Have you dreamed of leaving the ratrace and leading an independent life full of adventure and passion with time for painting, writing, and music making? Harlan and Anna Hubbard accomplished all that and more with a grace that made it seem effortless.
I was one of many guests to visit their home in 1963 while I was a student at Hanover College. Robb Baker was a friend of theirs and he invited me to go along on his visit. Tonight, I can't remember if we got there by walking a mile down the abandoned road to Payne Hollow, a former steamboat landing on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River or if we drove to Lee's Landing on the Indiana shore and rang the bell for Harlan to row over and pick us up. What I do remember was that I was made to feel welcome by Anna and Harlan and I was attracted to them and to their unusual lifestyle. They lived the life that Thoreau wrote about but only lived for a short time. Their house was constructed almost completely from native stone and wood except for the metal roof and the salvaged windows. It was simple and elegant with a commanding view of the river. They had no electricity or telephone. Their toilet was a compost affair that might have been built by a zen monk. I remember that a wren had nested on the table beneath the mirror. The view was of the garden and hollow.
Harlan raised goats and a large organic garden, fished in the river, foraged for greens, nuts, and berries, and cut his firewood by hand. He salvaged useful items from drift piles along the river.
Anna cooked the food Harlan provided on a woodstove and served it beautifully on 18th century Chinese export porcelain handed down from her Dutch ancestors. She also canned and preserved the vegetables, goat meat, and fish. Her house was clean and orderly with fresh flowers in season. She had no labor-saving devices except running water from a cistern above the house. Harlan filtered rainwater from the roof and pumped it up the hill to the cistern.
Each day the Hubbards took time to play music. Harlan played the violin or viola and Anna played the piano or cello. They both played recorders. They also took turns reading aloud after meals while the other person worked close by. Harlan kept a journal for years, rising before dawn to record his activities and thoughts.
Harlan tried to have time each day to paint or create woodblock prints. His favorite subjects were the Ohio River, the old steamboats, rivertowns and the rural landscapes of Kentucky and Indiana. His paintings were well-known and eagerly sought after. Harlan was often reluctant to sell paintings and didn't spend any effort to promote his works. He wished to be recognized for the high quality of his work, but he was reluctant to be involved in the trappings of worldly success.
Although he is considered a Kentucky artist he and Anna were intimately connected to Indiana. Their view from Payne Hollow was the Indiana shore where Harlan parked an old car for their infrequent trips to Madison, Hanover, or Louisville. They shopped in Madison, received medical services, borrowed books from the library and visited friends. Several shows of Harlan's paintings were held at the Key West Shrimp House and one at Hammocks IGA.
Their relationship to Hanover College included friendships with President John Horner and his wife Anne, faculty, and students. The Hubbards were often guests of the Horners and attended the musical series at the College. They had library privileges and I've seen them leaving with a bulging knapsack of books that might include German and French literature, or biographies of composers. Professors frequently descended on Payne Hollow with an entire class of students that were studying utopian societies or botany. Sometimes the students would pitch-in to help cut fire wood or work in the garden.
Hanover College sponsored a number of shows of Harlan's work. While a student, I helped publicize and hang a show in Classic Hall. I attended many other shows over the years and finally Harlan's memorial service in the Art Center in 1988. Harlan gave the College a collection of 14 paintings including some of his favorites and the painting he considered his best --"Rock Creek." The painting contained the strong underlying abstract patterns integrated into a Kentucky landscape, that was still recognizable as a landscape.
Many students became close friends of the Hubbards spending a few hours with them or camping out by the river for several days. They helped in the garden, cutting firewood, worked with Anna in the house or went out on the river to check Harlan's trot-lines. The Hubbards became their mentors. One student has used Payne Hollow as the setting for a science fiction novel. Another student, Florence Fowler Burdine, received a grant to produce a slide-tape program on the Hubbards and a slide catalog of over 400 of Harlan's paintings. In the process of photographing the paintings Flo came to Frankfort to record the paintings owned by Rheta and me and the Frankfort Community Public Library. Flo subsequently rented our old house and has become a permanent resident. She read all of Harlan's journals and books and submitted the quotations that were used in the book, Woodcuts of Harlan Hubbard.
There are now Hanover College students all over the country whose lives were touched by the Hubbards. I recently received a request to borrow Flo's slides of Harian's paintings from Diane Krall, a librarian at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Diane and her husband Terry were also friends of the Hubbards.
The Hubbards had countless friends in Indiana especially the farmers on the Indiana shore and people in Hanover and Madison. Some of their oldest friends in Indiana were Patricia and Warren Staebler from Richmond. They were associated with Earlham College. The Staeblers knew Anna and Harlan in Cincinnati before they were married in the early 40's. They sponsored a show of Harlan's watercolors at Earlham while the Hubbards were on the shantyboat in the late 40's. Their friendship centered around their love of classical music.
Helen Spry, a nurse from Hanover, was a very close friend of Anna's and she helped nurse Harlan during the last days of his life. She drove Anna back and forth to the hospital in Madison when Harlan was battling prostate cancer. My information about the passion in the Hubbard's life comes from Helen's account of their reunion after being separated for the night. "Anna entered Harlan's hospital room first and flung herself on Harlan and smothered him with kisses just like a teenager." Anna was in her 80's at the time. The Hubbards were ordinarily very reserved in public and Harlan doesn't reveal much about their relationship in his writings. Wendell Berry wrote in Harlan Hubbard: Life and Work --"Harlan's writings though they often speak of her and often acknowledge her importance to him, also surround her with a reticence or privacy, as if unwilling to impose upon her."
Dr. Robert and Charlotte Canida and their children Christy and Ben were special friends of the Hubbards. They collected his artwork, cut wood for him and generally adopted him. They live in Madison with a view of the Ohio River. When Harlan was ill they set up a hospital bed in their living room and helped care for him until he died on January 16th, 1988.
Seven years after Harlan's death I still receive letters, telephone calls and visits requesting information about him. One lady from Kentucky was seeking the painting shown on Harlan's easel in a sketch on page 173 in Shantyboat. It was a painting of Uncle Bill Mattingly's farmstead. I located the painting in Utah and the owner sent it as a gift since Uncle Bill was the lady's relative.
In response to the interest in the Hubbards way of life and art, our library trustees have voted to establish the Anna and Harlan Hubbard School of Living to help teach people how to make their lives a work of art. Flo Burdine will organize classes and workshops on drawing, painting, carpentry, organic gardening, cooking, sewing and other skills. The classes will be partially subsidized from gifts and the sale of Harlan's books.
Anyone wanting to learn more about Harlan and Anna Hubbard should contact their local library. If they are unable to purchase his books they may be borrowed on interlibrary loan from the Frankfort Library or some other library. Wendell Berry wrote an insightful biography--Harlan Hubbard: Life and Work. He assisted in gaining permission to use quotes and photos from the book for this article from the University Press of Kentucky.
5068 West Gasline Road
Frankfort, IN 46041
Tel: (765) 481-9953