Friend Ship—Artist Onboard

A Jersey City painter’s voyage of discovery

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Images by Tbishphoto

He’d rented the ground-floor studio across the street from me in a renovated factory on Communipaw Avenue. He never pulled the shades. Neighbors got in the habit of watching him paint as they walked to the Liberty State Park light-rail station.

He paints large Pop canvases with bold colors and themes. In one a naked woman bursts from an orange palette. There are the Stones and Janice and John and Martin and Nelson and Barack—and lots of Marilyns. As subjects, he favored women, famous musicians, black luminaries, and celebrities, with Ms. Monroe a recurring theme.

While working, he says he never listens to music with words because “they stimulate the part of the brain that focuses on memory, and that’s not where you want to go.” He likes the BBC.

He cajoled the owner of a nearby building into letting him use it as a gallery, where he displayed his paintings and hosted Thursday night “openings.” His copious Cheetos and Pabst Blue Ribbon on ice were a welcome change from the usual cubes of cheddar and warm wine.

Every weekend morning, he loaded his van with his not-quite-dry paintings and headed to SoHo to sell them on the street.

Things in Common

His name is Hulbert Waldroup. Handsome, muscled, he’s in his early 50s. He has a troubled past—he’s done some time—but has put all that behind him. He wears two nose rings and two earrings, and usually something on his head—straw hat, red bandana, or do-rag. Tattoos on his chest feature the names of his favorite artists: Dalí, Picasso, Caravaggio, and Rivera. He has a male Afghan hound, who looks a lot like Marilyn.

We met over my laundry. One day, Hulbert snuck up behind me, grabbed my huge bag of laundry, and carried it the rest of the way, which became a common occurrence.

Though it would be a stretch to say that Hulbert and I became close friends, we have a lot in common. I, too, love art, women, the BBC—and boats.

For seven years, I’d lived on a wooden fishing boat at Liberty Harbor Marina. It was Hulbert’s dream to live on a boat. I gave him copies of my Boats & Harbors, so that he could troll for his dreamboat.

The day after Hurricane Sandy he was photographed kayaking down Johnston Avenue. That was the closest he’d come to being on the water.

Back Story

Hulbert grew up in Chicago. “Other boys were playing sports,” he recalls. “I had a paint-by-numbers kit.”

Though he often got in trouble for doodling in class, he remembers one artistic triumph. His first-grade class was asked to draw Eskimos. The teacher drew a stick figure on the board. “My Eskimo had fur and was roly-poly, with dancing arms,” Hulbert says.” The teacher took it to the principal’s office so that parents would see it. You could call that encouragement.”

There was encouragement at home, too. One Sunday when Hulbert was in sixth grade, his parents asked him to dress in his “church uniform.” They were going for a ride. “We get to this nice suburban neighborhood. This big mama takes us down to her basement. There were hundreds of paintings” The pictures were painted by the woman’s son.

“My mother and father helped me pick out one. It was of a court jester playing a lute, something you’d never associate with a black guy.”

Hulbert later took courses at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Academy of Art and exhibited in Chicago shows. “I don’t like to look for racism where there is none, but everybody sold except me,” he says.

Gotham Guy

Eventually, he moved to New York City. He said, “My philosophy on art and life is that it is too short to be constricted. I travel freely, like a fish or a bird.”

He was soaking up the SoHo art scene. “Galleries were always looking for the next hot street artist,” he says. He sold a painting to the wealthy collector Horst Rechelbacher who bought a Waldroup painting every other year.

“Horst was one of many who wanted to wine and dine the crazy artist,” Hulbert says. Hulbert also sold paintings to Whoopi Goldberg and Quentin Tarantino.

A year later, Hulbert moved to Jersey to live with a woman. But, he says, “Art is my first love.”

Dream Boat

Hulbert put out the word that he was looking for a French-style canal barge, and soon he got a call from a guy in Detroit who said he had a 65-foot steel-hulled boat.

When he flew to Detroit, Hulbert was confronted with the Marine Trader, a floating convenience store that supplied vessels in Lake Erie. It was filled with cigars, cigarettes, chips, cookies, coveralls, khakis, shirts, underwear, books, toiletries, and exploding soda cans. The boat, which was taking on water, was overrun with rats that had gotten fat on cakes and pies. Hulbert hired a gang of guys to clean the boat, released fog bombs of rat and insect poison, and left.

When he returned a month later, he hired a local laborer to help him renovate the boat. He took the New Jersey Boater Safety course, and in Detroit, learned how to operate boats at the Great Lakes Towing Company.

He changed the boat’s name from the Marine Trader (a name I loved) to the Memory Motel, a Montauk spot favored by Mick Jagger, who memorialized it in a song.

Voyage Home

Hulbert was using the “new-school approach” to navigation—Google Earth on his iPhone. He calculated that it would take about five or six days to cross Lake Erie.

He’d charitably hired a local deadbeat as a deckhand. Two days out, they docked at a marina at a former stop on the Underground Railroad in Ohio. They tied up at the seawall during a huge storm; there were 10-foot waves, the chandeliers in the boat were swaying, and Hulbert was seasick.

He was wiring friends and family for money, and writing a Facebook blog to interest funders in his epic adventure.

Due to flooding, many Erie Canal locks were closed indefinitely. When he finally resumed his voyage, he took real pleasure in the strawberry festival in a town along the way, the East Indian pharmacists who invited them to a barbecue, and the bald eagles spotted on shore. The magnificent scenery was famously painted by members of the Hudson River School. His trip included stops at the burial sites of John Brown and Frederick Douglass. After passing through 35 locks on the Erie Canal, he entered the upper Hudson River, marveling at the beauty of West Point.

By the time he reached Yonkers, Hulbert no longer had the funds to tie up at marinas, so he used old seawalls and abandoned dry docks. At this point, he was eating wild green apples and “attacking” raspberry bushes.

As he headed south, Hulbert was joyful at the sight of the Intrepid and the Javits Center. Shortly thereafter, they steamed into the Morris Canal in Jersey City.

Shared Vision

Wasn’t someone called Warhol famous for painting Marilyn? Derivative or not, Hulbert’s Marilyns sold like hotcakes.

But Hulbert told me that he wanted to paint for “glory.” He planned to do a massive sculpture of the wrongly convicted Central Park Five. And he wanted to create a piece that would honor the hundreds of Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. Eventually, he wanted to sculpt in bronze, drawing on his experience fabricating wrought-iron fences with his father.

I asked Dan Bischoff, longtime art critic for the Star Ledger, to critique Hulbert’s art. Among many positive observations, he said, “Hulbert paints people, often entertainers or beauties, whose faces express either an inner struggle or an unshakable cool.”

Hulbert’s unshakable cool was manifest; his inner struggle hidden. Maybe I was drawn to Hulbert because we had both been captivated by living aboard. Maybe we both craved the freedom of being untethered from the earth. I, too, like to travel freely like a fish or a bird.—JCM