John Hobbie is a Hong Kong-based theatre set designer. He’s a full time production designer for Disney, and the man behind the entrance hall to the giant DHL balloon that can be seen over the West Kowloon skyline.
He’s also an artist who has been painting or drawing one Hong Kong scene a day, mostly in pencil or watercolour, and posting them on his blog for almost a year.
We sat with him to talk about what it’s like to be an artist in Hong Kong. (Scroll to the bottom for more of his work).
Everything but art
John dropped out of high school in Texas in the ‘80s and took on several jobs including working in offshore oil, making custom cabinets, working as a chef, and joining the Coast Guard.
“I did everything but art for a long time” he laughs, “but I didn’t like all of it. I found working offshore to be so boring—I was on a boat all day long with nothing to do so I learned to draw and paint.”
When John eventually returned to shore in 1989 at the age of 22, he enrolled in the Graphic Design program at the University of North Texas, where he met his Hong Kong-born wife, who led him to Hong Kong in the ‘90s. It was while he was working as the art room technician at the Chinese International School that he found his life’s calling.
“As the art technician, I wasn’t doing art. I was just buying stuff and preparing materials. But I kept a sketchbook and did my own paintings. Then I got involved with the Drama department and started helping them with sets. I thought, ‘This is pretty cool, I get to do drawings and I get to do carpentry!’ It combined a lot of the skills I’d acquired over the years.”
John returned to the States and began doing scenery for television and stage, for acts as varied as Barney the Dinosaur and Alice Cooper. He’s done set designs for the Dallas and New Jersey Shakespeare Companies. And now he’s back in Hong Kong.
The nomadic artist
As in most cities, lack of affordable space pushes artists to the fringes. In Hong Kong, this means industrial areas of Kowloon and New Territories.
John has adopted a simple solution to bypass this problem—he’s gone nomadic.
But going around doing sketches has not been easy in a city where property is king. John was once chased off by Tiffany’s store security using vaguely passive-aggressive means:
“The store security came up to me and they tried to run me off by standing too close while I drew. I had to stand with my elbows tucked in, with them standing on either side of me, and after about five minutes they turned the sprinkler systems on me so that I had to move out onto the sidewalk.”
He has also been chased off the Tsim Sha Tsui Ferry Pier (some street artists, fearing competition from John—who, by the way, does not sell his art on the street—had sent the hawker police after him) and the Mid-Levels Escalator (where, according to the police, you’re not allowed to stand still).
Who needs art?
On top of enduring harassment by the police, John, like many Hong Kong artists, is vexed by the general HK sentiment towards art.
“When I was working at Chinese International School one year, I grabbed a taxi home and the driver said, ‘Oh, do you teach English?’ and I said, ‘No, I teach art.’ To which the taxi driver replied, ‘What the hell do you do that for? You won’t make money doing that!’”
“The general attitude is, ‘Who needs art?’ They don’t see value in it. They see it in terms of, ‘It matches my couch,’ or ‘It doesn’t match my couch.’
“Many people see the cost but not the intrinsic value of art. They don’t see something being valuable because it makes them feel good to see it. They think it’s valuable because it has an appreciation value to it. I’ve been to gallery openings where people sit there with a calculator and calculate [a work’s] appreciation rate. How do you buy art like that? Why bother going to a gallery at all? Just buy it online! I guess they wanted the free wine and cheese.”
John concedes that things have improved since the last time he was here. “When I was here last I wouldn’t say they were hostile to art, but it was almost looked down upon. People ridiculed me for doing art. It had zero value. Now people appreciate what I’m doing. They might not understand why I’m doing it or where I’m going with it, but they’re interested that I am doing it and they’ll actually stop and talk to me about it, which is a huge change.”
Hong Kong’s own
John feels that local artists are underrepresented in a city where art galleries and exhibitions tend to focus on artists from the West or from Beijing or Shanghai. “The galleries, that scene is western—you’re either from Beijing, Shanghai or England or France. There’s no Hong Kong art here. I’ve had trouble with that. And the Art Fair, there’s so little [art from Hong Kong]. The Fotanians, those guys need to keep working. Keep working at it, good try.”
For local art, John is inspired by Kong Kai-Ming (江啟明), a locally born artist of around 80 years who lives in Tin Hau and makes sketches of Hong Kong. “He does, essentially, exactly what I’m doing.”
He’s also inspired by Mui Chong Ki (梅創基) [more], who drew construction sites. “He would find out what was going to be torn down, draw it before it was torn down, then he’d come back a year later to draw it being rebuilt. He created an entire visual history of buildings that no longer existed.”
At the moment, John is working on a series called “The Core,” where he crops out and draws an abstract part of a building.
Inspired by a segment on The Works, John has also begun to paint abstractions of the sky as seen from ground level within the city.
“This guy was doing paintings of sky but from the viewpoint of laying on the sidewalk so you get these straight up shots of buildings looking up at blue skies. I thought, ‘Finally! I’ve been looking this one way all this time, I’ve never looked up before! It’s a whole new world.’”
When John completes his blog, he plans to scale up—and he means really scale up—his next artistic endeavor, with a view to having a show. In the past, galleries have told him that they don’t sell realism, Hong Kong, or watercolors.
“I’m going to work large, for lack of a better term. The nice thing about working in theatre is that I learned how to paint very large things. I can crank out a painting that’s 10 feet by 15 feet in an eight-hour day.”
On ‘art’ and ‘development’, and government intervention
John is skeptical about the West Kowloon Cultural District.
“Any time I hear the words ‘art’ and ‘development,’ I run. Building cultural districts and all that is a facade. Art does its own thing, it doesn’t need government intervention”.
“Having the government come and crack down on artists, that doesn’t help.”
When asked about Ai Wei Wei’s recent detainment, John admits that it hasn’t affected him at all. However, he says that by arresting him the Chinese government may actually have made art more popular, so it was good timing for the Art Fair.
However, it was the events precipitated before the Handover in 1997 that really struck John. He recalls when The World of Lily Wong was abruptly terminated by the South China Morning Post and its creator, Larry Feign, blacklisted and run out of Hong Kong for drawing a comic strip that insulted Chinese premier, Li Peng.
“He couldn’t get a job doing web design in New York because people were afraid the Chinese would find out he’d done their websites and wouldn’t buy their products. If you can’t get a job in New York pumping out HTML because people are afraid the Chinese government will find out, then that’s a bit over the top. The point is, nobody is too far removed to be unaffected.”
Hong Kong due for a Renaissance
While China has made it in terms of establishing itself in the art world, John believes that Hong Kong is still at a turning point.
“I think in about 20 more years, maybe,” he says. “A place without art has no future because that’s the way you express yourself. That’s your soul, that’s who you are as a culture.”
“I think Hong Kong’s due for a Renaissance. It’s just going to take educating a generation of people so that they know that art is a good idea.”
Edited by Jessica.