James Hubbell: Art is How You Live
Written by Simone Butler
As I arrive at the foot of a steep dirt road that leads to Hubbell Hill, in the mountains east of San Diego, a deer appears out of nowhere. We share a moment of reverent mystery that James Hubbell would have appreciated. But the acclaimed artist-sculptor and his wife Anne no longer inhabit the Hill. Last fall they left their fantastical mountaintop home, which they began building in 1958, to live in a retirement facility. Dealing with Parkinson’s for ten years has taken its toll on Hubbell, and made it too treacherous for him to navigate the rocky terrain he loves.
Hubbell, at 90, may be slowing down, but his creativity still burns bright. The artist’s extraordinary life work is now being showcased in his first Los Angeles solo exhibit, “In Harmony with Nature: The Architectural Work of James Hubbell,” from April 22 through June 18 at the Helms Design Center in Culver City. The show focuses on his nature-inspired creations, like the Sea Ranch Chapel in Sonoma with its swooping, wing-like roof, the mirrored-mosaic-Colegio Esperanza in Tijuana, and the stunning stained glass Firebird, recently recreated for Findhorn in Scotland.
Hubbell’s former home is now known as Ilan Lael (a Hebrew term meaning “a tree that unites the physical and spiritual.”) Half the buildings were destroyed in a 2003 wildfire, but the site is now more beautiful than ever. They’ve added an arts center that dazzles with mirrored mosaic, and an exquisite chapel and caretaker’s cottage. Hubbell’s team has also restored structures that were damaged in the fire, such as the whimsical Boys’ House, a favorite on the spring and fall tours.
Hubbell communicates regularly with the craftspeople (Cindy Mushet-Shriver, John Wheelock and Dan Thoner) who work here, giving guidance on stained glass colors and shapes of metal and wood for private commissions. I ask his assistant Laurel Costa how he keeps on working. “I think his obsession with creating keeps his body going,” she says. “The constant drive to create pushes him.”
Hubbell has always been driven to bring art to the community, as with the two Tijuana schools he built with Christine Brady and the Americas Foundation. At the Colegio Esperanza, underprivileged students receive a good education as well as practice art and theater. Parents and other volunteers helped erect the magical structure, and see it as a vision of hope for the future. Another of Hubbell’s community projects is the Pacific Rim Parks, in which he assembled teams of artists and students to create parks around the world dedicated to peace and friendship.
Art and nature are Hubbell’s saving grace. As described in his recent biography, Seeking Beauty: Jim’s Gift, by Angie Brenner with Sarah Jamieson, dyslexia made school difficult, but drawing and painting got him through. And they still do. When I visit Hubbell at his Chula Vista retirement hotel, he is eager to show me his latest work. He shuffles to the bedroom with his walker, and returns with several small, vibrant watercolors created with grease crayon and various paints. “I like accidental things,” he says. “I can’t control things as much as I used to, but I can play with the accidents.”
At this stage of life, Hubbell is focused on his legacy. He especially wants his community outreach projects, like Ilan Lael’s educational programs and the Pacific Rim Parks, to outlive him. So he recently gave the reins of the foundation to his son and partner Drew, of Hubbell & Hubbell Architects, who shares his dad’s passion for natural building, art and community. Drew intends to make Ilan Lael economically sustainable by establishing an endowment, ensuring that it continues to push boundaries as a creative force.
Hubbell has led a peripatetic life. His mother (who was married five times) moved him and his two siblings around frequently, and he attended 13 schools in his first 12 years of education. But, he says, this gave him the chance to reinvent himself each time. “The things that were wrong with my life turned out to be really right. I never had time to get good at any sport, never got in with a crowd, was always the outsider.” But that gave him the chance to relate to older people, he says. Wherever Hubbell went, he courted serendipity. He hitchhiked extensively across the U.S. and Europe. One full moon night, he scaled the fence at Stonehenge and slept amongst the standing stones. And, he tramped through Africa for a year with Darwin’s great-great-grandson.
I ask what inspired him to build his sculptural dwellings on Hubbell Hill. He says that as a child, he’d loved living in an adobe house in Santa Fe, and wanted to recreate that feeling. He’d been working with famed architect Bruce Richards, who helped with the technical aspects. Playfulness and instinct (along with minimal building codes in the 50s) did the rest. “I was just interested in trying out different materials,” he admits. “I wasn’t good at school, so I didn’t really get the idea of following instructions. I just liked to do it, so I did it.”
“Everything was hand-and-foot done,” adds Jim’s wife Anne, from digging footings to making adobe bricks. “People from our church helped us with things like raising the roof. It was fun!” Jim adds that although they had very little money, it was important to push forward. “I could still buy a bag of cement and lay stones. It wasn’t that you did the art because it was convenient. Art is how you live.”
Even now, Hubbell is a model of serenity. How does he do it? “You have to trust life,” he confides. “Like, it’s okay if you don’t live forever. It’s okay if there are shadows. I have no idea what’s going to happen on the other side. But it’s just part of the adventure.”
In Harmony with Nature: The Architectural Work of James Hubbell runs from April 22 to June 18 at the Helms Design Center, 8745 Washington Blvd., Culver City. https://helmsbakerydistrict.com/james-hubbell/. Visit Ilan Lael at https://ilanlaelfoundation.org/
Simone Butler is a San Diego-based arts writer who also practices and writes about astrology. Contact her at https://astroalchemy.com/ Instagram: @simone.moonpower, or Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/simone.butler7