At 86, Artist and Army Veteran James Hubbell Still Has Work to Do

Artist James Hubbell in May 2018 stands at the chapel he built on his property in Santa Ysabel, California. (Eduardo Contreras / San Diego Union-Tribune)

When iconic local artist James T. Hubbell passes from this life, he has instructed his wife, Anne, to scatter his ashes on the hillside of their Santa Ysabel property where the headwaters of the San Diego River form.

That way, whenever it rains, a little bit of his essence will be washed out to the ocean and eventually circulated to the distant shores of the 41 countries and island nations that make up the Pacific Rim.

For the past quarter-century, the famed 86-year-old sculptor/designer has devoted much of his heart, time and talents to uniting the often-at-odds people and cultures around the Pacific Ocean.

Through the couple's Ilan-Lael Foundation, Hubbell has led international teams of architectural students in building friendship-themed public parks in Russia, San Diego, Tijuana, the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan.

Later this month, he will lead a new delegation to China to build the seventh Pacific Rim Park in Yantai, a port city in the Shandong province.

Because of his age and health issues, Hubbell said he's both "a little thrilled and a little terrified" about making the monthlong trip. But with growing political divisiveness and threats of trade wars in the news these days, Hubbell feels the collaborative cultural projects have never been needed more than now.

"This is a very dangerous time," he said on Thursday. "Since the Renaissance, we've tried to understand things by breaking them into little pieces. Now we need to bring things back together and bridge our differences. We have to find the threads woven into the grand pattern that connects us all."

For more than a half-century, Hubbell has been recognized as one of California's artistic treasures. His organically inspired stained glass work, wrought-iron gates, sculptures, hand-carved doors and architectural details can be found in hundreds of homes, churches and public buildings throughout the state.

But he's best known for the 40-acre home and artistic compound he and his wife have shared in Santa Ysabel since 1958. There they raised four sons, including Drew, a San Diego architect who has been his dad's business partner since the mid-1990s.

Architecture fans and students from all over the world have visited the compound to see the imaginative and other-worldly buildings that Hubbell designed and built with his son from the 1950s-1960s. A wildfire in 2003 razed half of the structures on the property, but many new ones have replaced them, all built with the help of donors, artisans and volunteers.

Hubbell's signature design elements are soaring curved roofs, domes and arches, hand-textured clay, curled metals, colorful stained-glass windows and hand-cut tile mosaics, all inspired by the natural shapes of shells, leaves, rocks, vines, trees, ocean waves, flames and waterfalls. As in nature, there are few straight lines.

Because of health issues related to Parkinson's disease, Hubbell can no longer do all the hands-on design work himself. He sketches out detailed designs and a team of four to five onsite artisans bring them to life. He's in the midst of four commissions now plus the creation of a handsome door for the new headquarters of the Ilan-Lael Foundation, which is headquartered on the Santa Ysabel property.

After the fire, the Hubbells put the property in the trust of Ilan-Lael, which is the Hebrew phrase for "a tree that comes from God." When they're gone, the property will be used by the foundation to preserve the Hubbells' artistic legacy and property and to provide a space where people of diverse ages and cultures can create art and use it as a catalyst for positive change in the world, according to Marianne Gerdes, Ilan-Lael's executive director.

One of Ilan-Lael's key projects is the Pacific Rim Park program, run by executive director Kyle Bergman.

To support the foundation, the Hubbells have opened their home and studios for tours every year on Father's Day since 1983. This year, three-hour guided tours are being offered at 10 a.m. and at 1 p.m. June 17. Tickets are $50, with discounts for seniors and students. Children 12 and under are free. Tickets can be ordered at (760) 765-3427 or by visiting

This month, Ilan-Lael is also raising money for the new Pacific Rim Park in China via a $20,000 Kickstarter campaign that is already two-thirds funded (, "Help us Build a Pacific Rim Park in Yantai, China 2018").

The Pacific Rim Park program was inspired by the 1991 sister cities agreement between San Diego and Vladivostok, Russia. To promote cultural understanding between the two port cities in 1994, Hubbell and Slovenian-born artist Milenko Matanovic hosted a three-week workshop in Vladivostok where 17 students from the U.S., Russia and Mexico to design and build a friendship gate, monument and garden known as Soil & Soul Park.

A second park was built on San Diego's Shelter Island in 1998; a third on Tijuana's coast in 2004; a fourth in Puerto Princesa, the Philippines, in 2009; a fifth on South Korea's famed isle of peace, Jeju, in 2010; and a sixth in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, in 2013.

All of the Pacific Rim Parks are different, but each features a large ball-like mosaic sculpture representing a pearl. Ilan-Lael's long-term goal is to create a "string of pearls" with parks in all the Pacific Rim nations.

But as world tensions have grown in recent years, Hubbell said the meaning of the parks' pearls has also evolved.

"A pearl is created from irritation and pressure," he said. "The creation and mission of the Pacific Rim Park is to bring beauty and love -- a pearl -- from the often differing and quarreling countries that share the Pacific Rim."

For the 29-day Yantai project, Hubbell is now assembling the team of up to 30 architectural students and teachers from China, Korea, the Philippines, Mexico, Russia and the U.S.

Beginning June 29 in Yantai, the students will form four groups to discuss ideas and make drawings. Hubbell said he likes putting together people from countries that don't get along because it breaks down cultural walls and sparks new ways of thinking.

After a week, Hubbell will collect all the drawings and ideas and design his own master plan that fits the Pacific Rim Park vision and is physically possible to construct within the budget and three-week time limit. The park will be complete by July 28.

Before arriving in China, Hubbell and officials from Ilan-Lael and Pacific Rim Park will make a four-day stop at Jeju Island in Korea, home of their fifth friendship park.

Hubbell's team has been invited to speak at the 2018 Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity, a global conference that draws more than 1,000 each year.

Hubbell has a special place in his heart for Korea. As an Army private during the Korean War in 1952 and '53, he spent 14 months at Camp Walker in Daegu, where he designed informational posters for the U.S. troops.

Hubbell said he's proud to be returning to Korea this month as an advocate for peace, not war. It's a culmination of his life's work to not only connect people to the earth but to each other.

"The path we're on right now is suicide," he said. "What we need to do is come together. We're desperate for connection." ___

(c)2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune at

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


This article is written by Pam Kragen from The San Diego Union-Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to

Show Full Article

Related Topics

San Diego Entertainment