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Jeff Hogan & the Ever Expanding Universe
by Jim Dolan
Photographs by J R Compton
’m lost again in the unfamiliar maze of streets and alleyways in central Cedars, about a mile due south of Downtown, east of Ervay. Thought I knew my way around a little better than this, but, hey …. I whip out the Samsung, and punch up Jeff Hogan, the artist I’m on my way to visit this bright winter afternoon.
Oh! Yeah, there he is, talking to me on the phone out front of the vast, light blue steel warehouse he calls home, studio, office, workshop. In the shadows of Steel Boss International, across the street from the American Beauty Flour mill, and right around the corner from another pair of artists featured here before When I have him spotted, I sign off and park while he holds on to East and West, his hulking Dobie/Rotties.
Jeff’s in his late forties, shaves his head, and wears worn work clothes. He is in the middle of something, as I suspect he most always is. For many people, the ‘workstation’ is a computer. For Jeff, it is a vast complex of machine tools: lathes, presses, benders, saws, torches, who knows, it goes on and on. If you can’t make it here, it can’t be made. Jeff’s only computer is the one belonging to his high school aged son.
What Jeff does is make stuff. Whatever you need made, he makes it. For example, gigantic Christmas tree bases like those used in commercial settings at shopping malls and office buildings. Stuff for the lobby at Bellagio in Las Vegas. He made the base for a public Christmas tree in New York City. And he makes just about anything else you might need in the way of large scale, outdoor displays.
Jeff also works with furniture, doing restorations and refinishing. He shows me a photograph of an Enlightenment era mantelpiece imported from Austria by a local media celebrity, easily eighteen feet tall. The owner wanted it cut down to fit his home in a way that would not show that it had been cut or worked on. It cost just about seventy thousand dollars, as it stood.
“How’d it feel to make that first cut, Jeff?”
“Scary”, he said, mischief glinting in his eyes.
Jeff is a little awkward at the idea of being ‘interviewed’. I can certainly sympathize with him; an ‘interview’ is so … artificial. But since what I do for a living is ‘interview’ people, I plough straight on, doing what I can to put both him and myself at ease.
He shows me around the shop some more. His collection of tools and work in progress is vast. Like many working artists, his wages come from that point at which ‘art’ intersects ‘fabrication.’ As in, ‘making and doing.’
t’s in the hands. Clearly, Jeff is a guy who communicates most accurately and most comfortably with the products of his hands.
He points to an old, dust covered chest of drawers with a faded finish. “I’m going to be refinishing that, soon,” he says. I told him that I always thought that you were never to ‘refinish’ or ‘restore’ a piece of antique furniture. That it ruins the value. I told him a story about the woman on Antiques Road Show who had a very old chest of drawers restored and brought on the show. She was so proud. But, under the pitiless gaze of the evaluator, her ‘restored’ piece, she learned, HAD been worth about a hundred thousand dollars.
“But, given the restoration, what you have, as it stands, is worth around, oh, twelve thousand.” A loss of around eighty-eight thousand dollars. Brutal arithmetic.
“Well”, says, Jeff, “yeah, I know, you can diminish the value, but sometimes people want it done anyway.” He goes on to tell me that on the piece in question, he will not be breaking the old finish in any way, and will be doing a ‘French polish,’ which maintains it as original.
We wonder on around the shop. Over in the corner is a two story enclosure in sheet rock; living quarters, kitchen, bath for him and his son. On the first level hangs a heavy sliding door Jeff made of sheet aluminum and wood, the metal worked into a spiral pattern around a porthole window. I will see this spiral around a circle/sphere theme again soon. There is a metal stair case going to the second level. In the shop space in front of the enclosure is a huge desk. We sit at the desk.
“Where’d you go to school, Jeff?”
“Oh, I graduated from Bishop Lynch High School in 1976. Then I went to North Texas, and got a degree in Industrial Arts.”
“Oh, wow. Catholic education! I went to Bishop Dunne. But you’re just a pip-squeak, I graduated in 1969.”
“You still a Catholic?” He asks in a circumspect tone, careful to not rouse the 500 pound gorilla of religion.
“No,” not really, “but then is anybody raised in the Church an ex-Catholic?”
e looks at me blankly for a moment before saying, “Well, I just believe in the metaphysical.”
I change directions. “Let’s see, isn’t ‘industrial arts’ what we would have called ‘shop class’ at some point?”
“Yeah, that’s it,” says Jeff. “When I was in high school, I never really knew what I wanted to do with my life, but my Dad had all these tools and woodworking stuff that I was always fooling around with. I minored in sculpture, and had a second minor in psych. When I got to North Texas and started taking Industrial Arts, and I saw these big rooms full of tools…I just felt like I’d come home.”
East or West, never did figure out which was which, they both smelled mightily of ‘dog,’ comes over to sniff my arm and lay his/her head on me.
Next question. “What’d you do then?”
