Interviewsand Articles

 

A Life of One's Own: A Conversation with James Hubbell

by Richard Whittaker, Apr 18, 2002


 

 

[This interview took place approximately a year and a half before the southern California fires that burned much of the Hubbell property. The property has since been substantially restored.]
     I met with James Hubbell at his home northeast of San Diego, a compound of eight hand-made buildings constructed over a period of several years. Included are living quarters, studios, workshops, and a gallery. On most days there are apprentices, employees, and volunteers busy at work on stained glass windows, ceramic pieces, stone sculptures, specially designed gates, doors and all kinds of items for building, be they functional or decorative. In the midst of it all a relaxed atmosphere prevails.
     Hubbell is at home working with wood, glass, clay, concrete and metals for starters—pouring and casting them, firing them in kilns, shaping them on forges, hammering and bending, blacksmithing them, cutting, sculpting, carpentering, and working them into whatever shapes suit his fancy. 
     Walking through his living quarters and passing by a sink, I noticed the faucet had been hand-cast, as had the faucet handles. The whole compound is hand-crafted and has an organic quality, all curves, hand-hewn timbers, stained-glass skylights, panels and windows, hand made tiles with stone and brick work made to flow and fit the bending concrete shells of roofs and walls. Hubbell is a craftsman, someone comfortable with his own hands, confident in his own eye and measure, an artisan. But he’s more than that.
     What to call him exactly? It’s convenient to be able to say, “lawyer,” “cattle rancher,” or “optometrist.” But James Hubbell doesn’t fit into our standardized categories. Sometimes he’s called an architect. And he does design buildings and homes for people occasionally, people who want something entirely off the beaten path. He’s done interior spaces for a hospital, designed an elementary school in Tijuana. He did a chapel for Sea Ranch along the Northern California coast. He paints and draws and writes poetry, too, and in the last few years he has directed international garden/monument design and build teams, collaborative efforts. These have also been acts of grass roots diplomacy as there have been projects in China and Russia, as well as in San Diego.
The list is not complete, and I don’t think Hubbell would claim that any of his skills are extraordinary, even as impressive as they are when all put together. These are all things any number of individuals can, or could, do in their own ways—in theory at least—but how often is it nowadays that one meets someone actually doing such things! Most striking to me is that with Hubbell, one meets a person who has gone his own way—at some cost, it should be added. Hubbell has made his way outside of the conventional routes, and one feels that without a doubt, he’s gotten somewhere. In art speak, he could be called an "outsider" artist; in architecture, a “fringe” architect.
     Talking with Hubbell, one feels the irony of these terms. As I spent time with him, something quietly grew, an impression that it was really Hubbell, the man himself, who was the most remarkable element in all of this. Outsider? Not if it’s humanity you’re interested in.
     When we sat down to tape a conversation I wanted to backtrack a little…

Richard Whittaker:  I'd like to go back to something you'd said about the need people seem to have to be told what to think.

James Hubbell:  Well, the Bible has this saying, "In the beginning was the Word." We interpret that to mean, "the written word." I think that historically, in the arts, but probably in a lot of other fields unless we write it down, it doesn't exist. All of the periods in art history down to the present have always had somebody, a philosopher or writer, who was the voice of the artist, and who put it in words.
     I'm not sure if people really know how to look at things without first being told how to look at them. There are a lot of interesting things. Because we did this park in China last year, I spent a lot of time reading about China. With the Chinese, because they use a scroll, the painting has to be rolled out. You don't see the painting all at one time. With us the painting is in a frame. It's all there at once, and I think we tend to see time as if it's framed. But the Chinese see time as if it's continuous. They talk about life as being a river. Basically China is built around the Yangtse and the Yellow River. The culture developed in relation to those rivers, and so the river was very important to them.
     If the Mongols came and took over China for two hundred years, to the Chinese, that was just a stone in the river. It changed the patterns in the river, but it didn't change the river. You know? It's so interesting the way you can look at things from different angles. They become different things.

