When I pull up to Chris Hubbard’s bright red house in Farmington, the first thing the artist does is help me fix my car.
The front bumper of my broken down Kia Forte had been hanging off since my partner hit a dumpster a year ago. Hubbard greeted me, then grabbed some zip ties from a bag shoved behind his front door.
“I got some in black,” he said. “It gives class.”
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If there’s one thing Hubbard, aka CHUB, knows, it’s cars. After raising my bumper, he showed me his pride and joy – the heaven and hell car, so named for its ornate modifications depicting the two Christian lives. The car was once a common sight around Athens (where Hubbard visited friends and ran errands), but after two decades of traveling to art shows across the country, it just doesn’t run like it used to.
Nevertheless, his work remains a must in Athens. Enter the World Famous and you will see a small carved saint on the way to the bathroom. At the back of Indie South, you’ll see a gallery wall covered in cherubs. Hubbard’s art has even made an appearance in some films.
“I guess a lot of people still appreciate some of my sense of humor and my irreverence in my art,” he said.
A little good, a little bad
Hubbard began customizing his car in 1998, at the end of a gospel revival and a few years before another. He had no intention of doing religious art – in fact, he almost took his Honda in a completely different direction.
“I even thought about calling it the Handy Honda,” he said. “And he would have had a bunch of hands on it.”
But he also remembered being frustrated with the religious right at the time, especially televangelists like Jim Bakker and Pat Robertson and politicians like George W. Bush.
“It’s the insistent religious right,” he said. “People can be right-wing Christians, they can be ultra-conservative, whatever they want to identify with, but they’re the ones who are really insistent – they’re the ones who have to go back and read their own Bible to judge. others and stuff.”
After showing me the Heaven and Hell Car, he invites me to his place. Its walls, counters and floors are covered in art – all professing faith in nuance.
“A lot of my stuff is just about, like, ‘A little good, a little bad, like most people.’ It’s one of my most common pieces,” he said.
Hubbard does not mean to denounce certain beliefs or political tendencies. He said he didn’t want to fight preacher with preacher.
“If I start trying to offend very religious people with my art, well, I wouldn’t be any different from those pushy evangelical types,” he said.
Instead, he worked with great folk artists like Howard Finster and RA Miller to make Christian inspired art – both the good and the not so good.
“You have to have one to define the other,” he said. “What’s good if you have nothing to compare?”
Make religion accessible
Hubbard was born into a Catholic family in Kentucky. He spent many of his Sundays in silent masses, sitting in silence as robed priests conducted services in Latin. Although he always attends mass when he visits his mother, he did not like how far removed his faith was.
“Catholic education had an influence I say, partly because look at all the saints and the statues,” he said. “And all the way nuns and priests dressed specially in my time.”
He grew to be inspired by other Christian traditions. While showing me around his studio, he tells me how traditional Eastern Orthodox paintings inspired his sculptures of saints, or the influence of Mexican paintings offeredor altars, on the language he uses in his paintings.
Instead of painting golden icons, he crafts figures of cherubs from rusty found materials or crucifixes from broomsticks. Rather than putting faith on a pedestal, his art makes it accessible.
“A bit of sarcasm was sort of a reaction to my Catholic upbringing,” he said.
“Never Long Enough”
When Hubbard was still driving around Athens in the Heaven and Hell Car, a passer-by would sometimes ask him: if heaven was on the roof and hell by the tires, where is purgatory?
Throwing his arms to the two windows, Hubbard recalls, he would reply, “It’s all there.”
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He delivers the same line in one of his most recent projects. Ragged Heartan independent film directed by Evan McNary, invited him to co-star as himself, sharing illustrations and bits of wisdom with lead character Wyatt (played by Eddie Craddock).
And while that’s still a fun punchline, he’s been thinking more about his time here lately. This is partly due to his personal life: his mentors Finster and Miller are deceased, as are a few of his friends. But he tells me death seems to have a stronger presence in society these days — especially COVID-19 and climate change. At the time of our interview, his family in Florida was preparing for Hurricane Ian.
“I would say the last 10 years I have a few more pieces that deal with death,” he said.
He tells me about one piece in particular: a skull painted next to a measuring tape.
“At the bottom, near the bottom, it just says, ‘Never long enough,'” he said.
But that doesn’t mean he can’t enjoy the ride. He is still amazed that he was able to work with Finster and Miller – and that young artists now see him as an inspiration.
“I’m starting to get a few artists going, ‘Oh, you’re one of my big influences. I’m so glad to meet you!'” he said. “Standing in Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden 25 years ago, I was telling him the same thing.”
Mostly, he’s just trying to live his life: kinda good, kinda bad, like most people. At the end of our interview, he lit another cigarette and gestured towards my now slightly less broken Kia.
“So you can try to sort it all out, however you want to put it on the page. I just hope that didn’t make me seem too critical of others.”