Wild River Review art by Christopher McCauley


The Mystery of Creativity:

Art and Life of James Hubbell

“It is my belief that we are passing through a gate from one age to another perhaps more profound than the changes medieval man faced with the rising of Humanism and the age we call the Renaissance. We have spent the last five hundred years trying to understand the world by dividing it into parts. We are now at the task of putting our world back together. We are seeking a vision of a whole world, with ourselves as part of the whole.”

— James Hubbell

“We must not forget shadows,” says artist, architect, and poet James Hubbell, “the deep places where thing are seen and not seen.” Hubbell frequently equates his art in musical terms and quotes Stravinsky: “Music is the place between the notes where we can imagine, and the shadows are what we cannot see. Light and shade have equal value.”

Those “places between the notes” are at the heart of Hubbell’s art, whether he’s painting, creating a sculpture, or crafting iron and stained glass doors commissioned for an Arab palace. The beauty in Hubbell’s art is as much about what is not stated as that which is portrayed. The clear cobalt blue in the center of a glass sculpture creates a sense of tranquility; a rough-hewn, white marble wave emotes a duality of vulnerability and strength.

By never painting or drawing to the edges of his canvases, Hubbell leaves plenty of room for us to enter into the image. He provides us with an opportunity to reach toward something deeper within ourselves. Nature loves a void, even in the spiritual sense, and few artists understand this concept as well as James Hubbell.

Raised by a restless mother, Hubbell grew up with what he calls a peripatetic upbringing and moved frequently from Connecticut, where he was born, finally settling in California. He survived his unstable family life, in part, by always living close to nature and developing trust in a rich, inner voice. An admittedly poor student, he was allowed to pursue his interest in drawing, and even at a young age he recognized the connection between art and the natural world, developing an early awareness and sensitivity to the world around him.

He went on to study design and painting at Whitney Art School in New Haven, Connecticut. After being drafted into the army and serving in Korea, he studied painting and sculpture at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Later he worked with San Diego architect Sim Bruce Richards, who had studied with Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1930s, and experienced the importance of the mentoring relationship.

Curious about the world around him, Hubbell spent time exploring other cultures and traveled extensively through Europe, Africa, and Asia. He brought home new ideas and themes to incorporate into his vision. Somewhere along the way, perhaps because he had moved frequently during his childhood, he ultimately created his own atelier in southern California.

Since the sixties, Hubbell and his wife of forty-seven years, Anne, have lived on a ridge of the Volcan Mountain Range near the San Diego backcountry town of Julian, California. Here, among scrub oaks and manzanita brush, they raised four sons and built their home and art studios.

An Art Nouveau influence appears in the curves and curls of Hubbell’s ironwork and organic building structures. The storybook-like “boys’ house” that he built for his sons with shells, tiles, stained glass, and a horse head and mermaid, has the explosive feeling of art and obsession colliding, reminiscent of Spanish artist Antonio Gaudi. But there remains something purely Hubbell about his unique style, almost utilitarian in the way he uses as many natural and recycled materials as possible. His architectural designs and art have a quality of living with, rather than against, nature.

While most artists prefer to work in balance and solitude, Hubbell thrives on the synergy of many people working together for a common vision. In addition to his apprentices, students and fans travel from all over the world to learn the crafts of masonry, tiling, sculpting, and shaping of glass or iron.

“I’m not a teacher, I just offer them a place to learn,” he says modestly, and does so by creating a place where artists and craftsmen can immerse themselves in the creative process. They learn through failures and successes, and mostly, the altruism of working toward a common goal.

This team spirit flourishes not only in Hubbell’s studio but extends to the world at large. Over twenty years ago, Hubbell created the Ilan-Lael Foundation, a nonprofit organization with a mission that seeks to integrate the arts, nature and beauty into the lives of individuals and communities. Under the Ilan-Lael’s “Soil and Soul” program and with the Pomegranite Foundation and Pacific Rim Parks, Hubbell began a series of Pacific Rim cultural art projects that brings together students from different countries to create beautiful public spaces. “The marriage of East and West, of materialism and spiritualism, nature and human culture,” writes Hubbell. Through his vision and quiet tenacity, the sister cities of Yantai, China; San Diego, California; and Vladivostok, Russia are connected through art.

Sensitive to each environment, Hubbell begins each project by studying a culture’s myths, histories, and landscape. He takes on the daunting task of getting city leaders to agree on a selected space and the designs he has created to transform that space within the community. In addition, he arranges for funding, materials, transportation, visas, and homes for Chinese, Russian, and American students, and wishes he had more help with this part of the project.