RW:  In the PBS program I'd seen about your work, you mentioned that you'd had an important experience in Notre Dame looking at the light that fell on a column coming through the stained glass windows.

JH:  The reason I got interested in windows was probably because of that. I was on my way back from Africa. It was really the light falling on the columns. It wasn't the windows, it was the light that got me interested. The thing about all the different arts—see, the thing is it could go into talking about art, it could go into philosophy…

RW:  That's okay wherever it goes.

JH:  I do a lot of painting. I started that way. You do a small painting. It's like you're making a keyhole into another world. If you take that same painting and enlarge it so that it's six feet, you confront it as if it's another person. It's completely different. It can't be a keyhole anymore. Now it has your scale.
     If I do a horse that's five inches tall-you can see this in some of Henry Moore's things— some of his small things feel like they're 20 feet high, but when he blows them up, they don't always seem that way. If I do that same horse, and blow it up to three feet it begins to read like a dog. Do you know?

RW:  I follow you.

JH:  You approach sculpture as if it were something like you are. It casts a shadow, and light changes on it. So you approach it very differently than how you approach a painting.
     What's interesting about windows is that the window has, in some ways, both qualities. It also has qualities that neither of them have. With the window you're working only on a plane, say with the lead lines. You use certain colors like a red which will come toward you, certain ones will go away from you, and some glass is transparent, other glass is opaque or translucent, so that moves into the three dimensional. Also the light will come down and fall on you, which the painting doesn't do and the sculpture doesn't do. The light from the window coming down has that quality like music does of wrapping itself around you, which is very interesting.

RW:  When you were looking at the light in Notre Dame as it fell on the columns, what was it about that experience that made such an impact?

JH:  I don't think anybody has asked me that. Possibly it was…one of the things I'm really interested in is mystery. I don't know if all scientists would agree with me, but I think science is basically the search for Truth. And art is the making of mystery, a celebration of the unknown. I think the way the light hit the column, the column was no longer a column. It was still holding the building up, but it was no longer a column.

RW:  What was it?

JH:  It was diffused into shadow and light. You've got this column, but the light hits it and transforms it into something that is alive and kind of moving.

RW:  Oh yes. It used to be for me that when the quality of light was a certain way, if I had my camera, it didn't matter what the scene was in terms of the objects, it was just the light.

JH:  In one of your articles [issue #2, James Turrell interview] I thought it was very interesting what he had to say. I also think that the shadow is of equal importance. One of the things that got me thinking about the shadow is that I used to make paintings with a lot of light in them, a little bit like Turner. I remember one time looking at some of the prints of Goya's and thinking you could take all the line away and just take the blacks, the shadows, and it would be beautiful. Usually things happen because of something going on inside you. I think I decided I needed to use black in paintings.

RW:  What do you think happened?

JH:  I think art leads you, tells you where to go. I don't think your mind leads you. Well, a number of years ago a very good friend of mine and I were really into this beauty thing: what does it mean? Why did Doestoyevsky talk about beauty? Why did he say you can save the world with beauty? The way I try to explain it now, and it's just a fringe of an explanation, is that being human is having both pathos—you know about death, about suffering, you know all of that, and you can't get away from it—but the other side of being human is joy. You have friends, you can touch things and, in the long run, you're related to the universe. There's a great joy in that, and beauty is somehow the line, the edge between the two, the edge between the shadow and the light, and both of them become richer when they're both there. 

RW:  You said a few minutes ago that science is interested in Truth and art is interested in Mystery, and of course, you might think that some scientists have a sense of mystery, although science seems to be dedicated to erasing the mystery.

JH:  I think you're right. Like any definition, there's always the exceptions. In physics and astronomy certainly a lot of things they're discovering are really metaphysics. But still those guys are trying to explain the metaphysics.
     If I do a painting that's any good, I create a mystery. Just like if you had been able to invent a tree. In a sense, you can't explain the tree. Every person and every culture can come to the tree and it's a new thing. It's an endless story.

