Wednesday, March 27, 2013


vestige |╦łvestij|
a trace of something that is disappearing or no longer exists: the last vestiges of colonialism.
• Biology: a part or organ of an organism that has become reduced or functionless in the course of evolution.
ORIGIN late Middle English: from French, from Latin vestigium ‘footprint.’

Italy is a country filled with footprints of the past. Etruscan walls, Roman aquaducts and roads, medieval towns and Renaissance palaces. America too has its share of vestigial remains, none so ancient as Italy, but they are a growing feature of our evolving landscape. As a young painter I argued that my attraction to these now empty remnants of America's once-thriving industrial past were driven by formal interests alone; but as I've reached my middle years I've become more and more fascinated by the narrative implications of my choice of subjects.

Some years ago I was musing with a student on the magnetism that abandoned places exert on us as painters. Is it just the vestiges of Romanticism, or perhaps some sublimated symbolic impulse hiding in these empty, decaying sites? My student offered another explanation. "It goes back to childhood," he said. "These are the places we sought out as children to play in; places where there are no adults." I haven't stopped thinking about that since. Play, as every child knows, is the most serious work there is.

 Frank Hobbs
 Abandoned Silo Along the Western Shore of Lake Trasimeno, Tuscany,  
oil on canvas, 18"x14," 2013

Frank Hobbs
 Factory Remnants, Tuscany, oil on canvas, 16"x19," 2013

 Frank Hobbs
 Abandoned Factory On the Road to Poppi, Tuscany,  
oil on canvas, 16"x19," 2013

All images copyright 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Walking Down a River

 The Cowpasture River, Bath County, Virginia

I never throw away a book I have bought. They line my work spaces, my studio, my bedroom. One glance at a shelf reminds me of where I have been, what has occupied my mind and my time, who I am. They are like oracles. Pulling out Edwin Way Teale's Journey Into Summer recently my eyes fell on this, from a chapter entitled, Walking Down a River, :

"...the way to become acquainted with an area intimately, to appreciate it best, is to walk over it. And the slower the walk the better. For a naturalist, the most productive pace is a snail's pace. A large part of his walk is often spent standing still. A mile an hour may well be fast enough. For his goal is different from that of the pedestrian. It is not how far he goes that counts; it is not how fast he goes; it is how much he sees.

And, in deeper truth, it is not just how much he sees. It is how much he appreciates, how much he feels. Nature affects our minds as light affects the photographic emulsion on a film. Some films are more sensitive than others; some minds are more receptive. To one observer a thing means much; to another the same thing means almost nothing. As the poet William Blake wrote in one of his letters: 'The Tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way.'

To the lost man, to the pioneer penetrating new country, to the naturalist who wishes to see wild land at its wildest, the advice is always the same - follow a stream. The river is the original forest highway. It is nature's own Wilderness Road." 

Some of the rivers that I have "walked down:"

The Yellowstone, Montana

The Maury, Goshen Pass, Virginia

The Gihon, Near Johnsonville, Vermont

The Gihon - Sunset
The James, Richmond, Virginia - Evening

The Kennebec River, Maine - Evening, Looking South from Waterville

The Penobscot River, Maine - On the Way Home from Lubec

The Hocking River, Athens, Ohio, Winter

The Scioto River, Columbus, Ohio

Friday, March 15, 2013

"Cortona Palcoscenico" in Motion

Ah, Spring Break. Time to work in the studio, and to fool around with new things. I made a new video that puts my series, Cortona Palcoscenico, into motion along with a backing soundtrack that I composed and mixed a few years ago. (A bit rough in quality admittedly but not excruciatingly so, I trust.)

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Village Idiot Will Find You!

Painting outdoors on site has figured large in my work ever since my last years in college at Virginia Tech. Working in situ has its own set of risks and trials that have nothing to do with the aesthetic or technical problems of painting. I'm talking about people: curious, mostly well-meaning, people. Ask any painter who works outdoors and you'll hear stories of encounters with interesting folk.

Here's a little known fact. In every town or city there are lots of people who apparently don't do anything but wander around. A friend once cautioned me, "If you paint outdoors, sooner or later the village idiot will find you."An artist working on the street casts a magic spell that apparently turns adults into children. Probably because painters share certain characteristics in common with clowns and jugglers. We're entertaining. But we outdoor artists also share characteristics with criminals. Before the easel comes out, we've likely loitered too long in one place, and looked a little too hard at things, as if we're casing the joint for a robbery. Maybe that's why Degas said, "A painting takes as much cunning as committing a crime."

