Interviewsand Articles


Guest in the Shack: Introduction to Newsletter #6

by Richard Whittaker, Sep 7, 2008



A couple of weeks ago I pressed the street-level doorbell for Ronald Hobbs’ apartment. I knew it was Ron’s because a little hand-drawn arrow pointed the other way toward the Gypsy palm-reader’s doorbell.

Pressing the button, all felt in order. Had the device once been out of order? A small sense of confidence moved the thought aside. No, when pressed, surely a corresponding buzzing was happening far upstairs. I waited hopefully. Then I pressed the button again and turned around to consider the Gypsy Palm Reader’s sandwich board out on the sidewalk. Interesting, that whole palm-reading thing. "Do I want to?" I pondered idly. "Naw." Turning back to the door, I peeked through a glass pane and beheld the quiet space of an empty stairwell. Peering at the button again I confirmed, yes, it was Ron’s.

A few days later, walking up those same stairs, Ron explained that his doorbell hadn’t worked for several years and he was happy to leave it that way. “The people I want to see know how to find me.” Opening his door, he added, “You’re the first person other than me to cross this threshold in quite a while.” I was there to take a photo.

We headed all the way to the back where a small room serves as Ron’s radio shack, a term that pre-dates the Radio Shack we know of as a chain of stores. Besides being a poet and former birdstore owner, Hobbs is a ham radio operator. Crammed into the little space were several metal boxes with dials and knobs: radio things, transceivers and the like. I spotted a telegraph key for sending Morse Code. Wires ran all over the place and cables were tacked up the wall where they disappeared out a window. He spotted me looking at the cables and said, “Any radio is only as good as its antenna.”

Hobbs told me to grab a chair while he flipped a few switches, twiddled a few dials and picked up a microphone. “This is Kilo Charlie Six Victor Hotel United. I’ve got a guest in the shack. Anybody out there?” Wow! How to convey the delivery and style of a pro? Hobbs got my vote right there and, before long, Steve at WB6KIO over in China Basin came back. Ron shoved the mike into my hands. I wasn’t prepared for that, but Steve proved both patient and cordial.

When I left Ron’s place later on that afternoon, I’d gotten both a taste of, and new respect for, the world of ham radio. It’s what still works when cell phones and other communication networks fall apart in times of catastrophe. In any case, this preamble comes about because of a note Ron sent me a while back in which he describes something of his beginnings as an amateur radio man. I found it charming.

As a companion article along very different lines we offer “Remembering An Outsider Artist,” my recollection of William Leslie Smith. I’ve got a long-standing soft spot for individuals referred to in those words. To save beating around the bush, I’ve referred to Smith as a true artist.

And saying so, I’m suddenly reminded of Bruce Nauman’s neon piece, The True Artist Helps the World By Revealing Mystic Truths. As this pertains to Smith, he revealed them more in his person than in his work and perhaps that’s the best way to do it. Carrying this connection between Nauman and Smith a step further raises the question how many people have to be helped in order “to help the world”? But since this is merely an introduction, pursuing that question would take us a bit far afield.

In addition to these two articles, and following the format we’ve settled upon for our newsletters, we also have three conversations, each of them superlative. In 2004 I talked with the doyenne of San Francisco Art Dealers, Ruth Braunstein and, finally, here’s that interview. Ruth knows the territory and is her usual lively and candid self. This provides not only a window into Braunstein’s own life, but a history lesson about the San Francisco art scene.

We introduce you also to Andre Enard, who has been painting since he began as an apprenctice working with Fernand Leger in France. Enard, born in Le Mans, speaks about a lifetime of painting and speaks about the depth of what a practice of painting might be, the search for something sacred. Before the canvas he seeks, "a sacred feeling when you are silent, wordless, doing nothing, staying with nothing, which is not an absence. It is a presence to something higher. A great silence is not an absence of noise. It’s a presence to something finer. Real silence. Stay with that for five minutes or one hour, if you can. Be watchful and nothing else. You need a strong will, a strong wish. Strong attention."

And finally, there’s a conversation with Irene Sullivan. When I met and interviewed Irene, I confess to being so astounded by her story I actually felt disoriented. Could one person really have done all these things? But there is such an air of authenticity about Sullivan, that not for one moment did I really doubt what she tells us and, in agreement with another point Paul Van Slambrouck made, there’s no point in trying to summarize her story.

This is another high calorie feast. I hope you have a good appetite. —Richard Whittaker    

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.  


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