The Art of the Question: Plot & Subplot

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Paul Hobbs, a visual, sculptural and conceptual artist of Gloucester, UK, came to faith at an early age, but came asking a lot of questions.  This questioning spirit became a critical and formidable element in his vocation as artist.

From a simple, “What do you see?” or “What do you think?” to the more provocative, “Should the State pay for in vitro fertilization of women wanting a child?”  Paul’s questions became as integral to his creative process as his technical skill, in his interaction with audiences throughout the UK and beyond.

With a background in sociology (Social and Political Science at Cambridge), a skill set developed at the Byam Shaw School of Art in London, and his Christian faith, Paul was well-equipped but, knowing how hard it is to succeed as an artist, was concerned to have the right motivation before God.

The difficulties left him with a fundamental question: “What really matters?”

Paul realized that he needed to make art that was both beautiful and meaningful, both intellectually challenging and yet accessible to an ordinary viewer.  He needed to bring together the Bible, contemporary news stories and art in combination to open people up to consider the relevance of the gospel to all of life, and to break down the veneer of agnostic indifference to the love of God for His world. The best way to do this was by asking questions.  And above all, to persevere in producing art, he needed to focus on what mattered to Christ.

Paul turned to the Scriptural texts to make sense of his world; he would need one to respond to the other.  If he was to keep his motivation, to persevere in producing art, he needed to focus on what mattered to Christ.

Frequently working from the news headlines (which sometimes appear in a layer of his work), Paul seeks to reconcile what he reads in the newspaper with what he reads in the Bible.  Familiar images, sometimes taken from the local newspaper, are collaged together to make disturbing yet frequently amusing juxtapositions. Some are literally visual puzzles. Hidden in the layers of paint, collage and assorted objects, metaphors and associations develop stories with multiple meanings, with plots and subplots.

The stories are suggested, never preached.  They are spun by someone simultaneoulsy investigating the cosmos and the neighborhood, reporting his findings, interpreting with skill and executing artistic creations with excellence.

“We don’t need to fear the questions,” says Paul.  “The work itself should be well-executed, to capture the audience visually, but then, once you have people looking, you have subplots waiting for them to discover.  For example, how do these two elements go together?  Why?”

Drawing on topical news and social debate, Paul wrestles with questions of human value, dignity and faith, then uses a variety of media in creating his responses.  His work ranges from celebratory abstract paintings, to collage and sculpture, to the acclaimed installation piece, The Holy Ground Project (see below).

Asking Questions Through the Work

The three-dimensional, interactive quality to so much of Paul’s work invites engagement.

“People find their world in the exhibitions,” Paul continues.  “The work has clues: a buried headline, a graphic element, a pair of shoes.  The clues create the space for dialogue.”

As viewers respond to his creations, sometimes with tears, Paul moves intuitively between word and image, depending on the art to do its job, responding to the questions that it provokes.  Getting people to think is a driving motivation for Paul.  His approach allows people from diverse backgrounds to explore the issues together with him, whether social issues (homelessness, poverty or absent fathers) or faith issues (the Trinity, Creation, the Crucifixion).

An example of Paul’s process is his triptych, “Where’s Your Daddy Gone?” (Collage, Acrylic & Crayon).

While reading in the British press about women wanting to conceive without the commitment of relationship, and raise a child without benefit of a father, Paul created this triptych in response.  The images reflect the present damaged state of fatherhood, and engage the viewer on three levels.

In each picture the father is absent in different ways: as a shadow, under censorship, or cut out completely. Collaged into the panels are articles discussing fatherhood today.  The second panel of the triptych refers to women who sought in vitro fertilization, seeking to get pregnant while avoiding involvement with a man.

The Holy Ground Project, Paul’s largest work, is a collection of shoes and stories, gathered from Christians around the world.  The piece is arranged in a circular format, with a ‘burning bush’ in the center, shoes on an outer perimeter, with their accompanying stories.  The stories reveal what it has meant for each person to follow Christ in his or her context.  From a fashion model in New York City to Ethiopian athlete Haile Gebrselassie, from a former murderer to a white farmer in South Africa, all have encountered the living God.  They have found themselves on holy ground, and, like Moses, they removed their shoes, at least metaphorically, in the Presence of the Holy.

The Holy Ground Project has been displayed in cathedrals, schools and churches.  After one recent church installation, an organizer wrote:

“I was moved beyond words by the honesty, humility and beauty of the piece and the stories of the many people, who for me, were ever-present companions throughout. Thank you for your warmth, generosity, openness and hard work. I can speak for many teachers and students when I say that many lives have been touched, spirits blessed, and questions encouraged.”

The Holy Ground Project continues to move and inspire audiences (and can be booked for exhibition on its own or as part of a larger exhibition).  Paul continues to collect shoes and stories to expand the installation.

Between the Image and the Flame

Acrylic, Collage & Gold Leaf

Perhaps one of Paul’s most powerful pieces, this work incorporates the traditional motif of the icon with a newspaper image of a starving mother and child from the Sudan.  While the ‘plot’ is fairly straightforward, one is drawn in by the ‘subplot’: haloes surround the head of mother and child; within each halo is the cross of Christ.  Above their heads, to the right, the Greek text is Matthew 25:40: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

While the image may be deeply moving for the Christian viewer, Paul tells of a very different reaction in the Buddhist culture, where such poverty and suffering would be considered a result of the sins of a former life.  The power of art opens the door for dialogue on differences in worldview.

Engaging the Culture

As he seeks to make sense of a world where great opportunity and great suffering co-exist, Paul’s masterful artwork has earned him an international reputation as an artist of integrity and humility.  His compassionate streak finds its roots in his childhood.

Paul was born in Nigeria, the son of missionaries working with the Church Mission Society.  His father was a doctor and worked in two hospitals, and helped with the Red Cross during the Biafran war.

“It gave me a great sense of compassion for others and an instinctive realization that people who follow Jesus are quite different from other ex-pats working in the country. When I returned to the UK in 1970 I was very conscious of the selfishness of our secular culture. Here people have so much more and yet are so protective of their possessions and self-focused.”

Paul has traveled to China, Poland, Spain, France and Holland and the US, on cultural exchanges, exhibiting, and promoting arts in service to the Kingdom.

He is a frequent guest of churches, schools, and conference centers, facilitating workshops and talks about his artwork, its themes and his methods of working; he is also happy to lead discussions on the social and spiritual issues raised by the work.

As time permits, Paul is also available to curate exhibitions. In schools, this involves leading assemblies, and taking classes on discussion tours around the show. In churches, this often includes speaking at a variety of invitation events.

Coming up next

Paul will be exhibiting with Painter Sarah Kelly Paine in The Menier Gallery, Southwark Street, London SE1 1RU, 15th to 27th October 2012.

Visit Paul’s newly renovated website for a broader view of his work:

Then go ahead, ask him a question!

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