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Interview with painter John Hubbard

Untitled, oil on canvas, 34" x 26"

John Hubbard is a painter who lives in Marquette, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He is also a Professor in the Art & Design Department of Northern Michigan University in Marquette, where he teaches painting and printmaking. On a recent visit to Marquette, I met John in his office on campus, shortly before he left to install paintings in a group show in Petoskey, Michigan.

Philip: You started life as a painter, then made other kinds of art, and you recently returned to painting. Can you tell us about the kind of work that you’ve made, and what informed your choice to work in one medium and then another?

John: Being a teacher first and a painter second means one has to respond to the needs and questions of the students, and it was the interest of one of my students that prompted my entry into papermaking, which lasted for over 20 years. Students often tune me into directions or ideas that I might not have thought about pursuing if left on my own in the studio. Papermaking also drew me away from the more representational work I was doing at the time and took me into an entirely new set of images that could not rely upon traditional forms of  representation, due to the nature of the materials. I am now returning to that mode of approach in my painting, but with a stronger awareness of the potential of the pattern.

Philip: How long do you work on a painting, and when do you consider it finished?

John: Often I complete modest sized paintings in one day. Sometimes if they are small I finish them in 3- 4 hours. However, more and more I find myself going back to a painting the next day or perhaps a few weeks later and working on it again. Occasionally , I find that I work on them 4 and 5 times to get it right. I value the look of spontaneity and often wipe out passages and do them over and over until they achieve the effect I am after. Larger paintings of course take longer to complete and are approached in more of a piecemeal fashion rather than working on them all at once. I recently completed several large commissions for a local church that were about 4 x 8 feet, and each one took about a week or so to finish, but they were carefully planned out to avoid problem-solving on the canvas. Normally, I do no preliminary work and just jump into the painting and see what happens. I sometimes have a high casualty rate with this approach, but it allows things to develop that might not otherwise occur.

Untitled, oil on canvas, 24" x 30"

Philip: Your recent paintings are characterized by strong drawing and an instinctive sense of composition. As a teacher, do you think these skills are innate, or can they be taught?

John: I agree that my work is dominated by the drawing, since the works are begun as drawings in paint. As far as teaching these skills is concerned, some students are more "talented" than others, but all students can be taught the basics. Mediocre work is still mediocre and outstanding work is still outstanding. A mediocre student can move beyond mere mediocrity with hard work, but will reach a ceiling, and even with diligence may not be able to achieve work of a higher caliber, despite having a good teacher. I have also seen very talented people who do not have the desire or discipline to progress who get surpassed by less talented students.  Hard work does not always equate to success for every student and this is hard for them to accept.

Philip: You’ve lived and taught for a long time in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Do your current paintings reflect a sense of a specific place?

John: I hope that my work conveys some of the specifics and feel of the UP, in a way that is similar to the work of the Canadian Seven and the California Impressionists. I often say that I am influenced by the California Impressionsts -- Edgar Payne, for example --  and then someone will say that my color looks nothing like theirs. This is true. Their colors are bright and lively and it reflects their locale, while mine are often darker and more limited, having been influenced by the bleaker winter landscape of Michigan. When looking out at a typical UP landscape, there are often no long vistas as in California, and so to get some sense of distance I have begun looking upward and viewing the tree tops. In the winter there is often only a sense of grayness in the trees and very little color – quite the opposite of California.

Philip: Has teaching at Northern Michigan University helped or changed your work in any way?

John: Teaching at NMU has been an influence on my work in that the teaching has tuned me into recognizing and understanding how to analyze my work in an objective manner, which in turn gives me the solutions for understanding what is working and what is not. On the negative side, teaching is a full time job and severely limits the time I can spend in the studio to develop my own work. I normally teach Monday to Thursday from 8 till 4, and for many years I taught 5 days a week. One has to try and find an acceptable balance between teaching and one’s own work. One reason for my upcoming retirement from teaching is to be able to spend more time in the studio. Everything involves trade-offs.

A selection of John Hubbard’s recent paintings will be on display at the Crooked Tree Arts Center in Petoskey, Michigan, in a group show entitled North of the Bridge, until September 22, 2010.

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