To Be Whole: A Call from the Fringe of Society

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Have you ever wondered about the artwork that decorates the covers of so many of Wendell Berry’s books? I have, and so years ago I went digging to find out what I could about the pieces, and the man behind them. In doing so, I was introduced to one of those fascinating characters that hides behind the curtains of history.

Harlan Hubbard was born in 1900 in Bellevue, Kentucky. Although he would leave Kentucky several times in his life, first to live in New York and then to travel in a “shantyboat” down the Ohio River, Hubbard was as bound to farms and rivers of Northern Kentucky as a hobbit is bound to the Shire. He studied at the National Academy of Design in New York and later at the Cincinnati Art Academy. At the age of nineteen, however, he moved back to Kentucky with his mother, and he lived with her until he was married in 1943. 

Wendell Berry, in his book Harlan Hubbard: Life and Work, writes that Hubbard was an “odd young man” who, from very early on, viewed the world differently than most people. He was pretty much a failure in the world’s eyes. His art was not recognized, he earned his living as a day laborer, and he spent his spare time roaming the hills and riverways of Kentucky with his bicycle and painting tools.

In 1943 he married Anna Eikenhout. The two decided to embark on a journey down the Ohio River in a boat they made with their own hands. For the next few years they lived a nomadic life, exploring the river and learning that a life without all the trappings that we find so necessary is still possible. Hubbard explained, “To achieve more perfect harmony with the river and at the same time to live close to the earth and free from entanglement with this modern urban world, I became a shantyboater.”

He saw the modern world as full of these entanglements that keep us from enjoying the beauty and simplicity of a life lived with our own two hands.

After selling the steamboat in bayou country of Louisiana, the Hubbards found their way back to Northern Kentucky to begin in earnest to live close to the earth. Harlan’s book, Payne Hollow: Life on the Fringe of Society is absolutely fascinating. Imagine Walden’s Pond for a lifetime.

Hubbard was not a preacher or an outspoken evangelist for his lifestyle, and that was intentional. He was committed to being himself, completely, never pretending to be someone different to “get along” in society. To illustrate this point, Hubbard made clear that his intentions were not to proselytize:

I had no theories to prove. I merely wanted to try living by my own hands, independent as far as possible from a system of division of labor in which the participant loses most of the pleasure of making and growing things for himself. I wanted to bring in my own fuel and smell its sweet smell as it burned on the hearth I had made.

He chose to paint what he knew, what he loved, and what he felt was important to his own personal understanding of life and the way it is lived.  His dogged commitment to pursue his own inclinations in both art and life drew others to come and see, to consider, and possibly to change themselves.

My favorite piece of Hubbard’s is called Window on the River, 1986. This piece was painted just two years before his death. I’ve always loved it, ever since I saw it on the cover of a collection of three of Wendell Berry’s novels. Berry himself helped me understand the picture, writing about it in his biography of Hubbard.

The window in between the painter and his river is, perhaps, a recognition of the limits placed upon the medium of art.

Kevin Morse

There is a window in the center, and one can see the Ohio River through the trees just outside. Presumably, this is the view the Hubbards would have had from their own window in their little cabin on the slopes of Payne Hollow. On the window sill sit the artist’s tools: his easel, his paints, a candle. It is a reflective painting filled with dark browns, reds, and blues. We see the main subject of the painter’s entire life framed in view outside the window: the river. We also see the tools of his life set to paint his subject. The window in between the painter and his river is, perhaps, a recognition of the limits placed upon the medium of art. We have a limited view of what we would celebrate with our art, limited by our finite minds, our particular traditions, and our skill and ability to create. Put together, the piece communicates that there is a beauty to be found in the work itself, in the tools of that work, and in the completion of it. It’s a celebration of when life is whole and united; work and rest, the tools and the project, each in its proper place and enjoyed for itself.

In his book on life in Payne Hollow, there is this same recognition of the beautiful and useful in everyday life and chores. Hubbard devotes an entire chapter to a description of chopping firewood which, that being their only means of heating and cooking, took up a great portion of his time. There is a loving tone in his words as he writes about his tools for this job:

The wilderness spell is deepened by the coarse rasping of the saw, the CHOK CHOK of the axe. These are noble tools and they belong to the woods. What tool is more simple and efficient than the axe, a perfect example of functional beauty?

If you read his journals, it’s fair to say that Harlan Hubbard struggled all of his life to be a “whole man,” without allowing his work and his play, his art and his life to become fragmented. He fought to connect the useful and the beautiful together. In his journal from February of 1938 he wonders why it is that doctors and priests do not collaborate more often in healing the sick. He writes, “There is need of a physician who will minister to both soul and body at once, that is, to man.” Many pastors and counselors are saying the same thing today, and rightly so. 

I’ve been drawn to Hubbard’s work for years now. As a Christian I found his struggle for wholeness in his life and in his paintings to be very profound. We are, after all, saved in Christ body and soul—a whole being. We are called to live having “put on the new self” (Col. 3:10) and all that entails. In our lives as Christians, we are called to “do all things to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31) and whatever we do, “in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17).

I would humbly submit that, because we have the joy of knowing our creator, we have a much deeper and more profound reason not only to tie the useful and beautiful together in our own lives, but to find joy in both art and living. We may disagree with some of Hubbard’s application—you don’t have to build your own cabin and do everything with your own hands—but there are countless ways that our culture fragments our being, and we ought to fight to be one whole person, in our work, art, and play.


6 Comments

  1. Adam Huntley

    @adamhuntley

    Rabbit Room seems to be a long hallway of doors with many smiling, wise guides placing their hands with yours on knobs, opening up doors to universes that unlearned folk like me love to spend some time in . So Kevin, thanks for being my guide today.

  2. Kevin Morse

    @kevin-morse

    Thanks for the encouragement, I’m glad you guys enjoyed the article. It was such a treat to discover Harlan Hubbard and I’d highly recommend his book!

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