Artist Studio Visits by Chi Essary
March 2, 2020
The Hubbell property is a cross between a hobbit village and a dreamscape. Stairways arch around curved walls and scalloped, ribbed and asymmetrical domed ceilings meet whimsically tiled floors and oddly shaped windows. This is particularly true of the “boys house”, the bedroom he built for his four sons back in the ’60s, when the 40-acre Santa Ysabel property was taking shape. The doorknob is a river rock gripped in metal prongs, like a gemstone, and opens a somewhat arched door onto a swirl of colors flooding in from stained-glass windows. Among the riot of shapes, textures and chroma, a staircase of solitary pegs fans up a central column to a loft. Exploring the randomly sized steps, I realize there is no outside banister––four boys and no banister! Images of my two brothers growing up (multiplied by two!) makes me wonder just how many falls and near-misses must have occurred during frantic chases and nocturnal ambushes. Stitches? Definitely bruises! It surely must have been a magical place to grow up, free in the country, free of right angles – and banisters.
There are several workshops to visit in which four to five artisans create things from the drawings that James Hubbell, 88 years young, churns out in abundance. The iron workshop sports an organic-gothic-ish arched ceiling with floor-length windows of a similar shape, but all unique in size. My gracious guide, Sarah Jamieson, introduces me to “Big John”, (John Wheelock) who has been working with Hubbell for upwards of 30 years. He’s a gentle giant with a no-nonsense work ethic, the gravity of which contrasts with the whimsical whirls of the wrought-iron gate laid out on the table before him.
“He gives me these tiny drawings, and I sketch them out on the concrete slab,” says Big John, holding up a crumpled, dirty sketch as he gestures over the metal swirls on the table. “He stops in and draws some more on the slab, adjusts things, and then I make them.” I ask him if I can take a picture of him with the work, and he gives me a very serious and dignified look. His pride and dedication to his workmanship strikes me a romantic notion from another era.
Next my guide shows me into a barrel-vaulted ceiling room with dramatic rib protrusions that make me feel like I’ve been swallowed by a whale. She unfolds large drawings on a worktable. “He numbers the areas on his drawing with the color’s number, and then the stained-glass artist makes the piece.” She turns on a table light so it shines through the paper, and eventually the stained glass as it’s being assembled. She says the stained-glass artist (Cindy Shriver) has been working with Hubbell for decades, starting when she was just 15. It’s obvious that Hubbell is a pleasant employer who inspires dedication.
After touring the remaining magically inspired buildings with few right angles, Sarah alerts the powers-that-be on her walkie-talkie that we have concluded our tour. We walk through a desert garden on dirt pathways before meeting Hubbell, who is standing outside a small wooden structure and leaning on his cane. He offers an easy smile and invites me into his cozy one-room studio, one of the first buildings he built on the property. He sinks gently onto an old, well-used green plaid chair and crosses his legs. An equally worn-in pink and white blanket is thrown over the back. It’s a quaint mountain-cabin retro postcard in real-life.
He begins our conversation abruptly with: “I have a problem.” I freeze, unsure what to say, which makes him smile mischievously as he leans towards me. “I keep thinking up things! I keep giving them work to do!” He’s referring to the artisans that work with him. He smiles. “They’re better than I am! Besides, I can’t do much anymore.” His Parkinson’s-related health issues prevent him from doing much hands-on work. “I can still draw––I have an implant in my head which allows me to draw with this hand.” He holds up his steady right hand. “It would be really hard for me if I couldn’t draw…” His face grows serious at the thought of not creating.
I ask Hubbell why the swirls have such a prominent place in his work. “Artists come with something that is their ‘thing’, and water is my ‘thing’.” I wonder to myself how many times he’s been asked that question. “Growing up, I went to thirteen schools in twelve years and had five fathers. We moved all the time. I could understand nature, but not adults!” He smiles wryly. I see where he’s going with that rationale: water always follows gravity, and humans seldom know which way is up.
As we continue to chat, he shares with me a stack of recent watercolors he has been painting. “Little things make a huge difference. I couldn’t spell, which really influenced what I am. If I could spell, I would have gone to Yale with the big names in modern art, but school kind of ruins you for art. We tend to get an artist to work the way we want them to. We don’t give them freedom. Leonardo was not educated––he didn’t speak Latin! He was highly curious, observed nature, and asked all kinds of questions.”
It’s not the first time an artist has intimated to me how art school can have a ruinous effect on a young artist; bending their creativity to what the institution deems as “contemporary”. Need I mention student loans…
“When I was very young, I was interested in beauty. I never wanted to define it. The closest I came was a balance of opposites: yin & yang.” Hubbell pauses and adds, “Think about it. Without shadows, you don’t have sculpture. You have to have both light and dark. As a culture, we have to find that place: light and dark––we can’t any longer separate them. We need to find that place in between.”
Hubbell explains how terrible it is that we have become so polarized in our politics that neither side can any longer listen to the other. But he’s trying to do something about it through his Ilan-Lael Foundation, which is located on the property. Ilan-Lael regularly holds workshops on community-building and understanding through art, and the foundation has created friendship parks in eight different countries around the Pacific Rim.
I realize this is his passion in life: finding balance. Bringing people together with disparate views is an opportunity to hopefully strike a balance. The same drive is reflected in the way Hubbell balances light and dark in his art; always seeking the yin and yang in every curve, every shadow.