RW:  A friend said that as a child he was deeply touched by the mystery of life and had a deep ambition to become a scientist. He felt that the study of science was a way of pointing oneself toward the mystery and wonder of things. He said that unfortunately before he had gotten the final credentials it became clear to him that he could not hold on to his feeling for wonder and mystery and still complete the required training and he didn't continue.

JH:  See, I don't think that is science's fault. I think that is education's fault. My guess is that the same thing could be true for someone studying architecture or studying art, or even literature. By the time you get through, you're so steeped in analysis and logic that there is nothing left to wonder at. Our culture is not happy with mystery. It doesn't feel comfortable with it at all.

RW:  It's culture that values and seeks answers, isn't it?

JH:  I think we're paranoid. [laughs]

RW:  Say more.

JH:  I think we're terrified of anything that might be open-ended and which we can't control.

RW:  Well, truthfully, as much as I would like say that I'm not uneasy with ambiguous uncertain reality, I have to admit that there is a constant automatic tendency to try to get things under control, to get a grip on things, to pin them down even though, in another part, I don't agree with this attitude.

JH:  Well, there's a huge force pushing you. You know when that thing happened in September [9/11]. I didn't listen a lot, but you would hear the word, people said they felt vulnerable. But nobody ever said—at least I never heard this—nobody said that vulnerability is a huge gift.
     I've known a couple of people in my life who seemed to have no fear. They were vulnerable to everything and they seemed to be able to change things without even trying. I think that's one of the things, that feeling of openness, where things actually begin to move in different directions. And as a culture, we completely close that. We just close that completely off.

RW:  Yes. Our popular heroes, the big, muscular, powerful people are the opposite of being vulnerable. I was reading something Krishnamurti had written about the new growth of green leaves and how absolutely vulnerable this new growth was. He used this image as a metaphor for the kind of state one needed to seek in oneself-openness, the capacity of receiving something. As you say, we don't understand that at all, it seems.

JH:  Our education doesn't encourage it.

RW:  You have some interest in education.

JH:  Probably because I did so poorly. [laughs] I went through a really good school with some wonderful teachers, but I got terrible grades. If I got a C or a D, it was a big deal. At one point I think I told myself, this isn't my problem, this is my teacher's problem. Now I love to get jobs I don't think I can do. They're the only ones that are really interesting. If you know you can do it, why do it? Let somebody else do it.

RW:  You told me that you went to Cranbrook. Did you go through the entire program?

JH:  I went two years. I couldn't have gone the whole way. I couldn't pass a lot of classes because I couldn't spell. And I married a school teacher. They didn't tell me that, that you didn't have to spell, you could just marry a school teacher.

RW:  Another creative response. How did you get into Cranbrook?

JH:  I was in Korea, so I applied from the military. I couldn't get into the painting department so I had to take sculpture.

RW:  Something you said in that video of the PBS program, that in the order of your priorities, being a human being came first. What does being a human being mean to you?

JH:  I've got a whole bunch of papers I've written I'll have to give you. There is one I wrote quite a long time ago about architecture and what I thought was missing: "The Architecture of Jubilation."
     When somebody asks you to build a building, you go through this check list. Permits. How much money? Elevations, all of this stuff. But you don't ask a lot of questions like what about the history of the site, the myths, what does the owner read? What does the light feel like? Questions which are more interior, but which are real and are important. When we describe the human being, you have to include those kinds of things.
     When you talk about educating kids, you can't just talk about the mind. You have to talk about how the kids relate to the earth. How they feel within themselves. It's seeing that infinite potential that we basically are. We have millions of years of evolution in us, all this information, but we don't use it. We don't trust it. You know the golden mean? Well, it's possible that that's true, but if I'm doing a column I could take that golden mean, maybe twenty or thirty directions. I think we all know those things in ourselves.
     I think a lot of what I'm trying to do when I work with kids is not only trying to get them to trust themselves, and their neighbor, but that the universe is theirs and they are part of it. They can trust it.

RW:  That would certainly include trusting what they see with their own eyes.

JH:  Oh, absolutely, but also realizing that their eyes are only one way of seeing things.

RW:  What are some of the other ways?

