This lovely woodcut is of a place called Paynes Hollow on the south shore of the Ohio river in northern Kentucky, and was for 40 years the home (he built it) of Harlan Hubbard, the artist, and his wife Anna. Harlan Hubbard’s paintings have been in my mind for a long time as they form the covers for most of the Port William novels by Wendell Berry, but I have not learnt much about Hubbard himself until recently, when I read Berry’s biography of Hubbard and also bought a book of his woodcuts.
Hubbard’s work is perhaps that which sits on a different extreme from that of Anselm Kiefer’s. They are not at opposite extremes, just different ones. Kiefer and Hubbard could, I think, have a conversation about art, but what occupies the thoughts of both artists would be radically different. Hubbard chose early on in his life to see what was possible to achieve by following Thoreau “off the grid” and into a self-sufficient (as far as possible) subsistence (as far as was possible) homely life fed by a love of music and art, of gardening and foraging, and above all, by a love for, and a reliance on, the Ohio river. He married later in life and he and Anna never had children. They died in the mid 1980s, and Hubbard left behind him a huge amount of work – journals from the 1920s to 1960s; four books about his experience of travelling by shantyboat from Kentucky to New Orleans in the 1940s and then around the bayous, and then settling at Paynes’ Hollow; a huge number of paintings, mostly in oils and watercolour, and a large number of prints, principally woodcuts. If we return to Wendell Berry’s description of art from his essay The Hidden Wound, we read:
A work of art that grows out of a diseased culture has not only the limits of art but the limits of the disease – if it is not an affirmation of the disease, it is a reaction against it. The art of a man divided within himself and against his neighbours, no matter how sophisticated its techniques or how beautiful its forms and textures, will never have the communal power of the simplest tribal song.
Hubbard’s work is closer to the “communal power of a simple tribal song.” It describes that which part of us longs for. It is instantly recognisable and it is established as art on its own terms, as part of a way of life that does not need any excuse or reason to argue for itself. When a large nuclear facility was proposed in Indiana, across the Ohio from Payne’s Hollow, many locals protested its planning. Not Hubbard. His whole life was a protest against the thing, and in the way he lived, in a house accessible principally by river, he made a statement about his life and its deliberate place within the canon of how Americans choose to live their lives.
It is hard to enter, though, because what we see here in Harlan Hubbard’s life is so distant from our daily experience, our reliance on electricity, and on telephone technology, and we are left bereft as modern westerners too far removed from our roots to attempt a restart. Gardening helps, but then that is counteracted, in my mind at least, by the purchase of every piece of electrical equipment that enslaves me further to the life our world wants us to live in.
Art at this extreme is fully about lived life, and is not abstract at all. It stands against the abstractions of modern American art and strives to re-establish what art is actually for – in Hubbard’s case, not a statement about anything or against anything, but just a gifted human response to the joy and wonder of nature. This I can relate to. I cannot pass the trunk of a silver birch without the urge rising in me to paint it or make a print of it. And because every lie of each branch and leaf is different, and the combinations are endless, I can sit stupefied in front of a birch tree, mesmerised by the possibilities. I think Hubbard understood this – he just had the skill to be able to do something with it. The real victory of the life he lived is that it made thought and art about lived life and reality, and therefore unified them in a single but highly complex life. It has a complexity that is born of deep connections to community, to nature, to farming and gardening, to craftsmanship in the arts (Harlan was a skilled violinist as well as artist) and to marriage and family. Those who long for the “simple life” had better be ready for the complexity that all life brings.