Interviewsand Articles


Guest in the Shack: Introduction to Newsletter #6

by Richard Whittaker, Sep 7, 2008



September 2008
A couple of weeks ago I pressed the street-level doorbell for Ronald Hobbs’ apartment. I knew it was Ron’s because the little hand-drawn arrow pointed the other way - toward the Gypsy palm-reader’s doorbell.

Pressing the button, all felt in order. But hadn't the device once been out of order? A small surge of confidence pushed my doubts aside. Surely a corresponding buzzing was happening far upstairs. I waited hopefully. Then after a bit, I pressed the button again. As nothing was happening, I found myself looking at the Gypsy palm-reader’s sandwich board 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 rising and turning a corner of view. I checked the doorbell button again. Yes, it was Ron’s.

A few days later, walking up those same stairs with Ron, he explained that his doorbell hadn’t worked for several years. "I'm happy to leave it that way," he said. "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 for his story "Kilo Charles Six VHU."

We headed all the way to the back of his apartment to a small room that serves as Hobb’s radio shack, a term that pre-dates the Radio Shack chain of stores. Besides being a poet and former bird store 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 relaxed delivery and style of a pro? Hobbs won my credibility 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, I'm writing this preamble 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 here’s that interview. Ruth knows the territory and, during our conversation, was her usual lively and candid self. What she shares provides not only a window into Braunstein’s 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 apprentice working with Fernand Leger in France. Enard, born in Le Mans, speaks about a lifetime of painting and the depth of what a practice of painting might be - a search for something sacred. Standing before the canvas and preparing, he waits for "a sacred feeling" to appear. It comes "when you are silent, wordless, doing nothing, staying with nothing." That "nothing," he points out, is a presence to something higher. "A great silence is not an absence of noise. It’s a presence to something finer - real silence." He adds, "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 was such an air of authenticity about her, that not for one moment did I doubt what she recounts 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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