Artist captures the ‘independent American spirit’ in his latest exhibit
” … Sneakers on the telephone wire
& they can’t come up any higher
You scare away the rat race choir
You got television in your creek
You got stream in your veins
And your shopping carts never leave
You sent your kids to war
& it could have easily been me …”
—from “Chapmantown,” by Lenny Hubbard (poem written on canvas)
Artist Lenny Hubbard is sitting at a table in front of the tiny Has Beans on Humboldt Avenue—his Chapmantown neighborhood café. The thick-bearded Chico resident periodically breaks from our conversation on his Chapmantown Folk Series with a wave or a “hi” to someone he knows passing by.
A wave to a guy in a Mercedes is followed by an explanation that the driver—a Vietnam vet named Frank who rebuilds engines and has lived in Chapmantown since the 1950s—is the subject of one of Hubbard’s paintings currently showing at Café Flo. After a while, he waves to a man on a bicycle towing a small trailer containing cans for recycling. His name is Mike, and I learn that he, too, is part of Hubbard’s Chapmantown series.
“Mike doesn’t like to talk too much,” he informs me, “but he’s really sweet.”
Hubbard loves his neighborhood, and he loves the people in it.
“None of these people have agendas. They’re not competitive people. They’re just looking to get along with others. I think that’s their main priority in life—to get along with others.”
The 37-year-old Hubbard has lived in this southeast Chico neighborhood for three years. Before Chapmantown, he lived in Turkey for a year and a half, where he worked as a counselor at an international school outside Istanbul (Hubbard now works as a counselor for local at-risk youth).Turkey is also where he began to teach himself to paint. Before Turkey, Hubbard lived in Reno, where he met his wife, Sheryl, “a trained artist,” who encouraged his painting endeavors. Prior to that Hubbard spent two years in Bulgaria teaching English to elementary-school students during a stint in the Peace Corps.
“The working-class people I’ve worked with, whether here or in Bulgaria, are just more joyful,” he explains. “Chapmantown’s so cool because people can walk down the middle of the street and people don’t take it personally. It’s like living in a little mountain town right here in Chico. I guarantee it’s the most peaceful neighborhood [in Chico].”
Hubbard motions to the Boucher Street bridge. “That’s a real joy, a celebration. I mean, when you cross that bridge you don’t have to keep up with the Joneses.”
He talks about the subject of his acrylic-and-charcoal painting called “Mary’s Porch,” in which Mary—a weathered woman with a look of peace in her eyes—is shown sitting on her old wooden front porch.
“She’s always on her porch, 24/7, just as content as can be, always reading.”
And there’s musician Jason Conley, lead singer for NorCal rebel folk group SlapShoeFly (who, interestingly, hails from Chapmanville, W.Va.). He is the subject of “J. Blue Magdalene,” a quiet, mostly blue-toned painting featuring Conley playing his guitar.
Hubbard has managed to capture, in his somewhat Edvard Munch-like style, a certain calm that radiates from his subjects. Except for “J. Blue Magdalene,” whose subject is looking down at his hands, all of Hubbard’s paintings are notable for the look in the eyes of the people pictured—a look of quiet pride, mixed with tenacity, gentleness and hope. “I can only paint people who are really present,” he says. “If someone’s at work in their mind, I can’t paint them.”
There’s a reason Hubbard paints the people of his ongoing Chapmantown series—he refers to it respectfully as the “independent American spirit” of the residents of the neighborhood.
“That’s why I like Chapmantown,” he says. “Their feet are tough. They don’t ever have to soften the path because their feet are tough enough.”