All Along the Waterfront

Drawing inspiration from her seaside home, artist Claudia Hodges manipulates mangled driftwood into a bounty of enchanting sculptures.

by Adrian Hoff. Mobile Bay magazine, August 2014.




All Along the Waterfront: Claudia Hodges(Original unedited text) by Adrian Hoff. Published Mobile Bay magazine: August 2014

Claudia Hodges’ colorful acrylics adorn the walls of the Eastern Shore Art Center’s Wooley Gallery. Most depict water-related subjects, befitting an artist who lives and works in a beach cottage near the end of the Ft. Morgan peninsula. The paintings provide a superb visual backdrop for unusual driftwood sculptures, which occupy much of the available floor-space: two divergent art forms blending comfortably into a cohesive, one-woman show.

A resounding, “this is awesome!!!!” announces the opening’s first wave of visitors. A woman approaches, husband in tow. “Beautiful! Your work is beautiful. You do painting and sculpture,” she says to Hodges by way of a greeting. “What is this made of?” the husband asks, eyeing a nearby mermaid. 

“It’s driftwood; the figure is all one piece, except for the fins and the hair,” replies Hodges.

“Even the head, too?” he asks, incredulously. Then, moving in for a closer inspection, he adds, “I certainly do admire your imagination. I don’t know how you can visualize that from stuff lying on the beach.”

Hodges explains that the wood itself sparked the mermaid idea. It was positioned in the sand so that as she walked past she saw a lady’s back. “See? This is a backbone,” she says, her fingers tracing the figure’s spine. “And this was actually a really weird part of the tree, kind of like a big knot, that I turned into her face: I started with the face and just went from there,” she continues.

“All one piece,” he mutters to himself.

Redirecting his attention to row upon row upon row of thin, form-fitting scales, Hodges tells him that they were glued in place, like a veneer. “I took my hand chipper, and I carved each one from another piece of driftwood. Then I had to bend each piece to fit: I would take it in my fingers and twist it to fit the contours,” she says.

“Geeze! What patients,” he exclaims, before wandering off in pursuit of his wife.

“You do beautiful work. Your brushwork is fantastic,” says her next new fan, before explaining that he long ago abandoned acrylics in favor of oils. “My problem is that I want to do everything quick. I don’t have the patience for oils. I’ve done watercolors too,” she responds, “and I think I try to do acrylics kind of the same way.”

Her painting style may be built for speed, but for Hodges, sculpting is anything but: hers is not a spontaneous, reactive approach. “I think about a piece for a long, long time. I’ll do sketches and see where that takes me,” she explains. “I always like to see the end product first.”

I suggest that her inner-architect is showing through. She agrees, but reminds me that she never actually worked in architecture. Hodges designed elegant outdoor water features rather than buildings; she utilized her training to build (along with husband Bart) an award-winning landscape design business. Several of their Metro Atlanta-based projects were featured on the Discovery Channel.

“The process is the same,” Hodges says, of landscape design and architecture. “You have the idea, put it on paper, and then make it happen. It’s always nice to have that complete picture, especially for people who can’t visualize. Because of my art, I was good at that: letting them see what it was going to be, before the actual work began.”

A woman en route to one of the show’s two hand-carved, queen size headboards notices Hodges’ “Exhibitor” nametag and stops. “Oh, this is you; it’s wonderful; it’s all so wonderful; I just love your foxes,” she says in a single breath. Hodges embarks on the tale of the fox family that posed for her pictures and frolicked in the dunes near her house. “I was drinking my coffee outside early one morning, and my cat comes just barreling down the driveway chasing a fox. I’m like noooooo! Don’t chase the fox,” she says. “My dog Shelly was out there too, a little tiny thing. She ran after the fox, and I’m running after all of them, trying to stop them,” Hodges continues, laughing. “They’re so beautiful. But when you first see them, it’s such a shock: to see something that wild. Right there.”

Their wooden likeness was born of time spent observing mother and kit: a mental image refined, as always, in her sketchbook. She basically knew what she wanted the finished piece to look like, before launching her search for an appropriately formed piece of driftwood.

“This was like two pieces of wood, two connected pieces. And I really liked the way this curves, because it looks like they would stand,” she continues, indicating the part that ultimately became the adult fox. “I saw it, and it was the two together — it was perfect for the mom and the baby.”

She stops to update Bart on how well the show is going. “It’s nice to see people’s reactions; nice to get some love after all of your work,” she says, smiling, but obviously tired. Then she’s off again, fielding visitor’s questions and compliments, explaining technique and aesthetics.

“I look like crazy driftwood lady because I’ve got driftwood all over the place,” she says. “And now that my neighbors, and others, know what I’m doing, we have like driftwood fairies. It shows up...” A voice breaks in, repeating now-familiar sentiment: “This is all so interesting; you’ve got quite an unusual imagination.”

“Yes, I’m kind of out there, because I see things in it that others don’t see” she responds. “That’s just part of being me, I guess.”

Hodges began painting in childhood. She’d done some wood carving in years past. But her interest in creating art out of driftwood emerged only about 18 months ago. “It’s just something I decided to try. I wanted to see if I could do something a little different than what I’d seen other people do,” she explains. “I like a challenge. I like to find out — could I do that?”

Adrian Hoff
Freelance Photographer and Writer
Mobile, AL