“Thanks to social media, art is now more accessible than it has ever been.”
I found my interview with Biddy Hodgkinson absolutely fascinating.
Her enthusiasm and talent for abstract painting shone through at school, but it was years later that the opportunity to study at the Chelsea College of Art coincided with the self-belief she needed to succeed there. Since then, she has sold her work across the globe and was Artist-in-Residence at Lincoln Cathedral in 2014/15.
She tells me she senses that there is more creativity to come, and as she talks about her life, you feel that every experience and hurdle has been building up to this moment.
KW: You didn’t begin to study art formally until about 15 years ago, but were you a creative child?
BH: Oh yes, I loved art at school, but I was a bit of an all-rounder, and decided to drop the subject when I was about 14 in favour of something more ‘useful’.
My art teacher persuaded me not to, and unknown to me, entered an abstract oil painting I had done in class into an East of England Adult Art Festival competition and it won!
I think I realised then that this was where my talent and passion lay, although it was a long time before I did anything about it!
KW: So you didn’t go on to study art when you left school? What happened?
BH: It was never really a consideration that I would have a career, let alone an artistic one. The expectation of most girls at that time was that they would marry and have children.
I was quite happy to go and live at home again for a while – a lovely farm in the Lincolnshire Wolds that has always been an inspiration for my work.
My father served in the Fleet Air Arm during World War 2, and his experiences during that time continued to affect him after his return, so I hoped I might be helpful.
I took a secretarial course and got a job at a local company, but I found it so soulless! I certainly couldn’t have made a career out of it.
I married in my early 20’s, moving to the south of Lincolnshire, and had four wonderful children.
KW: Bringing up four children can’t have left you with much time for any creative ambitions?
BH: No, there was barely a spare minute in the day! However, all my children are extremely creative (their father is a brilliant draughtsman) and we were constantly painting, singing and putting on plays. I even allowed them to decorate their own bedrooms!
The house was chaotic, but it was a wonderful time. So although my own ambitions were suppressed, I still had an outlet for my passion in encouraging them with their artistic endeavours.
Whilst my oldest son was studying English Literature at Oxford University, he read A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, after which he encouraged me to spend some time pursuing my own artistic energies.
KW: So what was your first step into a brave new world?
BH: I enrolled in a Life Drawing Class in Stamford. After my first lesson, the tutor looked at my work and assumed I was experienced in the area and simply coming back to it after a break. She couldn’t believe I hadn’t studied it before.
This gave my confidence a huge boost – just as my school art teacher had done all those years ago – and propelled me forward.
Through the course, I discovered there was an Art Foundation Course available in Stamford. I couldn’t believe it – I had assumed that I would have to travel miles for such an opportunity. I applied, and was offered a place.
KW: Did you find going back into education nerve-wracking?
BH: Not really, I was just delighted to be doing something so exciting. I chose to base all my work during that year on Medieval Midwifery.
I’m fascinated by life and death cycles, and find that there is beauty rather than horror in ageing and decay. Possibly this is due to my farming upbringing, where death is simply a part of life. The two are inextricably linked, and it helps enormously to accept this as you go through life.
Whilst on the course, I decided to apply to the Chelsea College of Art. A thousand people had applied for each place that year. I knew that my portfolio would need more than a few unrelated pieces, however well executed they were.
I took a spatial design route based on The Emerald City, with its glossy green facade representing the futility of keeping up appearances. Even though I knew the interview had gone well, I was still fairly astonished to be accepted.
KW: What did you learn there that you have transported into your professional career as an artist?
BH: My degree is in Fine Art, and I continued to observe lifecycles, with a focus on decay. I learnt to use painterly and also alchemic techniques to break down and bleach colours on canvas with harmful agents such as acids, mirroring the work of nature on living things.
This creates tactile and almost sculptural surfaces on the canvas. After college, one of my first exhibitions was in Brigg, and it was really well received. Who knew North Lincolnshire was ready for abstract expressionism?!
KW: From one Chelsea to another – you have also exhibited in Agora Gallery, Chelsea, New York City. That must have been an exhilarating experience?
BH: It was a really fabulous experience, what a wonderful place! I felt so lucky to be afforded such great exposure. The same goes for my time at Lincoln Cathedral, where I worked with colours used in the liturgical calendar.
A degree of success doesn’t come without a lot of hard work – not just the art creation itself, but the organisation required to exhibit. You can’t ship a piece of art without careful planning and consultation, and of course insurance. It can cost an awful lot of money, and you are incredibly nervous about it arriving undamaged.
KW: With exhibits all over the world, you’re under pressure to make the most of this great exposure. How do you promote yourself and your work?
BH: Luckily I’ve worked with some very knowledgeable, understanding and hardworking agents. However, it’s important to connect personally with those people who are interested in your work and follow your progress.
Social media is a wonderful tool for this very purpose. Self-promotion doesn’t come naturally to me, but channels such as Instagram make it easy to find feedback and respond to questions, compliments and criticism informally. They’re also a very inexpensive way to promote individual pieces and exhibitions.
The biggest benefit of social media, and again, especially Instagram, is that I don’t necessarily need a gallery to display my work. Using an app such as Art Rooms, where your work can be superimposed onto a particular setting, allowing it to be displayed in the most appropriate way, is fantastic.
Of course, ultimately, the best way to appreciate a piece of art is up close and in real life. However, exposure is key, and social media helps enormously.
I’m also incredibly inspired by the people I follow on social media – there’s always someone new and exciting to discover. I love it when someone recommends a brilliant account to me.
The downside to social media though, is that sadly, galleries are beginning to close, because, amongst other reasons, art is accessible in so many more ways now than it used to be.
KW: Given that you find beauty in ageing, decay and death, which is quite an alternative view in this day and age, does the media obsession with youth and superficial glamour worry you?
BH: Of course. We are constantly told by the media, whether traditional or online, that old age can be deferred with the correct products, and that youthful beauty must be sought out. Nature teaches us that the opposite is true. However, I know that, like life and death, art and the media are also inextricably linked, and so I’m happy to embrace all new forms of media.
I made a pact with one of my sons that we would take one day off social media every week – it has its place but I would hate it to take over from real life – but it’s harder than I thought it would be!
Biddy is proof that patience and real-life experience are perhaps almost as critical as formal qualifications to achieving success in your chosen field.
Her life has taken a series of twists and turns, which have given her the wisdom to look to the future with enthusiasm rather than trepidation.