JH:  When I make a model, working in clay, I will find that my hands do things that I don't know they are doing. Then I look at it, and I know it's right. I think my hands do think for themselves.

RW:  There's an intelligence of the body.

JH:  Yes. And the body really doesn't end here.

RW:  Would you agree that there is an intelligence of feeling?

JH:  Yes.

RW:  And our culture doesn't recognize that. One of the pervasive influences of science today is that authority has become vested solely in the mental faculty. That's a big constriction.

JH:  I don't know if anybody would agree with me, but I think the Renaissance is where it began. Leonardo is, for me, part of that. Anybody who could paint as beautifully as he did and yet turn around and make machines that would hack people apart really, in his mind, had separated these things. What our culture has been really good at—and it's really the reason we've developed the way we have—is separating things. So you would see things not as a whole anymore, but as parts. It's probably reached the point now where that doesn't work anymore.
     When I went to high school we had this machine you'd crank and it had the planets turning. The universe was explained mechanically. Now the astronomers talk about the universe as a mind.

RW:  Well, I wonder what someone means when they use that word. I suspect a lot of people would tend to extrapolate from what's in here [pointing to my head] just…

JH:  …clicking away.

RW:   The mind as just a bigger version of that. A poverty stricken idea of what mind might be, wouldn't you agree?

JH:  I would agree. There's several reasons I've been doing these parks around the Pacific. One of them is that I think a new culture is beginning. The way I think about it is that with Atlantic culture, mostly European and Harvard and so on, the world was understood in definitions. If you could write it down, it existed. And I think that what we're coming into is so complex and so interwoven that you can only understand things as facets. There's the William Blake quote, "to see the whole world in a grain of sand" is that it? It's that thing of seeing in small things a much larger whole. I think we're trying to put the world back into a whole piece and trying to be part of it.

RW:  When you say, "we're trying" who is that "we"?

JH:  I think there's a lot of things. Holistic medicine is an example where the heart is not a carburetor any longer. But I think, in general, it's the public, just people. I think where it's harder is for educated people. [laughs] Because they're educated, you know? But I think most people want that wholeness. That's really what they'd like to have.

RW:  Last night I was staying at a motel. I was watching the news. Leading off was a big thing about the pedophilia problems with Roman Catholic priests. Then cut to the Middle East- "a fire in the church in Bethlehem. Palestinians holed up inside." Judging from the coverage, the tone of the newscasters, one would say it was just very exciting stuff, entertainment. So incongruous. It began to get to me. When you say the average person is looking for wholeness—how does the average person defend him or herself from the world I'm describing?

JH:  I don't know.

RW:  What you have here, and what artists could be pointing to…

JH:  …If it's taken seriously.

RW:  It's something else. I think it's coming back to being a human being which isn't about spectacle. I don't want to start ranting.

JH:  We're working with these high school kids. The week before last we went out to this site which is absolutely beautiful. We told them about the site and had them write some poetry. We had a whole lot of volunteers. One of the kids who volunteers is kind of a hippie friend of mine. He wound up doing Tai Chi with the kids, and having them do breathing. We were kind of unsure about that because there were some people from the board who were very straight, you know. But more than half of the kids wrote about how much the breathing meant to them! Just a chance to stop! They felt so tense! I have no idea how our kids can live with what we're doing to them. I just don't know how they deal with it.

RW:  I don't either. And I must say, it just really distresses me. Saturday evening I didn't have a place to stay, something fell through, and so I started driving around in Los Angeles. It was dark and I got lost out in the San Fernando Valley. The places I found were either more than I wanted to spend, or too seedy. Eventually I found myself on old route 66 driving through places like Arcadia, Monrovia, Duarte. All I saw as I drove along—and I hate to carp about corporations—but there was nothing but corporate logos, corporate outlets, corporate food, corporate shelter, corporate everything. It's easy to get upset.

JH:  I go through optimistic and pessimistic things. But if you look at history, history never goes in a straight line. Just never does. You absolutely knew that when people got really excited about dieting that sooner or later they be back to chocolate. [laughs] You absolutely knew that when you had Communism that sooner or later you'd get some of the grandkids who'd say, "I don't remember the revolution! What was that?" You know? The human being is amazing. I think that we'll muddle our way through to some other period.

