The Artistic Ambassador: Joseph Hodge

By Dan O’Connor

Joseph Hodge considers himself not only an artisan, but also an ambassador—an ambassador of the Virgin Islands’ past and present. His realistic paintings depict a life full of culture and community; his abstract pieces reveal a gateway into emotional interpretation.  Through his medium, he believes he preserves history.

“You see, we are all ambassadors,” the 59-year-old Virgin Islander said about his generation. “We need to involve the youth, and I’m trying to tell them this story—a great story.”

Hodge’s story begins on Tortola, during a simpler time when families and the community were very tight-knit. He holds dear to these times and said he has made it a life’s work to pass along the sound values and morals of the past. He told me the story as we sat surrounded by artistic outpourings within his workshop at his Crafts Alive cottage in Road Town. His finished work decorates the walls, and his half-finished work engulfs much of the remaining floor space.

As an early teen, in 1968, he sold his first painting for $25. The piece, he said, represented the timeless landscape along Virgin Gorda’s dramatic coastline.

“Virgin Gorda has always been beautiful to me,” he said as his gold-capped tooth revealed itself through his wide smile. “Never changing, you see, never changing.”

Hodge’s impressionistic pieces are mainly inspired from his youth, growing up on a Tortola void of paved roads and day-visiting pedestrians, and full of gushing ghuts and roadside markets.

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“The BVI was country then,” he explained. “The capital was a few families and the market was vibrant—the donkeys, the mules, the smell—it was all congested in one small area in front of the Post Office. But most of Tortola was country, and we depended on the land for what we needed.”

The painter’s eyes lit up as he spoke, offering a glimpse into the powerful influences guiding his creativity. History, he explained, compels him to push forward with his work. Hodge pointed to previous projects that help to fuel his interest in the history.

In 1978, Hodge traveled to Jamaica to embark on a historical documentary on the lives of Jamaican Maroons, descendants of former runaway slaves who continue to live in colonies among each other.

“I even lived among them for a short time,” he said. “It’s a very rich culture that we lost in the colonies—to see how they emerged in the modern world and maintained their culture, it’s just amazing.”

Now, he said, their story has become overshadowed by the fast pace and modernization of Jamaica and the larger Caribbean. He equated this trend to those that currently exist among many youth in this population who are unconcerned with their past.

“The young people are misinformed today,” he professed. “I want to be one that can help them focus, because I know there’s a lot more potential in them. I want to engage them in tangible affairs, like fishing, agriculture, camping on other islands—so they can experience what life was.”

Hodge suggested that local government and educational institutes work harder to preserve the territory’s culture and rich history. He, on the other hand, said he will remain a storyteller through art—an ambassador of the past.

“Art doesn’t stop when you get old—art is forever,” he said. “I’m not a nine-to-five worker—not a bureaucrat. I can’t retire. I’m an artist ‘til these hands allow me to be.”

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