The Passing of an Ever-evolving Artist
By Jud Yalkut
John C. Hibbitts was an original in the Dayton area scene. His work and his behavior were mutually unpredictable and oscillated between personal mythic gestures and raw explosive energy that miraculously coalesced into potent eloquence. His work moved from the static into the kinetic, focused for a long time in independent filmmaking before returning to his inborn talent on the visual picture plane.
That plane was periodically punctured into new realities, ripped and reassembled, constructed and attacked, creating multilevel phenomena that begged to escape their framed confines. But through all these manifestations, Hibbitts returned continually to an intensity of focus that burned through mere facades into penetrating consciousness. That intensity was often so all-consuming that it threatened his own sanity and equilibrium in the world as he plummeted between heights of exultation and the lower depths of virtual self-destruction.
In commemoration of the life and work of John C. Hibbitts, a one-day memorial free exhibition and reception will be held on Sunday, April 22nd (which would have been his sixty-second birthday) from noon-2p.m. at the Color of Energy Gallery at 16 Brown Street in the historic Oregon District. Fifteen dimensional works from the last six months of his life will be exhibited, all of which may be bid upon in a silent auction, along with selected major pieces from private collections. Also, a short selection of his extraordinary 16mm films will be screened.
Hibbitts was born in Jenkins, Kentucky in 1950 right by the state line of Virginia, moving with his family at an early age to Dayton, Ohio, where he graduated from Orville Wright High School. He married his wife, Sue, in 1973 and lived in Fairborn, Ohio while majoring in Art at Wright State University, which is where I met him during the film classes I taught there from 1973 to 1977. Hibbitts continued his visual art but gravitated more and more into experimental filmmaking, continuing to earn his Masters degree as graduate assistant to Richard Myers, then teaching film at Kent State University. This interest continued while Hibbitts served as an assistant in the film program at Antioch College in Yellow Springs.
Almost inexplicably, Hibbitts joined the U.S. Postal Service and worked as a carrier for twenty years, mainly in North Dayton and eventually in Huber Heights, until what could have been fibromyalgia and attacks of manic depression made this work pattern untenable. One result was the end of his marriage and the loss of his home in the country outside of Medway, Ohio. However, he continued painting throughout this time, and his daughter Emily, when in second grade, wrote a poem: “My Daddy is an Artist, I like it quite well. He paints a lot of pictures to put in his gallery to sell. When he paints, I like it. It makes him smile, and that’s all that matters because they’re his own style.”
Hibbitts did indeed open several small, itinerant independent galleries during the short-time height of the now defunct Santa Clara Art District in Dayton, all under the sobriquet of the “Hungry Eye.” One of these spaces was upstairs in the building that housed the early offices of the Dayton Voice, which has now become the Dayton City Paper. Later, as he experienced bouts of homelessness, he availed himself of donated studio spaces graciously supplied by Mike Elsass and later on the second floor provided by the proprietor of the Color Purple Gallery on East Third Street downtown.
Hibbitts’ early work moved from abstract post-Cubist self-portraits and structural abstract compositions into calligraphic iconography that recalled the free improvisations of Mark Tobey and Bradley Walker Tomlinson. Always lurking in the perimeters of his brain was the iconic figure of Jackson Pollock with his expansion of and escape from the picture plane. As Lee Krasner Pollock described her husband: “Whatever Jackson felt, he felt more intensely than anyone I’ve known,” and this epitome of extremes pertained equally to Hibbitts and his work. The Surrealist notion of psychic automatism was central to both their developments, coalescing into mythic structures that plumbed archetypal forms and evoked ancient passions, with Native American iconography gradually encroaching upon Hibbitts’ mentation and spiritual vision.
An important midpoint influence on Hibbitts’ development was an intense study of the techniques of the Spanish artist Antoni Tàpies born in 1923 in Barcelona. Hibbitts acquired at great expense the three volume catalogue raisonné of the artist who moved painting further into mixed media bas-relief with actual gouges and incisions, advancing the picture plane towards the spectator. Hibbitts poured paint into surfaces that peeled like snake skin or built up layers of latex paint which he carved through, or ripped stained canvas into leather-like textures which he bound together in myriad ways around a stretcher frame.
Hibbitts’ creative flame blazed brightly, sometimes threatening to consume his very being, and in later years unbalancing his mind and his stance, until he inevitably smashed his head in a fall into concrete near his short-lived apartment in East Dayton on February 19, 2012. He left self-portrait drawings so intense that they wore through the paper they were on and miraculous constructions of found and discarded materials, fragments of a culture which so often denied him a home and respite. His mortal body was gifted to the Wright State School of Medicine Anatomical Gift Program, and memorial offerings as well as the proceeds of the sale of these last works will be given to the homeless program, The Other Place.
Reach DCP visual art critic Jud Yalkut at JudYalkut@DaytonCityPaper.com.