Nearing 91, artist James Hubbell has no time to waste. He’s got 2 exhibits and a new tour season opening this month

Thunderhead clouds over artist James Hubbell's Ilan-Lael Foundation headquarters in Santa Ysabel.
(Courtesy of Laurel Costa)

The world-famous designer and sculptor said he continues to find new inspiration and optimism, in spite of health challenges and move away from his longtime home


This summer, a damaged Madonna sculpture with a tragic backstory found a new home in a garden that James Hubbell is designing at his world-famous and other-worldly home and art compound in Santa Ysabel.

Hubbell created the clay Our Lady of Guadalupe sculpture years ago for an outdoor alcove at the San Diego Mission de Alcala. But one night, a mentally ill man broke the head off the Madonna and then killed himself. Hubbell created a new Madonna for the mission and brought the headless sculpture back up the mountain to his 10-acre property, which has been compared over the past 60-plus years to the sweeping, nature-inspired works of modernist Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí.

A headless madonna statue at the Ilan-Lael Foundation headquarters in Santa Ysabel.
A headless madonna statue has become a unique flower pot in a new garden James Hubbell is designing at the Ilan-Lael Foundation headquarters in Santa Ysabel.
(Courtesy of Laurel Costa)

Then, while working this summer on plans for a new donor appreciation garden he’s creating on the property, Hubbell pulled the broken Madonna out of storage and turned her into the garden’s centerpiece — a statuesque flower vase, with fresh flowers springing from her neck as if to suggest nature is overtaking her spiritual body.

Finding beauty and healing in destruction and loss has been a hallmark of Hubbell’s artwork for decades. When James and Anne Hubbell’s compound was nearly destroyed in the Cedar fire of 2003, fans from all over the world generously donated money to rebuild the property, which the Hubbells have since deeded over to their nonprofit arts foundation, Ilan-Lael (a Hebrew phrase meaning “a tree that unites the physical and the spiritual”).

James Hubbell, photographed at Ilan-Lael Foundation headquarters in Santa Ysabel this summer.
James Hubbell, photographed at a reunion of artists held at the Ilan-Lael Foundation headquarters in Santa Ysabel this summer.
(Courtesy of Marianne Gerdes)

And although Parkinson’s disease has dramatically reduced Hubbell’s ability to sculpt and paint as he used to, he has found new ways to continue making art — since his imagination and creativity have never waned.

“I often tell students not to worry about what you’ve lost. Just use what you’ve got,” Hubbell said in an email. “The ‘Headless Madonna’ reminds us that disasters can also release potential. Like the Madonna, I don’t have the use of my hands, but I’m using what I have and being open to change. Change is scary, but it can be a good thing. Even in the darkest of times, seeds of hope are planted.”

This month, Hubbell — who turns 91 in October — has a new exhibit of watercolors, “Cosmos — Touching Stardust,” for sale on the Ilan-Lael website. He has also been invited to exhibit in Oceanside Museum of Art’s 25th Anniversary Exhibition, opening Saturday, Sept. 10. And he’ll have a new solo exhibit this fall at the Santa Ysabel Gallery. And even though the Hubbells left the Ilan-Lael property last year to move into assisted living at Fredericka Manor in Chula Vista, he still visits the property regularly for receptions, exhibits and to oversee his staff artisans’ progress on the many doors, gates and stained glass pieces he has been commissioned to design.

“When Anne and I left Ilan-Lael a year ago, we decided not to look at it as a disaster,” he said. “Like the Cedar Fire that opened new doors for our family and the foundation, we could not dwell over what was lost. Instead, we would be curious about where this new path would lead.”

A ceiling mosaic designed by James Hubbell in the Ilan-Lael Foundation Center.
A ceiling mosaic designed by James Hubbell in the Ilan-Lael Foundation Center in Santa Ysabel.
(Courtesy of Laurel Costa)

The Hubbells moved to Santa Ysabel in 1958 and built the compound on Orchard Lane one structure at a time as their needs and money allowed, using mostly natural materials. Over the years, they added a separate building for their sons, as well as multiple art studios, galleries, a chapel and sculpture garden and more.

