Once a month, we feature local small business owners and artists who are using their creativity to make the homes and businesses of Roanoke beautiful.
This month, our spotlight is on artist and art teacher, Martha Rhodes. Martha uses a variety of media in her artwork but is probably best known for her abstract and representational acrylic paintings.
An Artistic Journey: Martha’s Story
Martha Rhodes has been on a lifelong artistic journey—one that has involved learning, teaching, and growing.
She recalls that at a young age, her teachers encouraged her to pursue art in a very intentional way. Martha’s parents were supportive and enrolled her in extracurricular classes with an artist in her hometown of Petersburg, VA.
Through those classes, growing her knowledge and skills, Martha’s passion for art increased. She went on to study art at VCU and received her BFA in design and art education in 1970. She has been creating art and teaching it ever since.
Seeing the influence that learning art had in her own childhood, Martha has been passionate for instilling a similar passion in young artists. She first began teaching children’s art classes at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. When her husband was transferred to Roanoke for work, she taught at the Roanoke Catholic School for years. Later on, she taught gifted classes and an after-school art program for Roanoke County Schools.
At the same time, Martha was teaching private, one-on-one classes from her home studio to kids ranging from third grade to high school. “I had several students that I taught for 8 to 10 years who have gone on to do great things with their art,” Martha said. “I still keep in touch with some of them, and it’s exciting for me to hear what they are doing.”
Martha saw that the private classes allowed for great progress for those children who really had a passion for art. “I enjoyed being able to share information with young people when they had that interest,” she said. “You can really meet individual needs one-on-one. It allows you to work with them in areas they’re specifically interested in.”
As she taught, Martha found the need for more learning. Through the years, she taught several students with learning disabilities. To more effectively teach these students, Martha took several classes at Virginia Western Community College on learning disabilities. “One-on-one was the key,” Martha said. “They were able to focus with art. It was a comfort zone for them in some ways, because it became something they could be successful with.”
While she focused mostly on teaching youth, Martha also taught many workshops and other special classes through the years to kids and adults alike. In fact, she occasionally still teaches, although not on a weekly schedule.
Martha found that helping others on their art journeys through teaching has been a huge part of her own journey. “I love to experiment and try new and different things, and I think that comes from the teaching I have done,” Martha said.
Martha has seen her work change dramatically throughout her career as she has experimented with a variety of media and styles. While she started out doing realistic landscapes in watercolors, she now creates mostly representational and abstract art in acrylic and mixed media.
These pieces display the various styles that Martha currently works in. From left to right, an abstract acrylic painting, a representational watercolor painting, and a mixed media.
She saw this shift as she continued to learn more about art. Through the years, Martha has jumped at opportunities to participate in workshops and classes so that she could continue to grow in techniques and approaches to her artwork.
“I have moved toward abstract through the years, and it has opened up a whole new world for me,” she said. “My instructors have painted that way and have encouraged me to pursue it. Most people don’t realize it, but painting abstractly is more challenging than painting realistically or representationally. That’s because it’s not just something that you sit down and paint; it evolves as you go along.”
With her love for the experimental side of art comes a continued variety in the types she creates. “I’m not a person that paints the same way all the time,” Martha said. “It depends on my inspiration and mood at the time.”
Inspired by the Roanoke area, as well as by her travels out West and to Europe, a lot of Martha’s work is loosely related to landscapes. She often paints from photos that she has taken during her travels.
No matter the style or medium she is using, Martha’s work is often recognizable from the warm color palette that many of her pieces feature. She also finds herself drawn to acrylic paints more than she was previously in her career in order to achieve those colors.
“I love acrylic and the boldness of the colors from it,” she said. “I’m more of a warm colored person than a cool colored one. I love those southwest colors like gold, rust, and teal.”
Martha enjoys creating series of pieces—paintings with similar themes, titles, or color palettes, but that each depict something different. Series she has created throughout her career have ranged from 10 to as many as 20 pieces.
Three pieces from a series Martha created called “Earth Fragments,” inspired by a collection of different types of rocks that she acquired from a friend who was a jewelry maker.
In her 35 years of living in Roanoke, Martha has been active in the art community for the majority of those. She is a member of the League of Roanoke Artists and The Market Gallery and has found support and inspiration in this community through the years.
“I’ve been active in the art scene for the last 30 years, and it’s been a nurturing environment,” Martha said. “There is a large group of talented artists in this region. It’s a very encouraging, supportive area.”
She is also a member of the Taubman Museum, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Virginia Watercolor Society, Southern Watercolor Society, the American Watercolor Society, the Virginia Collage Society, and the National Watercolor Society.
Martha has seen a lot of success in selling her work since joining The Market Gallery about five years ago. “I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from people seeing my work there; I’ve had people that come there looking for my work, whether abstract or realistic.”
In addition to the Market Gallery, you can see Martha’s work on display at 2nd Helpings Gallery in Roanoke and at the Allegheny Highlands Arts and Crafts Center in Clifton Forge, VA. She also participates in a number of shows throughout the year.
Martha creates art not for the awards or the sales or even the sense of satisfaction, but because it brings her true joy.
“Between teaching and painting, it’s just something I really enjoy,” she said. “It’s fun to experiment, and it’s more about the process for me—it’s satisfying and it gives me a lot of joy.”
It’s a joy that has gotten her through hard times, including the passing of her husband four years ago. “My art was really good for me when I lost my husband,” Martha said. “I could go and do my thing, and when I’m painting I’m not thinking about another thing. It was really important for me to have that.”
Throughout the years, as she has taught and learned and grown, Martha has seen the influence that art has had on her, and undoubtedly, the many students she has taught have been influenced by her as well.
“It’s been an exciting journey for me. Art is not the only part of who I am, but it’s a very important part.”
When she’s not creating art or teaching, Martha enjoys traveling, reading, volunteering, and spending time with her friends. She also spends a lot of her time with her daughter and two grandchildren.