ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly

'Life as an art' - The Lobue collection
Dr. Ange Lobue and the Lobue Collection

Story & photos by  BOB DORAN

THE HOUSE IS A WORK OF ART. Sculpted by the renowned artist Bruno Groth from rough-hewn redwood timbers and sheets of glass, it perches on a granite cliff above the Pacific. Once Groth's home and studio, it now the home of Dr. Ange Lobue, a psychiatrist who works with the developmentally disabled, and his wife, Chantal Giebert Lobue, a nurse practitioner.

It's also the home of an exquisite collection of modern art: prints and paintings, some by artists with familiar names -- art world superstars like David Hockney, Jasper Johns, Jim Dine, Man Ray -- and some by relative unknowns.

house interior with LobuesRight now a portion of the Lobue collection is on loan to the Morris Graves Museum of Art. Twenty-three prints are on display in the Richard Anderson Gallery at the Graves until Sunday, April 21.

Ange Lobue is one of Humboldt County's more sophisticated art connoisseurs, but he doesn't see himself as a "serious" collector. Art is just part of his life.

"I don't identify myself as an art collector. The thrust of my life has been very different," he said as we settled into easy chairs in his home.

"A lot of collectors buy art because they think its value is going to go up -- then they put it under the bed. I'm not in the financial collector category. I just happen to have this collection of prints because I held onto it. I framed it and put it up everywhere I have lived. I've enjoyed it."

The room has a high ceiling and large windows offering a spectacular view of the coastline. On the wall behind him is a photo he shot of a Vietnamese Montanyard, a memento from a tour of duty in Vietnam where he served in the Army medical corps. Next to it is an impressionistic painting by an unknown painter, something he has had for decades. African and Balinese masks hang nearby.

A shelf holds a stereo and an assortment of jazz and classical CDs. Below them, his "tchotchkes," a hodgepodge of ceramic and carved figurines and a couple of silk boxes that store an array of snuff bottles from around the world. A display box holds arrows from Philippine pygmies and pipes he collected from the Montanyards, the tribal "hill people" of Vietnam.

Lobue grew up in Hammond, La, a college town not far from New Orleans. While his name sounds like it might be French, his heritage is mostly Italian. His father was the son of immigrants; his mother traces her lineage back to the Renaissance artist, Luca Signorelli.

"Signorelli was a partner and co-painter with Michaelangelo when he did the Sistine Chapel -- not employed by him but working by his side. In addition to the Sistine Chapel, he did these magnificent religious paintings showing people going to and coming out of hell.

"So art is in my blood from that direction -- I was always interested in art in general, particularly abstract art, but I really think I have more music in my blood. Growing up near New Orleans I grew up with music all around me.

"I played music, played jazz. I still do. And I think music has influenced everything I've done, including the gathering of these pieces of art, including the way I practice psychiatry where I look at intuitive connections."

Two prints from the Lobue collection at the Morris Graves Museum -- a portrait of Man Ray by David Hockney (1974) and s, an aquatint by Man Ray (1966).

A conversation with Ange is an exercise in improvisation and intuitive connections. A framed Saul Steinberg print on the kitchen wall is the entrée into a discussion of New Yorker magazine, the difficulty of keeping up on all the stories he would like to read each week, and the importance of clarity in writing.

Asking him about a particular piece of art spurs memories of where he was and what was going on in his life when he acquired it. A question about how he began collecting takes him back to New Orleans.

"While I was in medical school I was living in the French Quarter and there was an artist, Rolland Golden, who worked on the street. I just liked what he did. It spoke to me. I bought five of his pieces, gave three to my mother and kept two. They were scenes of the Quarter, including the street I lived on. I still have one of them. That was the first painting I paid for -- and I only paid a few dollars. The framing was inexpensive too."

After completing his medical degree at Louisiana State University in 1964 Lobue headed west. An internship in San Francisco was followed by a stint with the Army Medical Corps that included a tour of duty in Vietnam. Fine art collecting was on hold for a while. It resumed in the 1970s after he took a job with the pharmaceutical company Hoffman-LaRoche.

"I had an office, health information and education services or something like that. What I did was produce programs for physicians. Roche wanted an entrée with the physicians so that they would think they were a good company -- and listen to their advertising."