“The Deep Ellum thing was happening, and I moved down there. Bunch of us were living in the Mitchell Building. Back when there were two bars in Deep Ellum. Artists, musicians. It was great…”
“Theater Gallery, Prophet Bar…” I chime in. I recalled my fascination for the early days of Deep Ellum. I was not a part of the scene. By that time, I was working on a career, rehabbing an old house in Oak Cliff, and raising a little boy, but I kept up with it from afar. Jeff smiles as he thinks back on those hard scrabble years (as do I) when he and his peers were carving futures for themselves from the bricks and asphalt of Deep Ellum.
And, with the same energy and devotion as their counterparts in Plano or North Dallas, only following points marked out on a darker, perhaps more arcane map. He left Deep Ellum when his rent rose exponentially several years ago, and he moved to the Cedars.
I get the sense that big chunks of history are being swept over, that Jeff does not regard much of the ‘so then what did you do?’ stuff as relevant. But that’s OK. I get the picture. He is telling me that he was one of those young people of every generation who constitutionally cannot follow the pattern to which it was expected they conform. In my own generation, we were the ‘hippies’. Jeff is essentially of the same generation as I, only he is a Young Baby Boomer. Graduating from Bishop Lynch in 1976, he inherited the by then fatuous and clichéd ‘counter-culture’ of the 60s.
ut even then, the idea of communal living (something Jeff had experienced much of during his days with the Rainbow People) and doing it your own way was alive and well, and Deep Ellum in its earliest (modern era) days offered the raw material for young dreamers to come and make their dreams real. Their ‘why buy it when you can make it yourself’ ethic has always appealed to me. Clearly, Jeff and his group of early pioneers rejected the idea of purchasing the pre-fab dream of the suburb.
And maybe, just maybe, they were also setting themselves free of the soft and easy taint of the lives provided them by their hard working parents.
Preferring the meaningful hardship of making it themselves, they were literally bringing their homes and workspaces into being through the hard sweat of reclaiming disused industrial spaces.
Jeff’s own words: “I could never live anywhere but the inner city.”
Which I take to mean: I freely choose for myself the hand to hand combat of a life one makes up as he goes along, rather than that of following a pre-ploughed furrow. Jeff and his peers persist in calling ‘home’ a patch of Dallas land that has not been anyone’s home for the best part of a century.
“I do my art work when I can, between, around commissions,” Jeff points out. “Right now, I am working as much as I can to make sure my son goes to college.” He indicates a tall mass of metal tubing bent and worked into a shape that includes and excludes space in such a way as to hold a red glass sphere suspended within it. Ah! The sphere within a spiral again.
“Somewhere along the line, when I was doing electrical work, I had to bend pipe to make conduit, and I realized, hey, I can make something with this. One of these days, when I get my son out of high school, then I am going to start making some really big pieces, you know, with five or six inch pipe…I talking about, like really BIG.” Having seen the base he made for the forty foot Christmas tree, I think I know what he means by BIG. ‘Monumental’ comes to mind.
There is a pause, one of those where gears are turning slow, minting careful sentences. Finally, he says, “I don’t mean to get too philosophical here …. but creativity is the closest thing we have to God.”
“e as philosophical as you want” I interject. I love it when artists I am interviewing get ‘philosophical’. “That is what I come for.” He goes on to express his thoughts on creativity in a way that he summed up later in an email, which I quote verbatim below.
“Artistic expression is a many faceted reality. The motivations behind this expression are varied, and often the result of the swing of our pendulum, be it emotional, psychological, or physical. Our entire human experience exists within this bi-polar reality. Up & Down, In & out, Black or white, hot or cold, good & bad, tall or short, pain & pleasure, happy and sad, light or dark.
“You can go on forever, the swing from one to the other is the substance of our existence, and the creative spark is born in this swing. I believe our ability to create is one of our connections to a higher power. Whether it is music, painting, sculpture, dance, writing, science & medicine. This creative moment is life at its best.”
“It is the universe expanding through that moment and art, music, writing are the by-product of that moment. Art is the excrement of our energy, mixed with the infinite universe during the swing of the pendulum.”
“As with all life it is the passage that is important, not the destination; the art left behind is a record of a creative moment. Many of my sculptures utilize a sphere (which represents) the infinite, no beginning no end, surrounded by linear steel representing time & space. By mixing two separate things a third is created which are the building blocks of reality. An artist’s creative energy is mixed with a medium's physical properties and art is born.”
As I read the email, I say “Thank you, Jeff.” I recall his earlier comment that he prefers the metaphysical. What he means by ‘metaphysical’ is much clearer now. The artist is part of a complex that includes the tubes (whatever material an artist might be working with) which eventually become a thing that holds the Infinite? The Divine? That which has no name? in its heart.
The expanding Universe depicting itself in endless iteration through the hands and hearts of artists in this and, no doubt, other worlds as well. Jeff sees himself as only one part of that, the rest is ‘in the tubes’ and ‘out there’ in the ever expanding Universe.
y an extrapolation not too difficult to perform, I realize that this is precisely Jeff’s mode in all that he does. The warehouse, the shop, the furniture, his old space in Deep Ellum, even himself. He attempts to be one in the multitude of open channels through which the World tells its story. And then he lays hands on and awaits further instruction.
Jeff can be reached 214 426 6377 to discuss commissions.
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