RW:  You're making me feel better already.

JH:  I tell kids, "Well, we're living in the time of the compost pile. Almost everything is rotten, but the compost is where the good things grow." Now what you're doing [with works + conversations] is really the right thing. What you want to do is to go look for green shoots, look for the new stuff, because it's all there.

RW:  I think that metaphor applies to you. The point of view you have. What you've made here, and what you're doing. You constitute one of those green shoots. I think it's interesting that from a mainstream point of view, you're existing and working somewhere on the fringes. I know you're very successful, but you certainly haven't showed up at the Whitney.

JH:  I don't even exist in that world. Thirty five years ago I had a black and white photo of a sculpture in Crafts magazine. That was the last time. I've had quite a bit of stuff about architecture and some about windows. But generally, it's fringe architecture, not mainstream. And often, when I'm asked to talk, it's the students who are asking me. Not always, but often. For the artworld, I don't exist.

RW:  The problems of the artworld have to do with the problems of our culture. It's not separate. The artworld is in the grip of the same powers the culture looks to for authority. That means understanding the art object via some methodology acceptable to the Gods of the day. Art history, art theory. I'm not even getting into the role of money here. All this stuff about "being human" isn't something that concerns science, and the artworld has a weird take on that also. Science's concern with mind boils down to the question of can we identify in some way how synaptic processes actually form our inner experience? Can we just pin that one down? Therefore what you're doing isn't going to be picked up.

JH:  It doesn't fit either. I think you're right about the art historical thing. There's a painter who used to paint black on black and white on white. I remember in school we used to talk about him. This was back in the '50s. About twenty or twenty-five years later I read that this guy had finally become really important. And the reason was that there were four of five other people doing it. He'd become a movement. The writers and critics are trained to see things that way, not in terms of individuals, but movements.
     My problem more particularly is that when I went to Whitney Art School in Connecticut, I had this great teacher. In about a six month time, he gave you the whole world. We went through every style, every method. We stared with four straight lines. When I got through I realized I could do whatever I wanted. It was all part of the language of what I could do. That's very confusing to the artworld.
     This teacher also said, "If you want to be famous, find something that is easy to recognize. Every time you paint a picture, put red dots around it. That way anyone can walk in and from the other side of the gallery can say, 'oh that's a so and so'."  

RW:  Who was this teacher?

JH:  Lou York. I think he taught at Yale for a long time. He was just a really great teacher. But in other ways, it's given me a huge amount of freedom, so I wouldn't trade it for anything.

RW:  You mentioned someone else who made a big difference in your life.

JH:  Sim Bruce Richards. He'd worked with Frank Lloyd Wright in the '30s. When I was about 21, I did my first job with him on one of his homes. Over the next 25 years I probably did something in every one of his buildings. Windows, doors, columns, pools.

RW:  You said it was unusual for an architect to hire an artist.

JH:  Yes. I don't know why. I think architects think that artists are just another problem. They bring in stuff that isn't standard. In Berkeley I think, the architecture department is in the science department. It's not in the humanities where it should be.

RW:  And people don't know how to categorize you, I suppose. I first heard of you as "an architect." You've pointed out that you cross categories, and that's an interesting thing in itself.

JH:  I'm not even an architect.

RW:  But you've been involved in the building of some buildings and you've designed them.

JH:  Yes.  

RW:  So I wonder if you'd talk a little about the buildings that are being built today. The relationship between the buildings that are being built and human beings.

