Biographical / Historical
Artist, writer, and back-to-nature philosopher and practitioner, William Harlan Hubbard, was born on January 4, 1900, in Bellevue, Kentucky. Bellevue, a small town on the Ohio River, is located opposite Cincinnati, Ohio. Hubbard's father, Frank Gilbert Hubbard, a paint salesman, painter, and wallpaper hanger, died when Harlan was seven years old, also leaving Harlan's mother, Rose Ann Swingle Hubbard, and two older brothers, Frank Lafayette Hubbard, nineteen, and Lucien Swingle Hubbard, seventeen. A year after his father's death, Harlan and his mother travelled to visit her sister, Molly, in a remote section of Arkansas. This first experience in rural America was to affect Harlan deeply for the rest of his life.
Anna Wonder Eikenhout was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on September 7, 1902, the middle daughter of three. Her parents, Nellie Wonder and John Eikenhout and sisters Etta and Nella May were lovers of music and literature. Anna graduated from Ohio State University in 1925 and then taught German and French at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, before moving to Cincinnati in the late 1920s.
In 1912 the Hubbard family moved into a new brick house in Bellevue. That same year, Lucien and Frank both moved to New York City to seek employment. Harlan and his mother joined the older two brothers in New York in 1915. In 1918, Harlan graduated, with honors, from Evander Childs High School, in the Bronx. While living in New York, Harlan underwent other life-changing experiences. Harlan viewed the post-impressionist exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and knew that he wanted to be a painter. Due to a shortage of workers during World War I, he spent the summers of 1917 and 1918 working on farms in the upstate region. Along with the earlier trip to Arkansas, these summers developed in him a love of the outdoors and a desire to work and live in harmony with nature. About the same time, Harlan discovered the writings of Henry David Thoreau and made the decision to spend his life combining his love of art and nature.
In the fall of 1918 Harlan attended the National Academy of Design Art School in New York, but his education there was cut short by a move back to Kentucky with his mother in 1919. He then attended the Cincinnati Art Academy in 1919 and 1920. In 1923 Harlan designed and built the house (modeled after an old farm house) at 129 Highland Avenue in Fort Thomas, where he and his mother would live together for the next twenty years.
From 1927-1931, Harlan used the Brent (Kentucky) Frame, Door and Sash Factory as his painting studio, usually walking from Fort Thomas to Brent each day. In 1934 he rented a cabin on River Road, just beyond Ross, Kentucky, to use as a studio, working there until 1938 when he built himself a studio in the back yard of the house on Highland Avenue. Throughout this time, Harlan sent paintings to exhibitions and competitions, often becoming despondent and demoralized over the critics' and public's response, or lack of response, to his work.
A turning point in the life and career of Harlan Hubbard was meeting Anna Eikenhout, who was now working as a librarian in the Fine Arts department of the Cincinnati Public Library. Anna shared Harlan's love of art, music, and nature and turned out to be Harlan's kindred spirit. Harlan and Anna recorded their first date in January 1941, when he was forty-one and she was thirty-eight years old. Two years later, in April 1943, they married, beginning a new phase in life for each of them. Harlan's new wife was intelligent, artistic, pretty, and adored him in a way he had never thought possible. Anna continued her work at the library, while helping Harlan care for his aging and ailing mother. Seven months after the marriage, Rose Hubbard died, and Harlan and Anna decided to pursue his (and now hers as well) dream of living in a boat on the Ohio River.
In early 1944 Harlan and Anna began building a shantyboat near Brent, Kentucky, living first in a tent on the shore and then on the boat itself for over two years. Anna resigned from her position at the library to devote herself to Harlan and the couple's new lifestyle. On December 22, 1946, the Hubbards began their famous drifting journey down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. They reached New Orleans in March 1950, and then continued to live on the shantyboat while traveling through the Louisiana bayous until July 1951, when they sold the boat, purchased a car, and traveled throughout the western United States for the several months. Searching for the perfect place to settle down and live in harmony with nature, they chose seven acres in Payne Hollow, Kentucky, where they built a house. Located on the Ohio River, near where they had begun their shantyboat adventure, this remote locale was to be their home for the rest of their lives.
In 1953, the story of their travel down the river, SHANTYBOAT was published, thus beginning Harlan Hubbard's literary career. While he continued to paint and develop his reputation as an artist, Harlan and Anna Hubbard became legendary for their unorthodox and simple back-to-nature lifestyle. PAYNE HOLLOW, the story of their life on the banks of the Ohio River, was published in 1974. This was followed by HARLAN HUBBARD JOURNALS, 1929-1944, in 1987; SHANTYBOAT ON THE BAYOUS, in 1990; and SHANTYBOAT JOURNAL, in 1994.
Harlan's paintings and woodcuts, mainly of boats and the river, became popular with lovers of the Ohio River. He was commissioned to do many murals and large pieces for businesses located in river towns from Milton to Owensboro. He began presenting shows in 1936, but it was not until the 1960s that his work was regularly exhibited. Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, his work was shown on a regular basis and he acquired regional acclaim for his depictions of life on the river. His artwork is featured in OYO, AN OHIO RIVER ANTHOLOGY, (volumes 1, 2, and 3, edited by Don Wallis, Yellow Springs, OH: OYO Press, 1987, 1988, and 1990); HARLAN HUBBARD AND THE RIVER: A VISIONARY LIFE, (Don Wallis, Yellow Springs, OH: OYO Press, 1989); THE WOODCUTS OF HARLAN HUBBARD: FROM THE COLLECTION OF BILL CADDELL, (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994); as well as in numerous journals.
Anna Eikenhout Hubbard died in May 1986, after more than forty years of quietly taking care of Harlan and giving him the support and companionship needed for him to carry on his unique lifestyle. Harlan continued to live at Payne Hollow until his death in January 1988, raising his own food and cutting his own firewood, until just a few months before he died.