Lobue had experience with acting. In fact he trained under Kim Stanley from the Actor's Studio, appeared on television in "Soap," "Oh Madeleine" and "It's a Living." Later in life he taught writing at USC's School of Cinema-Television. His work for Roche involved a road troupe, method actors who helped him teach medical interview technique.

"I trained the actors with actual case histories. I would bring them out on stage after giving a little description to the audience of physicians. I would have members of the audience come up and do an interview with me. The actor was trained to freeze whenever I said stop. They would freeze in character, then pick up where ever we came in. The actors were extraordinary. They would actually guide the arrogant physicians in a sort of confrontative way and encourage the humble humanitarians. The exercise was really very effective."

As he traveled coast-to-coast with the road show, Lobue developed friendships with coworkers at Roche, several of whom were involved in the world of art.

"One was a guy who was the director of special events or something, but his real talent was that he had exquisite taste. Everything about him was high level, high quality. I'm drawn to people like that, so we became good friends.

"He was one of those people who was in the know, who knew what was coming. He would tell me things like, `There's going to be a printing of Frank Stella's called "The Sinjerli Variations" from Petersburg Press. It's not out yet.'

"I had a friend who had worked for Petersburg Press, so I got on the phone. I ended up getting first or second pull off the stone on those pieces. And it was at an incredible price. It was the same sort of thing as the Golden pieces. They were beautiful -- great and undervalued."

As his circle of friends in the art world expanded, he began attending art auctions.

"I would go to Sotheby's and Christie's in New York and L.A. They were the major art auction houses. I had friends who were gallery owners or who worked for printing companies, who would be sitting all around me. It was an interesting club. We'd all have our paddles and we would kind of look at each other for reassurance.

"I'd see something I wanted and there might be someone across the room who wanted the same thing. In order to know where to stop bidding I kept my eyes on my friends. They would communicate without looking at me, with a shrug or a nod of the head. I realized, at this point, on that piece I shouldn't go any higher. The point was the guy I was bidding against was a serious collector. He might be getting a good deal, but he wasn't going to make a lot of money.

"I also got to see how the art world functions, which was a contrast to the way I thought art sales worked. I thought the art world was a bit like, `Oh, isn't it lovely. It's you.' And that's why you bought something. That's exactly the way the sales people would talk when a casual collector came to buy. But the real collector doesn't fall for that. The real collector engages in a hard-nosed, sophisticated negotiation."

 Anthurium - Jim Dine (1978) from The Temple of Flora

Lobue assembled most of the pieces on display at the Graves during a burst of collecting from the end of the 1970s into the early '80s. While many of the artists he favored tend to be lumped together by art historians as stars of the "pop art" movement, Lobue thinks the term is all too often misapplied. Certainly the works in the exhibition are not typical "pop" pieces.

One wall at the Anderson Gallery is dedicated to selections from Jim Dine's "The Temple of Flora," a series of dry-point engravings. The floral sketches are loosely based on a classic botanical work of the same name assembled and first published by Dr. John Robert Thornton in 1797.

"I connected with those flowers more than anything Jim Dine had done or anything he has done since," said Lobue.

A series of etchings by David Hockney takes center stage, part of a limited edition box set that illustrates six fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm. Some are familiar images: Rapunzel atop her tower and a roomful of straw from the tale of Rumpelstilzchen. Others refer to more obscure tales like "The Little Sea Hare," "Old Rinkrank" and "The Boy Who Left Home to Learn Fear."

"With the Hockneys, I couldn't afford the complete set, 39 pieces, so I went in with a friend," said Lobue. "We bought a whole box and split it up. She took one, I took one; she took one, I took one. I wound up with some I liked more than others. There was one I just love called `Home.' It's this chair with beautiful curtains. I didn't get that one, my friend got it, so I went out on the road looking and I found it at an auction. I just had to have it."

Why these particular prints?

"I can't say what it is that makes me like one piece over another. There's something that happens when I look at a piece, something that I can't deconstruct analytically. Something happens between me and the art that is unconscious, that draws me to it, that makes me say, `I want to have that. I want to see it more often.'

And what does the collection say about the collector?

