In the rushed crush of year’s end, while bustling thorugh Carytown, I caught sight of a small sign in the front window of Luxor. The message caught me off guard: Tom “Harte” Hobson died on Dec. 21.
I became acquainted with Tom as most people did, by seeing him pedaling his bike around the streets of the Fan District. He was an outsider artist, and when I knew him, he scrounged for supplies in the leavings of others. He’d smile and tsk at the wastefulness of students who’d toss out perfectly good materials. But he didn’t get down on them. It was to his benefit. He’d sit in coffee shops or at outdoor social events, sketching, engaging people in his soft-spoken and often witty way.
The numerous conversations I had with Tom through the years left me feeling better on bad days. I recall him relating to me a joke — I cannot now remember the details, though I wrote it down somewhere — on the corner of Boulevard and Floyd. He pedaled up to me, beard in the breeze, urgent to tell me this bit of humor as if I absolutely needed to hear it. The through line involved a car, a dashboard dictionary and a terrible pun. I roared, and he twinkled as he told me, “I thought you’d appreciate that.”
He never said a negative thing about anybody in my presence and seemed to know that taking anything too seriously — holding onto a grudge or anger — was a waste of time and energy. He was quoted in a Style Weekly article some years ago about his art, and how detached he was from stylistic vagaries: “Harte says he, too, is working to hone his style and turn out great things. At the same time, he's trying to remember that it's just a job. 'No matter how good you are,' he says philosophically, 'all roads lead to death.' "
I don’t now recall the circumstances, but he drew this portrait of me looking like a psychedelic Jimmy Olsen in 1993, the first year of my full-time work here. Under his date and TH signature, there's something that looks like “CERMAMICS MAGAZINE.”
I wrote about him in this magazine as part of a roundup of capsule profiles called "Neighbors." This was March 1996, and it was the last Neighbors enstallment from my pen, as I was reassigned afterward. One thing about covering the city as long as I’ve had the privilege of doing it is that you don’t know when something you wrote back when may become relevant again. I offer it here.
I’d not seen Tom around in quite some time. You remember these things when you view an obituary picture. I thought he’d moved away, but no, he was working for the grounds crew of Virginia Commonwealth University. He’d stayed on for an extra year to collect retirement, then, as a Luxor staffer told me, he contracted liver cancer that quickly claimed him. A Navy veteran, he died at the VA hospital here.
Luxor has a plethora of Tom’s work displayed throughout the store. His approaches vary widely — some drawings are detailed and intense, others are free and wild, with colors that are vivid there, but sparingly used here. He went where his heart took him. And now he’s gone.