Late artist Michael Hodges remembered in memorial show

The exhibit, now open at Mixed Bag Studios on the East Side, will run through early June

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
A colored pencil drawing by late artist Michael Hodges

It wasn’t unusual for artist Michael Hodges to go missing from time to time, according to friend and fellow artist Kity Fewlass, who first met Hodges a decade ago. But following one disappearance early in the coronavirus pandemic where Hodges remained off-radar for a long stretch while caring for a wheelchair-bound friend south of the city, Fewlass and her daughter made Hodges pledge that if he was going to be away for more than two weeks that he would at least call to let the family know he was still alive and kicking.

“He was homeless off and on most of the last 20 years, I’d say, and he couch-hopped a lot, and stayed with friends for long stretches,” said Fewlass, who hosted Hodges in her home for 18 months before the family downsized in a move just prior to the pandemic. “When he stayed with us … it took him about a month and a half to sleep without his shoes on, because when you sleep in the shelters you can’t trust that your things would be there when you wake up. So he would sleep with his shoes on, sleep with things in his pockets. My daughter, who's 16, she was close to him, and she’d say, ‘Michael, I’m taking your shoes off now,’ and he'd let her.”

But in mid-April, following a stretch when Hodges again dropped off radar, Fewlass received a call that sent her reeling, with the Franklin County Coroner’s Office phoning to tell her that Hodges had died on April 6, his body discovered in the early morning hours in an alleyway behind a house. (Fewlass said that the coroner’s office contacted her when no immediate family could be reached and that a cause of death was still pending, as were details about where he was discovered.)

“My daughter broke down crying and we both sat there in shock for a bit,” said Fewlass, who in the aftermath curated a show of Hodges' work at her gallery, Mixed Bag Studios, which will remain on view at 1620 E. Broad St. (across from Franklin Park) through early June. “He was just this really quiet, kind soul. He wouldn’t hurt anybody. He just always wanted to get his art out there, to have people see it.”

Supporting this idea, the final quote Hodges posted to his personal Facebook page reads, "My mantra is, 'Live life like you want to be remembered!'"

The drawings on display at Mixed Bag include everything from a large, intricate piece with a Black woman surrounded by flora, which Fewlass recalled Hodges working on when the two first met almost a decade ago at Bethlehem on Broad Street, where he was waiting to be served a meal, to a piece that features a crying woman surrounded by waves that are dotted with outstretched hands. Fewlass said that Hodges completed this collage-like colored pencil drawing following the death of his mother, whom she described as a pivotal figure in his life, and the drowning figures symbolize the sense of grief he felt in the wake of her loss.

In addition to a dozen-odd completed works, there are also a handful of pieces in various stages of completion (Fewlass said Hodges was someone who worked on drawings over long stretches of time, frequently setting aside and then returning to the work), which, taken collectively, combine to present a fuller picture of the artist.

Most of the drawings feature the natural world in some way, including exotic flowers, wildly overgrown plants and all manner of snakes and lizards, the canvases allowing the artist to escape his concrete- and asphalt-dominated surroundings. When Hodges would work, Fewlass said, he would often do so in silence, hunching over his pad for long hours, his attention locked on the most intricate details.

While Hodges would often isolate himself to work, Fewlass said that he was someone who craved the company of people. He was a regular presence at places such as the Short North Tavern, in addition to working a variety of jobs that included a stretch at Franklin Park Conservatory (where he could indulge his fondness for plant life) and Red Hook Grill in Grandview, where he worked as a short-order cook at one point.

“The pandemic was totally hard on him, because he was someone who needed to be around others,” said Fewlass, who is having prints made of Hodges' work, which will be made available for sale with proceeds going to support Art Outside the Lines, a program serving adult artists with disabilities where Hodges would often dedicate his time. (The prints, which will be made available in the coming weeks, will be priced at $25 unframed and $50 framed.)

In addition to the pieces by Hodges, the memorial exhibit also includes a portrait of the artist by Suzanne Shea Gallagher, who painted Hodges as part of her “Smile Lines” project, which includes portraits of 52 people who served in the armed forces. (Hodges served in the Army for a short time, Fewlass said.) The beaming painting is accompanied by text taken from an interview that Gallagher conducted with Hodges, and that offers great insight into the attitude that helped carry the late artist through a life filled with struggle.

“Surviving and adapting gave me more strength than any experience in my life. But the loneliness is the saddest part of homelessness. There is no one to talk to, no one to predict the day. I lost a lot of people being gone for so long,” Hodges said to Gallagher. “Some people give up on other people. … I’d rather die trying than give up. … There is always someone in your corner. Whether you can see it or not. You don’t know what people are doing to help you. With a little help don’t you think you have something to reach for?”