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Making vivid paintings inspired by richness of fabric

Poppy Dodge is obsessed with paint.

“I am. I can’t quit it,” she recently said, as the Petaluma-based artist prepared to make available a new series of abstract paintings suggested by the ecstatic colors of classic beach blankets. Though deeply inspired by the richness of fabric — from the conjoined patchworks of quilts to coils of dyed yarn to thick blankets redolent of family vacations and rainy days by the fireplace — Dodge primarily expresses her love of fabric through the medium of acrylic paint.

Layers and layers of paint.

“People keep telling me, ’Come on,’ you have to get these onto actual textiles,’ and that is on my to-do list,” Dodge said, the faint glimmer of a genuine promise clinging to her words. “Because I do love the touch of fabric. When I lived in New Zealand with my husband and kids, surrounded by sheep and wool, I did start weaving. On a loom. And it was like painting with wool, and I did become completely obsessed.”

She would paint during the day and weave at night. In New Zealand, it seemed the right thing to do.

“But then, when we moved to Petaluma three years ago, I started focusing just on painting,” Dodge said, noting that the tangential exploration of weaving did have a permanent impact on her approach to her art. “I still follow weavers and quilters on Instagram, especially the improvisational quilters,” she continued. “They piece together random scraps, inventing the most perfectly imperfect patterns. But I love painting, so I eventually thought it would be fun to try to paint the way quilters quilt or weavers weave.”

Artists and other creatives often wait for those much-anticipated “ah ha” moments to come along. For Dodge, this was that moment.

“It was so exciting,” she said. “I created two different series of paintings, all of it inspired by improvisational quilting. For the series I’m about to release, I decided I would just keep learning and really just hone this. I’ve done painted quilts, and now I’m doing the family beach blanket.”

The beach blanket idea was a direct response to COVID-19, and the forced retreat that ended so many people’s summer travel plans.

“Here we were, summer canceled, nothing happening,” Dodge said. “We were all at home with our doors and windows closed to keep out the smoke from the fires, I have two boys, a husband and a black Labrador, and everyone was bouncing off the walls.”

As a way to cope, she began painting abstracts inspired in tone and color by different nostalgic moments from her life. Along with paintings intended to capture the energy of tide pools and beach grass, lollipops and candy necklaces, sailboats and ocean rocks, she created a pair of works inspired by an old family beach blanket she still remembers fondly.

“Who knows where it is now, but I can look at old family photos, and so many of them have that blanket,” she said. “So I did those two, and then, this year, when deciding what to do for my next series, I just knew that I had to keep on exploring that. What blankets symbolize to me are things like leisure, group togetherness, better days, but also a sense of warmth, and even protection.”

One of the ways Dodge approaches her art, when it comes to selling her pieces, is to hold off on releasing a new series until she has many paintings ready to sell, usually making them available to newsletter subscribers and past patrons. The 2021 Beach Blanket Series officially launches on Friday, May 28. Given the restrictions of the ongoing pandemic, the “opening” will take place through her website, PoppyDodge.com.

“I love these new paintings so much,” she said. “I’m really, really excited to share them.”

It would be easy to assume that Dodge has been an artist all of her life, but there was a long period when pursuing an artistic career was the furthest thing from her mind. She studied psychology and sociology in Tacoma, Washington, with an expectation of entering some sort of mental health field.

“I love stories, I love people, and I love helping them,” she said.

But a creative seed had been planted as a child, having grown up under the influence of a professional artist.

“My mom was an artist, so I guess art has always been a dominant part of my life,” says Dodge, who first grew up in Cincinnati before her family moved to Phoenix, Arizona, when she was 7. “There was a ceramic studio and a painting studio in our house, and I was always drawing and making stuff. My earliest memories, literally, are of being on the floor of my mom’s studio, working over old pieces of hers that she didn’t care about anymore. It was just a very creative household.”

When she was 25, starting out in the field of social work, during a period of heightened stress and anxiety, Dodge tentatively reached out to the comfort of something familiar, and in so doing rediscovered art, finding a renewed sense of comfort in the act of painting every evening after work.

“I loved it, so I kept doing it,” she said. “Then some friends suggested I take classes at the community college.”

Living in Oakland at the time, Dodge enrolled at Laney College, and after taking a number of classes, she began teaching after school art for kids in the area. Fully engaged in her evolving life as an artist, she enrolled at Cal State East Bay (then Cal State Hayward), where she earned a BFA in traditional art.

“I haven’t looked back since,” she said. “Yes, I’ve had occasional day jobs to pay the bills over the last 20 years, but I always find time for my art.”

Her husband works in the field of cinematic visual effects, a job that has taken the family around the world. Before they moved to Petaluma, it was his job that took them to Wellington, New Zealand, where he worked on films like “The Hobbit” and “Planet of the Apes.” In 2018, he took a job in Novato working at the FX company 2K, specifically focusing on the firm’s NBA 2K video game series.

Early on in her reintroduction to art, Dodge explored representational approaches — “I did a lot of quirky birds and stuff,” she said — but while in New Zealand, she discovered a passion for abstract art.

“We lived by the ocean, where it was always so dramatic,” she said, adding, “You can have four seasons a day, every day.” Inspired by the ocean and the clouds, which often reminded her of an abstract painting, Dodge began painting the feelings and moods of what she was surrounded by. “That was about eight years ago,” she said, “and now I am completely consumed with abstract painting.“

Calling herself a “color maximalist,” Dodge embraces the full spectrum of the rainbow, preferring her paintings to be as bright and dazzling as possible.

“My color vocabulary has to have at least some pops of bright saturated color,” she said, admitting to a tendency to contrast such vibrant explosions of vivid color with the muted hues she so often saw as a child in the Arizona desert.

Though her painting comes naturally, she’s had to work hard to learn to treat her passion as a business.

“You can’t be an artist without marketing yourself,” she said. “I wish I could just stay in my artist cave, and that people would magically flock to me, but you have to reach out to folks.”

She’s now a member of the Petaluma Arts Center, and a teaching artist at the Museum of Sonoma County in Santa Rosa. When possible, she participates in local artist gatherings, and through conversations with other artists, she’s gradually picked up tips on how to launch a newsletter, build an audience through connecting with people, and eventually establish a reputation as an artist worth keeping eye on.

“It takes a lot of constant organic outreach,” she said. “It’s just work, but it’s good work.”

Dodge says she enjoys working in long series of related paintings, because it allows her to explore all the edges of a particular visual theme, while buyers also appreciate the idea of collecting coordinated works of art. A single series can take Dodge up to five years to see through to the end, by which time she’s often already begun a new series in a different, though still supremely colorful, style.

“If I approach my work as a series, it allows me to follow whatever creative passions I’m having,” Dodge said. “I’ve learned that the work wants what it wants, so I’ve learned to just follow that. I enjoy following my curiosity. I like to follow new ideas and see there they take me. They almost always take me somewhere I’m happy to be.”

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