JH:  I think that more than we realize that what we do as a culture reflects what we think. You look at a glass building which the architect will tell you he does because it's cheap to do—which it probably is—but it also has these qualities: it's very fragile, it's kind of narcissistic, because you can see yourself in it. It's elusive. These are all qualities which we either feel toward the way we are, or the way we think about the universe.
     If you think about the flat surfaces of buildings—so many look like they've been rolled on with a roller or something—there's no shadow in these surfaces. That probably says we're uncertain about mystery. In the Gothic buildings, half of the surfaces were shadows. Half of the building had to do with mystery. So I think that the architect really reflects the culture in what he does.
     When we had these kids here in San Diego doing this park [one of three collaborate design and build park projects Hubbell has done in recent years] one evening we were sitting around after dinner and talking about things. The Russian kids wanted to know, "How come the Americans smile so much?" This subject went on for over half an hour! There were long discussions about it. Finally the conclusion I came to, you know, was that cultures have different ways of doing things.
     The artists' role is to do what is honest for them. So if you're in New York and everyone is looking at the floor, you can look up. It's not your role to follow the others. It's your role to go to your center and then reflect that, not just to be a mirror to what's happening. … I don't believe in the word creativity or originality. I think they're nonsense words.

RW:  Say more about that.

JH:  You ask a teacher who uses the word, "what do you mean by that?" Often they'll say, that so and so is creative. But that's nonsense. What does that mean? To me creativity means to be honest, to do what's your own thing. If you do that, there's nobody who can compete with you. Nobody can do what you do. We put it in this realm where this guy is better than that guy, but it's not like sports. That has nothing to do with it! I don't know if that answers your question about architecture.

RW:  I was thinking about something you'd said in the PBS video about buildings in our cities, that if the scale is not human and the building is impersonal, then the response will be to turn away and to withdraw. There was that poignant clip showing that man on the street and how he just withdrew. You could see so clearly in his body language.

JH:  That was well done, and yes, I think that is really true. I think the artist really can bring the human quality into places that are very impersonal. That's possible.

RW:  I've heard people talk about scale, and like so many things, it was just that, talk. But now I feel I'm beginning to have a little understanding of scale, and so when you were talking earlier about scale in pieces of sculpture I could relate to that differently. I wondered if you wanted to talk about how your own understanding of scale has evolved.

JH:  Well I think that in some ways scale is the hardest of all of the qualities for people to get. It's not only scale but the three dimensions. If you notice with poetry and music and math, the people who do it are often like teenagers. With painters, their best things are usually in the middle of their lives. Not always. But with architects and sculptors, the best things are often done at the end of their lives. Michaelangelo is a huge example. In the academy in Florence, the David is there, but also about six or eight of these "unfinished" sculptures. They're called "unfinished." Do you know them? [no] They're great masses of marble which are partly carved out. But you walk around these things and it's remarkable. From one angle, the figure will twist. Go around a little bit farther, it pulls down. Go a little more, it opens up. You can't anticipate what it's going to do from one side to the other. With the David you know what's happening on the other side. Do you know? So I think there is something about that quality. It's scale, but it's also something about the three dimensions. It's not that easy to get to a point where you can do that. I have no idea how he did that. [laughs]

RW:  Recently I've been helped in thinking about proportion by some people I met as a result of a symposium our mayor Jerry Brown arranged. In my interview with Terrance Galvin [issue #5] he addresses this topic in some very interesting ways. A basic question about human scale or proportion would be, what fits? In other words, it's not just about what I can conceive of, but how far can I walk? What do I feel when I'm in a particular place? Our technology has made much about this question seem irrelevant.

JH:  Yes, but it is relevant and it is necessary. Because of the hydraulic pump and because of the car, we can basically build anywhere. LA's done it. But because you can do that, you take on the responsibility of making choices. If you can keep people alive forever then you're going to have to decide who's going to die. We don't seem to want to take the responsibility for the things we are taking away from nature. Now if you can blow the world up, you can't have war, or if you do… And yet we're continually trying to take nature's role away and make them our roles, or the mind's roles.

RW:  I don't meet many people who are either determined enough, blessed enough, or I don't know how, but somehow who are able to find a path which really is their own, and I think you are such a person. I don't hold this against people. It's hard. How can someone do it?

JH:  Oh, it's tough, and you can't judge artists by who they are.

RW:  Say more about that.

