Still active at 87, artist James Hubbell hosts Father’s Day open house
For decades, artist James Hubbell has been revered as one of San Diego’s living legends.
But being called a “legend” doesn’t sit too well with the 87-year-old Santa Ysabel resident, because legends are usually figures from the past. Hubbell hopes that when visitors arrive at his 40-acre ranch this coming Sunday for the 35th annual Father’s Day Open House, they’ll see his creative powers are just as fertile as ever.
“I decided that this year for the tour, we’re not going to talk about what I was doing 20 to 30 years ago. We’re going to focus on what we’ve been doing in just the past two to three years. It’s a lot,” Hubbell said.
Every Father’s Day since 1983, Hubbell and his wife, Anne, have opened their ranch for public tours to raise money for their arts education organization, the Ilan-Lael Foundation. Art and architecture fans from around the world fly in each year to walk through the imaginatively shaped and art-filled “habitable sculptures” on the property, which resemble the Hobbit houses in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films and the expressionistic organic style of Modernist Spanish architect Antonio Gaudí. An estimated 700 visitors are expected on Sunday.
The Hubbells bought the Santa Ysabel ranch land in 1958 and gradually built a home and art compound there over many years while raising their four sons. When a wildfire destroyed half of the buildings on the property in 2003, the Hubbells placed the land in the trust of the Ilan-Lael Foundation, and they’ve been rebuilding and expanding there ever since.
Among the new works in progress that visitors will see on Sunday are Hubbell’s latest watercolors, an iron gate commission under way for the Ocean Discovery Institute in City Heights, new conceptual drawings, and new work by his two sons, Drew and Brennan. Visitors can also tour the Tides Room, a just-completed addition to the Ilan-Lael Foundation headquarters, a glass- and mosaic-filled solarium dedicated to Hubbell’s close friend Walter Munk, a world-renowned oceanographer who died in February.
Marianne Gerdes, executive director of the Ilan-Lael Foundation, said that while Parkinson’s disease has impacted Hubbell’s ability to do fine detail work with his hands, it hasn’t slowed him down in other ways. The Santa Ysabel compound is always abuzz with a mix of staff artisans helping Hubbell complete his meticulous designs; visiting artists who come to study with Hubbell; and international guests who share the Hubbells’ vision of creating a more peaceful world through art via Ilan-Lael (which is a Hebrew phrase for “tree from God”).
Ilan-Lael’s biggest project over the past 25 years is the Pacific Rim Parks. Since 1994, Hubbell has led international teams of architectural students in building friendship-themed public parks on the coasts of Russia, San Diego, Tijuana, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan and, most recently in 2018, China.
Hubbell said he’s proud that these parks have become a catalyst for conversations, collaborations and conferences about peace. Just last week, the County Board of Supervisors honored Hubbell with the Peacemaker of the Year award for these efforts.
“It’s a vision that’s similar to how one deals with their family. We might not always like each other but we shouldn’t burn the house down,” Hubbell said. “If we treat each other like we all matter and stop separating people, we can all grow together in peace.”
Hubbell said he rises with the sun each morning at 5:30 a.m. and gets to work, usually making a few phone calls before going to work for a full day in the studio. Among the many commissions he now has in progress are an altar piece for St. James by the Sea Episcopal Church in La Jolla and mosaic and stained glass installations for St. James Academy Catholic Church in Solana Beach. There’s also a book in the works about the Pacific Rim Parks.
He is now preparing “Spirituality in Art,” a walking art tour on June 21 and 22 of more than 20 sculptures and stained glass installations he has created over the years at the Mission San Diego de Alcalá. He has also just launched a publishing and film company, whose first release is “Purple Cathedral,” a short film made with his son, Brennan, on purple irises in bloom.
He and his art are also the subject of a now-in-progress documentary by Gerdes, a veteran film producer. It will air on KPBS in October. Gerdes has tentatively titled the film “Sacred Space” because even though Hubbell doesn’t see his art as religious in nature, visitors are often spiritually moved by his work.
“When people encounter his work, it’s beyond religion. It’s deeply human,” she said. “The beauty of his art is what calls us to think differently, maybe not about God, but it makes you pause and look. That’s why he’s successful. He’s not trying to manipulate the viewer. This is just how he sees and feels things and we feel them, too.”
Hubbell is excited to have visitors at the ranch this weekend because recent rains have done wonders for the hilly landscape.
“It’s a very special time for us,” he said. “The lakes are full. The whole mountain is green. I’ve never seen it like this before.”
Ilan-Lael Foundation’s Father’s Day Open House and Studio Tour
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, June 16
Directions: Park at the Julian Station, 4479 Highway 78 in Wynola. Shuttles will transport visitors to the property.
Tickets: $50, general. $40, seniors. $30, military and students under age 22, with ID. Children 12 and under are free.
Phone: (760) 765-3427
Buy online: ilanlaelfoundation.org/open-house/
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