Some of my encounters have been pleasant and enjoyable. Other times I've felt a bit threatened. (I often work in some pretty sketchy places.) Very seldom has a chance encounter on the street led to a sale, a commission, or a lasting, meaningful relationship, except once when the president of a paper mill near Lynchburg, VA, stopped and later bought the painting that I was doing of his mill. Mostly it's a vexation to be interrupted while you're deep in thought, struggling with a problem, searching for something you can't seem to find. That difficulty is likely what occasioned Degas' to make his famous remark, "Art is a battle." (That, and the Franco-Prussian war that Degas experienced about the time he made the comment.)

When I'm deeply entrained in the work, fighting my way back to the verbal side of consciousness in order to respond to a question from a passerby is like running underwater. Voices sound like the adults in Charlie Brown cartoons. Why is it that no one thinks to chat up the guy or gal in a ditch working on the city's water main? But then those folk have serious work to do, unlike painters, who we all know are probably out on holiday enjoying a day off from their real work.

I read somewhere that the use of free-association in psycho-analysis has fallen away because they discovered that it doesn't reveal much. People, it turns out, are pretty predictable in their associations: egg-bird; cat-dog, night-day, etc. Same with the questions that people ask. These are the ones I most often hear when painting, and my answers (in parentheses):

1. What are you painting? (Follow my eyes.)
2. How long does it take you to finish a painting? (I don't know.)
3. Do you sell them or is it just a hobby? (It's not a hobby.)
4. How much do you sell them for? (Probably more than you want to spend.)
5. How long have you been doing this? (As long, or longer than you've been alive.)
6. Did you study art or did you just learn it yourself? (I studied art but I learned it myself.)
7. Why are you painting THAT!? (Do you want the short answer or the long one?)

Over the years I have learned a few things from passersby (in quotation marks):

1. You don't have to actually paint to be an artist. ("My [fill in blank: daughter, son, uncle, aunt, etc.] is an artist. He/she hasn't painted in 25 years but he/she is so creative...") and so forth.

2. Subject matter is all that matters in art. ("Man, them buildings MEAN something to you?" Me: "No, I just like the colors and the light." Angry reply: "Then WHY are you painting them!?")

3. People naturally understand that the chaos and mess of actual construction sites is a necessary stage of a building process but a painting should look like a picture from the first marks. ("My son paints, but he can make it LOOK LIKE a picture." And, "Man, you doin' some of that New York-y shit!")

4. Art teachers are generally useless and incompetent, if not crazy. ("My teacher at the community college told me not to use so much green, but leaves ARE green!")

Not all exchanges are so bad. Usually it's the children who stop to watch who seem to just get what it's all about. I once had an audience of some Mennonite children on their way home from school. They were mesmerized by the likeness of the painting to the buildings and houses I was painting. For them, whose religious upbringing proscribes "graven images," I imagine it was like that Walt Disney animation of a painting flowing, finished to the last detail, in one stroke from a paintbrush wiggling across the canvas from top to bottom.

My favorite meeting was with two young boys who stood behind me quietly watching me work on a cropped composition of a railroad overpass in the downtown of Waynesboro, VA. I overheard one say to the other, "You want to be an artist when you grow up?" His friend replied, "I don't know, don't you have to wear one of those funny hats?" The boy's parting remark to me was priceless: "Mister, next time you paint that bridge you should bring a bigger canvas so you can get the whole thing on there."

No Ideas But In Things

To William Carlos Williams' argument for the primacy of sensuous contact with the world is added the voice of American poet/critic John Crowe Ransom in his 1938 book, "The World's Body:"

"… the image is the raw material of idea. It cannot be dispossessed of a primordial freshness which idea can never claim. An idea is derivative and tamed. The image is in the natural or wild state, and it has to be discovered there, not put there, obeying its own law and none of ours. We think we can lay hold of the image and take it captive, but the docile captive is not the real image but only the idea, which is the image with its character beaten out of it."

 Frank Hobbs, Pears, oil on canvas mounted on panel, 9" x 12," circa 1997