally green paper, he says. It's like a plastic made from calcium carbonate.
"Wonderful stuff," he says.
In addition to painting, Hodge creates metal sculptures and there will be several exhibited as part of his show.
When it comes to sculpture, he likes a robust medium.
"No piddling around with this clay stuff. I’d rather have a piece of steel," he laughs, even though these days metal seems to be getting heavier.
"I tend to work smaller, so I don’t have big sculptures because I'm not that good a welder. I don't want to make this monster sculpture and have it fall on somebody," he says, adding with a laugh, "and I'm getting old."
As a theme for his show at the Chapel Gallery, Hodge chose the idea of being centred. As a practicing Buddhist, the concept resonates with him and prompts him to work with squares.
"All my paintings are square … because a square is essential a circle without the pointy bits chopped off."
Unlike the usual rectangular shape of artwork in which direction is inherent, the square format helps people focus on the centre.
Related to Buddhism, Hodge sees himself as a square on its way to becoming a circle.
"I like to think I'm a circle but I know I have another three or four rebirths before I get even close to that."
In his artist's statement, Hodge says, "As a practising Buddhist, I've tried to make certain tenets an integral part of my life and so my artwork. The idea of being 'centred' in the world is one of those. If I've managed to convey even a small part of this idea in my art I'll feel validated in pursuing that direction."
He says, "When you talk about living in the now, this new age stuff, most of that comes from Buddhism."
Hodge became a Buddhist in his teens after looking into several different religions.
"I think it's an existential thing," he says. "We don't really know where we come from, we don't know where we're going, so we make up these wonderful stories of what happens, so I thought, 'Why not find the story that suits you best,' and that was the one."
Throughout his research, which he said took about 10 years, he never considered not having a religion or philosophy.
"It just seemed right to have something like that. I can’t imagine being an atheist, but Buddhists are actually agnostics. They are actually willing to say, 'I don't know,' which I found very refreshing."
Buddhism is more of a philosophy than a religion, he says. There are also different branches. The branch that follows the Dali Lama is Tibetan-based, he says. It's very doctrinal and originally came out of India as an offshoot of Hinduism.
"But the one I discovered back in the ‘60s, that's when Zen Buddhism came in."
It has a simple philosophy, he says, with emphasis on meditation.
"So there isn't a lot of doctrine involved."
It's very much an individual thing, he says.
"It really leaves everything more or less up to you."
He also notes the Buddha was a man.
"That's all he was, and I always thought that was great, not trying to make him into a demigod," he says. "Everybody has the potential to be a Buddha. Everybody has it in him, he just hasn't realized it yet."
Hodge says he doesn't push his religion.
"I don't care whether the person next to me is following it or not, I couldn't care less. It's up to the individual."
Even the Hindu religion says there are many paths to God, he notes, and they don't force any particular way of doing things.
"That's why the Hindu religion is all over the map," he says.
It's about having an open mind, says Hodge.
"It's very hard to be an artist and not have an open mind," he says.
But art can't be forced, he says.
"If you sit people down and make them take art classes, they are not going to enjoy it."
Yet he would like to see people stay open to art.
"People are so worried about being right or being this or being that," he says. "Just do something and see what happens. It talks to you, it really does. It sounds weird, but it really happens. You do something, you look at it, it tells you what else to do and at that stage you’re in a whole different frame of mind."
He's happy to see more art in today's schools. There was little to none in his years in grammar and high school. But his background in the IT world says it's also important for students to succeed in the maths and sciences.
"As a programmer I had my own software company, but most of the programming now … is done offshore," he says. "That’s what we're losing if we don't get kids involved with it."
Hodge retired from his IT career in order to move to Saskatchewan to help his mother Doreen care for his stepfather, Ken Jeffrey, formerly of Neilburg. His mother had first moved to Alberta 30 years ago after her first husband's death, then to Neilburg with her second husband and on to North Battleford to be close to medical care when he became ill.
Hodge lives in the house he inherited from his mother when she passed away a year and a half ago. He also inherited two dogs and two cats, although there is only one cat now.
Since coming to the prairies, he says, he has found the landscape influencing his art through its depth and simplicity. His paintings and sculptures are now located in private collections in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and British Columbia, and displayed in many local businesses.
He was one of eight artists involved in North Battleford’s artist in residence program several years ago with a goal of those artists working together on individual career development and community development initiatives.
He also earned a certificate in art and design from the University of Saskatchewan USCAD program.
Lately, he's been researching art theory.
"I'm quite a reader. Since I got into art I've been reading a lot of art theory books, things like that, and it's very confusing," he laughs.
But he's persevered, finding he's been doing intuitively many of the things the books talk about.
“I think if you got caught up in art theory you couldn't paint," he says. "It really is all about how you look at … I think attitude has as much to do with it as anything else. You have to be very open."
Art talks to you, he says.
"If you want to call it a forest or a bear in the bushes that’s fine, too. It’s between you and painting. You can discuss it."
He adds, laughing, “Steel talks to you, too. It says, ‘Put me down! I’m too heavy for you.’”