"That's hard to say. The connection I see is in what living ought to be like. Living should be your art. If you live your life as an art, you are doing what the inspired artists all did, whatever genre they were in.

"I've been having a running conversation over the Internet with a distant relation from France. We've been talking about the late 19th century, a time when it seemed people were living in a way that was creative, living an art form, even in their conversations, in whatever they did. All the artists and thinkers, from Freud to the Impressionists, to Mahler, Chekhov and all of the rest -- they all lived that way."

Hockney - strawHockney - black cat

LEFT: A room full of straw - David Hockney
A black cat leaping- David Hockney

As a psychiatrist, Lobue is intensely interested in the workings of the mind. He is quick to admit that there are mysteries beyond him, but he has his theories.

"There`s something that happens in the brain when one appreciates art; there's this experience. It may be similar to what happens when the art is created, if the creator was inspired and they were working `out of their head,' as they say, working with the intellectual judgmental part on hold, set aside. Somehow things shift into another dimension. It's as though part of your brain gets out of the way.

"I think great artists are in that transcendent inspired place when they create their art -- and I think when we look at it, we can experience something like that. That's as close as I can come to explaining the unconscious process.

"It's the same with music. I like listening to a piece of music that was produced when someone was in that inspired state. And the same thing happens with an actor. When you produce something that comes from that place, we relate to it because it takes us there."

The Frank Stella series that was Lobue's first foray into semi-serious art collecting is not represented in the Graves show. In 1981, when the art auction business was at its zenith, he decided to put the Stellas on the market along with a couple of pieces by Jasper Johns. The money they brought in allowed him the freedom to make a change in his life and he left Los Angeles.

It seemed the time was right for a move. He headed north, settling in Mendocino and establishing a private practice there and in Santa Rosa. Then after 10 years, a series of events including a kayak accident in which he almost drowned let him know it was time to move again.

"I had a near-death experience at the mouth of Big River in Mendocino, and it changed the way I approached life in general. I was close enough to death where I had that experience of letting go, and it was all over, and it was OK. When they brought me back, that was as painful as the panic I had in avoiding death.

"There was something about that day, that experience, that made it easier to continue on a path I had been trying to get to -- being able to allow things to happen without making things happen, being able to trust. I've been doing that with my life ever since.

"That's how I happen to be here, living where I'm living, working where I'm working."

An offer from Semper Virens brought him to Humboldt County. Then the sudden departure of another physician left an opening at the Redwood Coast Regional Center. Four years ago Lobue began working there leading an innovative program serving the developmentally disabled.

Hockney etchingDavid Hockney etching - Home

"The approach is based on a biopsychosocial model for dealing with human disorders and disabilities with the addition of the intuitive and the spiritual," said Lobue.

Extended sessions with caregivers or family members sitting in along with the patient allow the psychiatrist to tune into interpersonal dynamics.

"The developmentally disabled tend to be lightning rods for other people's feelings. They pick up on pain, conflict, suffering, judgment -- and most of the people who live around them don't realize it."

He loves the job because, "I've been given time to communicate and establish an alliance with the patients," something that's all too rare in the medical world today. "And as always I'm still learning new things.

"I really think that life is a series of lessons. It's like the Universe tries to get you in sync with it. I think the first time you get a message that there's something you're not doing right, something you need to change in your life, you get it as a whisper. If it's not heard, you get the message again as a tap on the shoulder. If you ignore it, you get it again later as a bop on the head.

"The message is about letting go and not consciously trying to make things happen in the context of the way you think things ought to be. Career, for example. Making money. I think that's a big one in the world today. People talk about it as though it's about survival. But sometimes it's not about survival. It's about buying a television set. It's about money, money, money.

"You can't live life as an art form if you try too hard to make it happen. That's why the self-help books seldom work. There's a fearlessness that has to come that permits you to go with things that you don't really know are going to turn out OK. Joseph Campbell calls it bliss. I call it selfless involvement.

"My mother put it really well. She says, `You're here -- with all the experiences you've had -- you're here now working with people who need to relate with someone who has enough experience that he can be 100 percent with them, someone not distracted by what he might be doing, by what he's planning.' She says that everything I've done was part of a plan to put me where I am now.

"And I have to tell you, it feels right. It feels so right."


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