Behringer Crawford Museum

Harlan Hubbard maintains
his northern Kentucky connection

By Karen Ginn
Contributing Writer

COVINGTON, Ky. (January 2000) Of his long life, the years Harlan Hubbard spent in Northern Kentucky were few but significant. Time spent on the Ohio River formed his love of the water and the wonder that later took him far from home, to a lifestyle even farther from his city roots.

When Hubbard was born a century ago, Bellevue, Ky., was a small town adjoining bigger cities of Newport, Covington, and in the water's reflection of Cincinnati. After spending his childhood and youth in New York, he returned to Northern Kentucky with his mother.

At home then in Fort Thomas, high above the Ohio, he fed his love of the river with frequent canoe trips, sliding onto the water at its Campbell County banks. In the 1940s, he worked day labor, learning building trades by day but leaving ample time for another favorite past-time, walking the river hills.

Painting had been an early interest. It was the subject of professional training in New York and, when he returned to Northern Kentucky, at the Cincinnati Art Academy.

The area's proximity to Cincinnati and its amenities provided many opportunities and reasons to visit the city, and it was on these trips to the Cincinnati Public Library that he met his future wife, Anna. She worked in the Fine Arts area of the library, and the two had seen each other many times as he studied and researched there.

After their marriage, they lived in the river village of Brent, Ky., in a shack Hubbard built. Plans for their river adventure were firmed while living there. Eventually, the wood from that cabin joined other river drift and salvaged scraps to become the shantyboat that floated Harlan and Anna to New Orleans.

The Hubbards left Cincinnati's south suburbs in 1946. His early interests in art and river life intensified as he and Anna traveled the river and settled at Payne Hollow in Trimble County, Ky.

Northern Kentucky treasures the remnants of his life there. Two houses built by Harlan stand on Highland Avenue in Fort Thomas. Carnegie Arts Center and Baker Hunt [Art] Foundation display Hubbard's paintings, contributing to the area's local history. Appropriately, one of the largest collections of his art has its home at the Behringer Crawford Museum, a small natural history museum in Covington's Devou Park.

Hubbard gave more than 20 paintings to the museum before he died to establish the collection there. "(Former director) Greg Harper hand-picked the collection at Hubbard's request," recalls Laurie Risch, current director of the museum. Housed proudly in their own room at the front entrance, the paintings hang in chronological order, outlining Hubbard's artistic life.

A cornerstone of the collection is a unique acrylic on masonite titled "About Brent Remembered." Painted late in his life, it focused on the river hills and waterfront houses Hubbard knew in the 1940s. Small houses dot the river foreground with numbers prompting the observer to a printed key of homeowners long gone from the town once known as Brent.

The painting would be a map, except for the characteristic Hubbard style. Risch explains the 1981 painting, saying, "Interesting enough, this was a consigned piece."
Harlan came back to his client, who apparently intended a focus on the river hills of Northern Kentucky, with this historic piece.

"It was not what he expected," Risch said. "He kindly declined it, and Harlan painted another for him."

Behringer Crawford is the better for it. The painting hangs prominantely next to a bust of Hubbard sculpted in 1984 by Mike Sckop, an art professor at Northern Kentucky University.

Behringer Crawford's collection has been supplemented by benefactors, such as a Fort Thomas resident who donated her Christmas card collection and personal Hubbard paintings. The museum currently owns 60 to 70 pieces, including watercolors, woodcuts, oils and acrylics.

In December, the museum sold woodcuts from the estate of Harlan Hubbard. The sale was arranged with Frankfort, Ind.'s William Caddell, who donated half of the sale proceeds to the museum. The money will be used to publish a complete catalog of Hubbard's works.

"These were not from our collection," Risch emphasizes.

Harlan Hubbard's works draw visitors to the museum as readily as they promote him. Several elderhostel groups include the museum on their tour stops. Behringer Crawford also conducts programs on Hubbard through the Kenton County Community Education program and on Fine Arts Sampler weekend in February. "We find a strong interest in Harlan Hubbard," Risch said. "More importantly, it is continuously growing."

She attributes the interest to educational groups, videos produced by Kentucky Educational Television, which air often, and his books.

The Hubbard room at Behringer Crawford supplies evidence of that continuing interest. A man who visited from California had lived his early life in Northern Kentucky. Having read Hubbard's books, he made a model loosely based on descriptions of the shantyboat.

Risch asked if the man would send photographs of the model. Soon after his visit, a box arrived with the model. The visitor wrote that he couldn't think of a better place for it. The model stands on display now at the museum and complements this remembrance of the artist who first met the river in Northern Kentucky.