JH:  Well, too many times a person does wonderful art, but is just an awful person. One of the things about being an artist is that you really have to believe in yourself. You know, when Matisse or Botticelli drew, often the proportions were wrong, but they put the line down like God made it. Do you know? And that's right. It's that belief that allows you to do that. Children do that. That's why they do good things, because they don't know that they can't do it. Often that belief becomes egotistical. It comes out sometimes in sort of an unpleasant way.

RW:  Well, that's a generous thing you're saying.

JH:  I don't think it's just generous. If the work is good, you don't want to throw it away because the person isn't good. It's awfully hard to do both things.

RW:  When you reflect on your own life- you weren't exactly a person who fit in with the system, you had trouble in school, and yet here you are. I'd guess you're in your sixties…

JH:  …Seventy

RW:  And you've made a life following a path of your own. How have you managed?

JH:  Oh, I'm just really lucky. I don't know. I'm a couple of things. I'm very organized. Probably too organized. [laughs] We do a huge amount of work. We just do a lot of work. I have a lot of friends, and I work a lot for clients over and over and over again-sometimes for twenty years. I'm just lucky. I happened to marry a good lady. I have great kids.

RW:  You have some faith in something in yourself. Is that fair to say?

JH:  I don't know. I hope so. I think find it terribly exciting being alive. I'm really glad to be alive at this time even though I feel a complete misfit. I would have worked in the Romantic period or the Symbolist period or some other period, but I just don't fit. Yet it is terribly interesting, terribly interesting living in a time when everything is falling apart. You know, the cathedral falls, but for the artist, with all those blocks you can build another cathedral.
I think maybe what allows me to do it the most is that I really think people can change things. I don't think we're at all stuck in some kind of machine where we can't make a difference. You know, in history it's just dinky little things and all of history turns! You don't know what they are.

RW:  It reminds me of the statement Margaret Mead made when asked if she thought she and a few others would be able to make a change in the world. Her reply was something like, "what other way does it happen?"

JH:  I think that's why the artist is absolutely critical to the culture. In evolution things change physically, but in man basically things change emotionally first. Things go wrong, you have plagues, atomic bombs, all of these things and the artist is really this raw nerve out there in the culture wobbling around, suffering. They're really trying to make sense of it, not for the world, but for themselves.
     I think it's almost that we need first of all to find the pattern that this new world exists in before we can tap it intellectually. It's a sense that the music comes before the idea, do you know?

RW:  You'd said something earlier before we were recording, that our present was from yesterday. That what was really here today was… I can't quite bring back what you were saying. Do you recall?

JH:  I think most of the culture is living with past patterns and the forms we've been taught. It's really very difficult to actually see what's happening around oneself in this same time. There's a book called Lives of the Cell. Remember that?

RW:  Lewis Thomas. Yes.

JH: Do you remember the article about sound? [no] You should go back and reread it. There's millions of sounds around us that we're not aware of. He winds up talking about Mahler and talks about the music of the spheres where they take large areas of metal filings and the shapes the filings take seem to relate to sounds coming from the universe. You kind of wonder if we're not like filings and we vibrate differently when the music changes in different periods of time.
     That may be a little far out, but I do think that within history it's like the music does change. And this change is like an open door. Sometimes scientists see it, sometimes philosophers, sometimes artists, sometimes musicians, but it's opened. It has to do with a different rhythm. It doesn't have to do with somebody saying something different.

RW:  You know, there are people writing books about "the end of science," "the end of history," "the end of philosophy," "the end of painting." These are…

JH:  It's not true. You remember when they said you couldn't paint a figure anymore. The figure was out. It's ridiculous.

RW:  With the amount of time and money and expertise that goes into surfaces today, to making them deliver a charge, I think people get accustomed to having pictorial surfaces deliver, boom. Painting is up against that.

JH:  I agree, but I'm not sure that's going to be forever. I remember being in the Tate in London when the Falkland war was going on. Everybody was talking about it, even the guards. And I remember standing in front of this little drawing by Constable of a wave. It was so beautiful. I thought, why in the world would anybody be interested in a war when they could look at a line like that!
I really think—and I really believe this—that's it's possible to draw a line that changes the world. In a sense it's that simple, but how do you draw that line?  

