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Loved By All, Feared by Fish

Local painter John Babbs died in April, but his artwork survives him. A prolific member of Eugene’s art scene, Babbs made countless friends playing basketball at the YMCA, was one of Ken Kesey’s original Merry Pranksters and was an initial participant in Kesey’s Acid Test. But later in his life, Babbs’ interest turned to fly fishing and painting. 

 “I’d describe his technique as rustic with a psychedelic edge,” says Ken Babbs, John’s brother.

 Painting mostly with palette knives and oil, sometimes working with watercolor, Babbs’ art conveys a passionate love for the outdoors. He often painted scenes of fishing and landscapes, sometimes interspersed with self-portraits. 

Ken Babbs says that understanding nature was an essential part of his brother’s artistic process. “He was very in tune with nature and the river, he knew every fishing hole along the McKenzie River,” he says.

The thick strokes and bright colors of Babbs’ paintings portray life on the river. It’s easy to see the movement and grace Babbs perceived when he was on the water.

But Babbs’ paintings aren’t the only thing carrying on his legacy; he was also an author who wrote Prankster Memoirs, a recollection of his time as a Merry Prankster, and Yellow Leaves, a novel set in Eugene about a cinematographer/fly fisher who finds love on a camping trip. To his core, John Babbs embodied the vintage and classic elements of Eugenean lifestyle, and was loved by many. 

“John seems to live outside time, outside money, outside fashion, outside most things that might demand ... attention,” recalls friend Robert Rosen.

John Babbs’ work goes on display June 8-10 at the New Zone Gallery (164 West Broadway). A free reception is 1 pm Saturday, June 9.