In 1982, the Hubbells created the Ilan-Lael Foundation to sponsor cross-border arts events and education in San Diego and Tijuana. One of the foundation’s biggest projects over the past 28 years is the Pacific Rim Parks, where Hubbell worked with teams of international artists and students to design and build peace and friendship parks in seven Pacific Rim nations.

Since the Hubbells moved away from Ilan-Lael last year, the property has begun its transition into what the couple had always hoped for the property after they passed away. Besides serving as a living museum and historical archive of Hubbell’s artwork and design, Ilan-Lael is now becoming a productive educational center and artists retreat.

A grapevine trellis at James Hubbell's Ilan-Lael property in Santa Ysabel.
The peaked rooftop of the Boys House can be seen beyond a grapevine trellis at James Hubbell’s Ilan-Lael property in Santa Ysabel.
(Courtesy of Laurel Costa)

Open house tours, once offered just one weekend a year to preserve the Hubbells’ privacy, are now held for several weeks, twice a year. Fall tour season kicks off the weekend of Sept. 24 and continues on select dates through Nov. 7. The recently built Ilan-Lael Foundation Center building is also available for corporate retreat rentals. And next weekend, a fall series of artisan workshops will kick off in the property’s artisan studios. They include classes in stained glass, mosaic design, blacksmithing, photography, natural dye-making, silk weaving and copper enameling. Some of Hubbell’s artwork, including a massive wood and stained glass “firebird” piece, is also now on display at the Foundation Center.

Hubbell’s new “Cosmos” watercolors remind Marianne Gerdes, executive director of the Ilan-Lael Foundation since 2006, of the deep space images recently transmitted from the James Webb Space Telescope. She said he painted all of these abstract pieces — priced from $500 to $700 each — since he moved to Chula Vista.

One of James Hubbell's new watercolors in the "Cosmos — Touching Stardust" collection.
One of James Hubbell’s new watercolors in the “Cosmos — Touching Stardust” collection.
(Courtesy of James Hubbell)

“His new surroundings, though dramatically different, haven’t dimmed his passion for making art and exploring new ideas,” Gerdes said. “This view of enigmatic universes may feel strange to us, but for James Hubbell it’s part of the continuum of his life. He’s has been thinking, writing and creating in this head space for decades. His new works are experimental, sometimes vibrant, sometimes muted, with strong shapes that fill the space. ... These are works in motion, and filled with emotion.”

The goal of the tours, rentals, classes and painting sales is to raise money for an endowment that will preserve the property in perpetuity, according to Drew Hubbell, the second-eldest of the Hubbells’ four sons. A prominent San Diego architect who grew up on the Santa Ysabel property, Drew Hubbell succeeded his father as president of Ilan-Lael Foundation last year. His chief goal as president is to create a plan for sustainability so the public can enjoy his father’s one-of-a-kind designs for decades, if not centuries, to come.

Hubbell recently chatted with Gerdes about his most recent works for a newsletter she is writing for Ilan-Lael donors. He explained to her that he looks at the challenges in his life these days as opportunities to see things from a fresh perspective.

“How do we learn to embrace and appreciate the things we can’t control?” Hubbell told Gerdes. “Parkinson’s, pandemic, trauma, hurt, failure? This is what makes nature so incredible. We have to learn from nature, let it inform us on how to design, live and think.”

Ilan-Lael Open House Tours

When: By reservation only. Two-hour guided tours at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays on Sept. 24 and 26; Oct. 7, 8, 10, 21, 22 and 24; Nov. 4, 5 and 7

Where: 930 Orchard Lane, Santa Ysabel

Admission: $200 per car (two people). Additional passengers are $75 each. Limit 5 passengers per car.

Phone: (760) 765-3427