June 4 2014 02:41 PM

Explore the San Diego artist's fantastical built environment, which will soon host a new public center for the arts

One of the Hubbells’ famed Santa Ysabel buildings
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

James Hubbell is somewhere on his swath of land nestled in the rolling hills of Santa Ysabel. The trick is finding where, exactly, the artist is amid the 34 acres of rural property, home to 10 of his recognizable buildings—organically shaped, whimsical structures that look more like large-scale sculptures than places to live and work.

"We're always searching for him," laughs Anne Hubbell, the famed artist's wife, when I knock on the door of the couple's bedroom, the only building on the property kept private during the upcoming annual public studio-and-home tours happening on June 15.

While her husband is nowhere in sight, his thumbprint is everywhere in the structures' quirky architectural details—large chunks of twisted glass, colorful mosaic tiles, giant sparkling geodes and even a sculpted-clay lamb's head peeking out of a chimney. The buildings are smooth with rounded edges, and each is so masterfully woven into the natural environment that it looks as if they sprouted from the ground. Doors, windows, benches, railings and steps are functional, but there's hardly a missed opportunity for art.

The couple's old, dusty dog Elliot eventually helps find Hubbell, who's surrounded by a team of employees and volunteers working on the Ilan-Lael Center, a building that'll take shape as a semicircle of connected spaces housing an archival library, classroom, indoor and outdoor event venues and an office for the Ilan-Lael Foundation, an arts-focused nonprofit founded by the Hubbells.

Hubbell inside one of his whimsical creations
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

The new center is about one-third complete. After additional fundraising, Hubbell says the plan is to have it up and running by next summer. The space is the last important step in eventually transitioning the property and homes from a private residence open to outsiders only once annually during Father's Day weekend tours into a public space where groups can host retreats, workshops and other events focused on connecting people with creativity, the arts and the natural environment. Ilan-Lael was technically gifted the land and buildings years ago, but the Hubbells are allowed to live onsite as the official artists-in-residence as long as they like.

"You know, if the kids had inherited all this, there wouldn't be any money to take care of it," says Hubbell, who, with his wife, raised four children on the property. "It'd be like giving them a rock. So we always thought of doing this. And I realized the foundation really doesn't work without the new building."

The rocky dirt crunches under Hubbell's feet as he takes me on a tour of the rest of the property, which was ravaged by the 2003 Cedar Fire but has since been rebuilt and restored.

"This was the first one," he says, opening the door to a modest, one-room building that now serves as his main studio where he does most of his painting and design work. "At one point, five of us slept in here, but the kids were little, so it worked."

He's in his studio a lot these days, churning out designs for commissioned projects that often include artistic embellishments to private and public spaces, like gateways, doorways or stained-glass windows. Hubbell is in his 80s, but he's still as hands-on in the construction of his designs as ever. A tiny dried chunk of plaster stuck in one of his eyebrows is proof of his dedication to helping build the new center.

The Ilan-Lael Studio & Home Tours 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, June 15 $30-$75 

"That's the fun stuff," he says of the physical labor, the tiny bit of plaster jiggling as he speaks.

Originally a painter and sculptor, Hubbell was never trained in architecture, nor did he ever get licensed in the trade. He learned to work closely with engineers and licensed architects in realizing the now well-known, one-of-a-kind buildings he's designed. He still paints and sculpts, too, often adapting his medium to whatever material new interns are most interested in, so they can better learn about and enjoy the work.

Lizards scurry across dry leaves and grass as Hubbell shows me the rest of his quarters. He leads the way past a hand-built stone swimming pool and hot tub, walks down a steep, mossy stairway and opens the door to what might be his most striking building.

"At about 14, the kids would move over here," he says, revealing a hobbit-like home with a spiraled wood staircase, oddly shaped stain-glass windows and a bathroom almost completely covered in tile mosaics. "They'd take their suitcase and records and they'd move. Drew, an architect now, he actually moved before the darn windows were on. He couldn't wait to get away from his parents."

Now the building serves as a guest house. Other structures on the site work as small galleries exhibiting Hubbell's smaller sculptures and art studios where his team helps fabricate commissions. There's one lone structure overlooking the west side of the property that stands out because of its separation from the cluster of buildings. The small space is designed simply for sitting, relaxing and reflecting on the natural world. Hubbell sits inside the quiet space and explains that nature and spirituality have always influenced his work.

"I can't understand separating them," he says. "I think what I really do with my work is to bridge things—things that don't seem to go together…. I somehow see things as connected that other people think are separate."

Hubbell, who advises young artists to never take themselves, their detractors or even fans too seriously, describes his artistic process as completely intuitive.

"I think the important thing is to trust yourself to do the kind of work you believe in," he says. "It's kind of like cooking. You go get an egg, and it tells you: ‘Go get some onion.' So you just listen.

"I want the building to feel like music, you know, to have that kind of quality," he continues as he wraps up the tour. "Humans are all full of poetry, music and myths, and we don't always recognize that, but architecture can sometimes remind us that there's some of that in us."

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