RW:  Well, to speak on a smaller scale—the front door to my house is arched—I've noticed when I look down the sidewalk at a front door to a house, that seeing a curved door really creates a different feeling that the usual rectangular shape. It's a subtle effect, but it's a real one.  

JH:  Oh, absolutely! Absolutely. Yes. I think that is true. One of the things that fascinates me-take the park in Vladivostock. The place in which we were building it was very masculine. Towers and electric things. A lot because of the students-the Russian kids-we wound up doing this thing that is so feminine it's almost embarrassing [laughs]. What happens when you take something with this shape and put it in the middle of all these masculine shapes? A lot of weddings take place there now.
     When the head of the architecture school wanted to show us Vladivostock, he took us to a lot of bunkers. That was their gift to architecture. Since the Russian-Japanese war, Vladivostock had been a fort. That's what it was.
     When you go to Tijuana and build a school for kids who have dirt floors, that the people of La Jolla would be jealous of because it's so beautiful, what does it do to those kids? What happens?
     It's really little things that you can do so the thinking no longer can go in the same line.

RW:  When was the school done in Tijuana?

JH:  It's still going on. Volunteers are working on it with me.

RW:  When was it begun?

JH:  About 12 years ago. They've run out of money. I don't know when it will be finished, but it's been used almost from the beginning. There are about 150 kids there all the time.

RW:  Have you gotten any sense of how it affects the kids?

JH:  No one has done a study. One of the interesting things is that the lady who runs it got a grant to bring two Russian ballet dancers over from the Kirov ballet. They've been there for over two years teaching these little kids. Teaching the Russian structural ballet dancing. It's amazing! The kids will never be the same.

RW:  How did you happen to get involved in this project?

JH:  Christine was looking for someone who was interested in beauty. She has a foundation. It's because of her that the school is there.

RW:  She turned to you for the design.

JH:  And I was really interested in Mexico. I always thought Tijuana and San Diego were the same city, or at least, two parts of the same city. It was a chance to kind of get dirty and find out what I was talking about.

RW:  I gather it's been a fruitful experience.

JH:  Yes, but it's been very difficult. But it's like…San Diego's not only about being on the Pacific-which is this new world-but it has this fascinating thing of having Mexico right next to us. Even though in Tijuana you get people who are very poor, they tend to have the feeling that their world is coming. And on this side of the border, even though we have mowed lawns, we get the sense that we're at the end of our time. So what happens when you get both of these cultures together? A wave going up and a wave going down? How do they affect each other? What kind of culture develops here which is very different from the culture you would have in San Francisco or Cincinnati.

You can learn more at Hubbell's website.   
 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine 

 

A Man Impossible to Classify One of my first experiences in San Francisco was of being flagged down by a ... Read More 710572 views


The Dumpster      “We can’t use these. They look like ... Read More 130176 views


Remember to Remember - Nicholas Hlobeczy I had the pleasure of getting to know the late Nicholas Hlobeczy over a ... Read More 87827 views


A Conversation with Silas Hagerty I met Silas, a young man in his twenties from New England, at a servicespace.org ... Read More 56205 views


A Conversation with Taya Doro Mitchell Taya Doro Mitchell July 3, 2007 Oakland CA I heard about Taya Doro Mitchell ... Read More 110976 views


READ MORE >> 

A Man Impossible to Classify One of my first experiences in San Francisco was of being flagged down by a ... Read More 710572 views


Interview with Bill Douglass—Jimbo's Bop City and Other Tales At the time I'd first gotten to know the widely respected jazz musician Bill ... Read More 359057 views


Greeting the Light It was thanks to artist Walter Gabrielson that I was able to get in touch with ... Read More 289285 views


Interview: Gail Needleman Gail Needleman teaches music at Holy Names University in Oakland, California. ... Read More 178911 views


Interview: Stephen De Staebler John Toki encouraged me to interview his old friend and mentor, sculptor Stephen ... Read More 148752 views


READ MORE >>