Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Art doctor: Hubbard creates, curates and installs

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J. Adam Fenster⁄The Gazette
Home stretch: Artist David Hubbard built this railing at his home in Silver Spring.
When is an artist not an artist? Never.

Dave Hubbard lives in Silver Spring with his visual artist wife Marcie and their two sons, and it’s all art, all the time. He creates, installs, repairs and looks after it.

‘‘I probably spend a quarter of my time making art and trying to enter shows and competitions,” says Hubbard, seated at a glass-topped dining table of his own construction. ‘‘About 70 percent is transporting and installing flat works, and 5 per cent is spent working on outdoor sculpture.”

Like the ones in D.C.’s Kreeger Museum, where he has to ‘‘wash and wax all the bronze sculptures, make sure they’re kept in good shape.”

It’s not all about sculpture; on the contrary, he says, ‘‘sculpture is hard to place. I probably sell more prints and drawings.”

But let’s face it: The big stuff is more exciting.

Sometimes the call goes out — sculpture in need. Like in 1993, when a drunk driver smashed into the arm of J. Seward Johnson Jr.’s ‘‘The Awakening,” that 100-foot statue of a giant trying to free himself from the earth at Hains Point in East Potomac Park.

‘‘It was about 24 feet tall,” remembers Hubbard. ‘‘We had to collect all the smashed pieces — the hand was pretty much intact — and take it back to the foundry, where they recast it.”

The piece was made of aluminum — ‘‘fairly light,” he says — but the impact of the crash had pulled out some of the footings.

Underground art

Sometimes Hubbard installs his own sculptures. He recently spent some time installing a piece at Montpelier Mansion in Laurel.

‘‘It will be there until Aug. 19,” he notes, adding that the outdoor sculpture is ‘‘7 foot, 6 inches high, and easily transported in three pieces that bolt together on site.”

He finds it easiest to transport and install work in pieces, and loves that aluminum is light enough — 350 pounds, in this case — to fit in his van.

But mostly, Hubbard says, ‘‘It’s commercial work. This is a real niche, and I don’t have much competition because of my credentials and background.”

He’s practically a D.C. native; born in Rock Rapids, Iowa, his family moved here when he was a baby. As a student at University of Maryland, he says, ‘‘I started off taking pre-med courses, but I realized it wasn’t my life’s ambition to be a doctor.”

A job at Superior Iron Works in Sterling, Va., was a good fit. He went to school at night, spending the days creating stairs, rails and fire escapes.

‘‘The architectural elements were the only things that were fancy,” he says.

After six years, Hubbard had a bachelor’s degree in painting and a job as assistant to the sculpture conservator at the Hirshhorn Museum. A year later, he was working in collections management at the National Portrait Gallery — building boxes and crates for the storage and transport of paintings and objets d’art, keeping track of the elements in an exhibit. After six years, he struck out on his own.

‘‘The first big job I got that really started my business booming was ‘Metro Art,’ 13 different projects, all different kinds of art installed at different Metro stations,” he says.

It was trial by fire: working in the wee hours, after the stations had closed; figuring out how to get big chunks of art into spaces that ranged from small to soaring. Hubbard had to rely on an array of skills, to get the art underground.

‘‘I can engineer things,” he observes, ‘‘but I’m not an engineer.”

Seasonal work

In fact, the piece of work he speaks of most fondly is a project at Potomac Elementary School. He won a juried competition and began work on creating something ‘‘big, colorful and outdoors,” as he puts it.

‘‘‘The Night Boat’ ended up being a little more literal than what I usually do,” he points out. The school’s art committee preferred the serious drawings he presented to the whimsical ones. And the students — Hubbard worked with the children, taking them through the process and asking for input — had trouble visualizing an actual statue.

‘‘I asked them to draw the things they liked about their community,” he says, still smiling at the thought. ‘‘And all the girls drew stick figures, talking, and the boys drew baseballs and soccer balls.”

In the end, Hubbard went with what he himself loved best about the area: the Potomac River itself.

‘‘At the end of the day, after trying to engage the kids, I fell back on my own experience, which was the water.”

He made a canoe and the moon and stars in brushed aluminum.

‘‘I try to do things with natural patinas,” he explains. ‘‘As a sculpture conservator, I know how difficult it can be to repaint.

‘‘My focus is on doing what’s appropriate for outdoors, and part of the allure is that it reflects the colors around it.”

Right now, in summer, ‘‘The Night Boat” exudes an aura of leafy green. In fall, he predicts, it will look like it’s on fire.

Just like an artist is, whether the tools in hand are pencils and brushes, or hammers, levels and screw guns.

‘‘Artists tend to be multidisciplinary,” Hubbard shrugs.

A musician as well as a visual artist, he’s a guitar player, a painter, a cutter of bolts and sinker of concrete footings.

An artist.

For more on David Hubbard,