During the Pearl of the Pacific park project in San Diego—instead of referring to the Pacific Rim as a Ring of Fire, Hubbell likens the Pacific to a connected string of pearls — several students were flown in from Russia but didn’t have the funds to return home. Hubbell arranged for the musically gifted students to perform concerts that earned the group return fares.

In another project with the American Foundation at the Colonia Esperanza schools in Tijuana, Mexico, skilled craftsman and laypeople from San Diego and Mexico, guided by Christine Brady and Hubbell’s vision, built schools for some of the world’s poorest children. Hubbell and Brady believe that being surrounded by beauty in their own culture and experiencing the collaborative building process will transform and empower them throughout their lives.

In 2003 Hubbell’s home and studios burned in the Cedar Fire that ravaged San Diego County. He and his wife Anne lost all but one of their buildings, all their personal possessions, and between three and four hundred paintings, sculptures, and glass works. While this might have sunk another artist into deep depression, Hubbell began to see his mountaintop landscape in a new light, one with more open space, more shades and shadows of black against fiery orange California sunsets. And without insurance, he and Anne acted on an idea they had already discussed, and decided to rebuild their unique structures for the Ilan-Lael Foundation.

After spending time with the Hubbells, one gets the sense that such optimism stems from Hubbell’s wife and muse, Anne. When asked what she most needed after the fire, her first response was that she needed to replace her lifetime collection of sheet music. She tells the story of coming back to what had once been their living room and spotting a tiny scrap of paper among the ashes. It turned out to be the burnt title page of Stravinsky’s Fire Dance. Anne’s face brightens and she opens her arms as if to suggest that this was all some cosmic joke. “All my instruments burned too,” she adds. “So maybe the sheet music isn’t necessary after all.”

While the soft-spoken James Hubbell might seem unfazed by the setback, his art has taken on a new and exciting tone. In a watercolor titled Phoenix Rising, swaths of charcoal black and fiery red, gold and orange fold around line drawings of a horse and bird. Other post-fire paintings reflect blackened trees and rocks, with glints of gold, orange and blue, in the center of a white canvas. The art displayed in the Hubbell Room of the Santa Ysabel Art Gallery, and in other exhibits since the fire, indicate either a BF or AF on the title card to indicate whether the piece was created before the fire or after. But for anyone familiar with his work, this is hardly necessary, since the essence of hope and connection with nature has always been at play in his art.

Just as the Romantic nineteenth century painters were drawn to paint landscapes of stormy seas and the dark mountains, Hubbell recently traveled alone to Argentina to take a break from rebuilding his home and was inspired to paint wild places. His fall 2005 exhibition at the Trios Gallery in Solana Beach, California, Journey to the End of the World, reflected a collection of paintings that combined elements of water, mountain, land, and air like the points of a compass. A mountain in Tierra del Fuego, represented in Hubbell’s trademark colors of turquoise and deep purples, has at its base two thin strips of blue and yellow—a river and flowers—and white space fills about a quarter of the painting. In another painting, sensuous waves curl into a void to create that “space between the notes” where we can linger.

It is in his own beliefs and in his art that Hubbell best articulates the connection between man and nature, how the human spirit connects us with each other and to God. “The world can no longer work within isolated states and nations,” he says, and must look elsewhere.

Through cultural understanding and beauty within nature, one project at a time, Hubbell seeks to elevate mankind toward peace and away from war, and for people “to understand that it is a wonderful thing to be alive.”

Website for Hubbell and Ilan-Lael Foundation projects: HubbellandHubbell.com

Art Galleries exhibiting the art work of James Hubbell:

Santa Ysabel Art Gallery
P.O. Box 480
Santa Ysabel, CA 92070

Trios Gallery
130 S. Cedros Ave
Solana Beach, CA 92075


To find through the arts both visionary and physical patterns and direction that bring humanity’s inner and outer world in harmony with the changing rhythm of our times.

Angie Brenner

Bio: Freelance writer Angie Brenner is currently working on her first book: Anatolian Days and Nights. Brenner has written articles about Turkey for local papers, and facilitates travel literature reading groups and presentations at bookstores and libraries in southern California and Oregon. Brenner has traveled extensively through Africa, Turkey, and Vietnam bringing back both hair-raising and humorous stories. In 1997 she closed her store in order to travel and write, and works with elementary students in their Language Arts program near her home in Julian, California. She has recently returned from her fifteenth journey to Turkey.