The Good Southern Women Interview with Jodi Hays
On the aesthetics of the broke down, underdogs, dropping the twang, and being kind—but not sweet
GSW is a questionnaire-based interview series featured in F I E L D T R I P. It focuses on women and nonbinary artists of the South. This time, we feature the visual artist Jodi Hays. All images are courtesy of the artist and Sam Angel Photography.
Jodi and I have been connected on social media for years, and we live in the same neighborhood. But we didn’t actually meet until recently, when a mutual friend suggested we have coffee. The timing felt auspicious; I’d been seeing lots of Jodi’s latest work on Instagram and was extremely drawn to it. (Recently, I was paging through a few beautiful books when it hit me: Patchwork. Pattern. These things are absolutely my jam.) Scott Zieher writes, “Jodi Hays employs aspects of our basest, most ancient, human nature in her paintings. She is part hunter-gatherer, part sorceress, part carpenter, part seamstress; resourceful and recalcitrant, the careworn, warrior mother assembling enough material to blanket her family.”
And so we met for coffee, and I came away impressed and fired up by Jodi’s confidence, her unwavering commitment to her work, her grit, her code of ethics, her urgency. This was not a woman wavering, or spinning her wheels, or tangled in the web of frustration that is the day-to-day. This was a woman laser-focused on her art. She’s got what she calls a “workhorse default,” but she also likes to watch birds. What’s not to love?
“I come from gardeners, teachers, believers, sinners, moon-lighting loggers, makers, milliners, cooks, healers, pharmacists, and grocers,” she writes in her artist statement. “I come from the American South, a place where the kitchen and pharmacy are the same room. In many ways, I see my work as that same room—an expansive space for building and coming together.”
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How does the South inform your artwork?
I make paintings using dyed fibers, textiles and reclaimed cardboard that I call a southern povera, based on the Italian art movement, Arte Povera, whose artists used provisional and unlikely materials. My work, for over 15 years now, depends on a careworn aesthetic, or what I like to call “the aesthetics of the broke down.”
I am aiming to deepen the visual lexicon of the American South, calling on (but not depicting) a shared visual culture of overgrowth, forgotten fences, plywood solutions, and junk piles.
Tell me about a Southern artist (any medium) you identify with and/or admire, and why.
Beverly Buchanan is an artist whose work depends on, and transcends, where she is from. She did not make autobiographical work (which is often expected from Southern-identifying artists). She made work with rigor, intellect, and pedigree that was a commentary on the whole system. She showed the country that Southern conversations are everyone’s conversation. Then there’s Forrest Bess, Robert Rauschenberg, even Robert Ryman.
Growing up, how did you conform to Southern codes of femininity?
Southern codes as opposed to Northern? As a former Evangelical, the codes for women are legion and I have never been sweet. Kind, but not sweet. I liked church. I made good grades. I didn’t smoke or drink (much). I got married at 22 years old. CD Wright writes (paraphrasing the WPA Guide to Arkansas):
Didn’t like to fight, not unless cornered
And then to the death
I am an Arkansan, which is not divorced from being Southern (depending on your definition), but is definitely another layer of underdog. Most of my defining of “southern” for myself has been in translating the unspoken meaning behind others’ comments: I have never been to Arkansas (from someone who lived their entire life three hours from the border); Arkansas, I don’t even know where to put it on a map (from a born-and-raised, brilliant New York City nonagenarian last month); Arkansas…how did you even get here from there? (from a Cantabrigian, and I asked her right back), and countless other interactions that build to inform one’s sense of self.
Growing up, how did you push back against Southern codes of femininity?
I liked being outside more than inside. I was not boy-crazy. I won every track meet I was in, more than the boys. I declined an invitation to “come out” at the Debutante Ball, a classist and racist tradition if there ever was one, and is unfortunately, not limited to the South.
In what ways are you no longer Southern?
My accent has morphed and flattened with age, and I feel a loss. Mostly a loss in that I allowed people (even fellow Southerners) to take pause at the way I said “oil”, “can’t” or “why?”, and then dropped the twang.
What is a specific place in the South where you feel at home?
Having children here has changed this. Home is not a place but a condition (to quote James Baldwin). So, I suppose the condition of being around my family is home. I feel at home in the studio—the place of making where time dissolves. I also feel at home in New York City, in front of a touchstone painting at the Met.
Tell me about a Southern expression that
You love, or
That you’ve used in your work
LOVE: The phrase “I’m anyone’s dog who’ll hunt with me” is one that my Great Aunt Trudy says, and my use of it is directly related to having a show at Susan Inglett Gallery in New York City with Michi Meko.
What do you like about living in the South?
I appreciate proximity to my family and a deep bench of imaginative history, both dark and light. And I like to think that being a visual artist down here (not in an “art world center”) has called upon a strength and conditioning that, thankfully, I have in reserve.
Share a memory of a time when you became particularly aware of some character of the South.
Years ago, my Dad, Curt Hays, drove me past Ed Palmer’s shack/house in Alpine, Arkansas. He is the man on whom Billy Bob Thornton based his character, Carl, in Sling Blade. Billy Bob used to spend summers with grandmother, Maude Faulkner. We drove on a dirt road, Palmer Road, through a pasture (grass in between the ruts), right past his home. I could see through the front door just a few feet from my truck window. Ed Palmer died just last month.
Explore Jodi Hays’ work on her website, and:
Paintings from the New American South, Susan Inglett Gallery (NYC)
Devening Projects, opening reception Sunday, April 2, 3-5pm, Chicago, show through May 15, 2023
Follow Jodi on Instagram: @jodihayspainter
For collection inquiries: @coopartatl
Thank you for reading F I E L D T R I P. Jodi Hays and all the GSW artists featured here are amazing and should be known widely, so please share generously. Or just tap the <3 and let us know you enjoyed the read.
I love Jodi Hays’s work so much—now one of my life goals is to own one of her pieces
So glad to know about Jodi and her incredible art!!