BY LAUREL COSTA
Recently, I received a phone call from a man named Tom Siiter, a retired video editor from Los Angeles. He told me he and his friend Tim Studley had worked on the construction of the Hubbell drafting studio in the early 1980s. But Tom wasn’t just reminiscing; he was cleaning house. After 40 years of holding onto hundreds of color slides and super 8 reels he decided it was time to create a movie to thank James and Anne Hubbell.
ABOUT THIS FILM: Film made by Tom Siiter in 2023, featuring footage he shot in 1982 of the construction of James Hubbell’s drafting studio at his home near Julian, CA, Published by Ilan-Lael Foundation with permission from Tom Siiter.
Craftspeople shown: James Hubbell, Steven Cline, Charles King, Fay McQueen, Dale Sitts, Hans Hollenbeck, Bill Porter, there are some people unidentified in this list, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any information about them.
A serendipitous moment
As Ilan-Lael’s archivist, I often receive phone calls like this. Over the years, workers and volunteers call, and sometimes return in person to share stories and memories of their special time at Ilan-lael and how their stays proved to be life-changing. I couldn’t be more thrilled than with Tom’s project, for it coincides with Ilan-Lael’s 40th anniversary. As an archivist, I live for this!
It all started when…
In 1982, two ambitious young film students going to Loyola Marymount University heard about the work of James Hubbell from a fellow classmate who happened to be the nephew of Victor Bisharat, the famous architect of a palace in Abu Dhabi. Mr. Bisharat commissioned James to create 18 doors for that palace. Tim was ultimately introduced to James by a Hubbell artisan named Bernie Andrews and was so intrigued that he (along with Tom) asked James if they could come to Julian document the construction of a new drafting studio at Ilan-Lael. During the filming, in true Hubbell style, they rolled up their sleeves and jumped into the construction process, bending steel pipe, tying rebar and metal lath, and pumping concrete.
The short film (complete with a fun 1960s’ spy music soundtrack) alludes to the struggles of James’s unconventional building process, highlights the rewards of the structure’s sculptural qualities and shows the playful culture of artists working together. Cement hardening in the pump lines and difficult overhead work were major challenges when building the drafting studio. Steven Cline, who also appears in the film, recollects that “It really was a challenge…the darn cement pumper with its heavy hose was always getting clogged, and then there were all those tie wires!”
The early 1980s were an exciting time on Hubbell Hill
Ilan-Lael was newly established, the Palace Doors of Abu Dhabi—which proved to be one of James’s finest projects—were completed and shipped across the globe. This was a very prolific time for James; he was producing commissioned artworks including home designs in San Diego, architectural embellishments for Sim Bruce Richards, large bronze sculptures, and the Sea Ranch Chapel in 1985, his most iconic creation.
A visit from Tom and Tim
Not knowing what to expect after four decades away from Ilan-Lael, Tom and Tim scheduled a visit. As we walked the grounds and approached the drafting studio on a gusty January day I listened to them reminisce on their time spent here.
Tim examined the brick fireplace. “I made that,” he said with both pride and wonder. “I’d never done brickwork before so James gave me some basic instructions.” James told him what shape to make with the bricks, and how to gradually stack them. “Then he just walked away.” Tim was totally stunned at the level of trust. “After I finished, I asked Jim what tool I should use on the grout and he just picked up a stick and smoothed the lines.” Tim described working in the studio perfectly: James’s trust in people, his comfort with materials, his love of using whatever is available. It resonated with my own experiences when building with James.
A lasting impact
I hear stories like Tim’s often, and I never tire of them. Time spent in this unique and enchanting place, paired with challenges and hard work, make a lasting impact on all who visit. Special memories and experiences—like the building of the drafting studio—possess a common thread that connects and carries us throughout our lifetimes, perhaps giving us the ability to see ourselves and our world in new ways. The projects here push you outside your comfort zone, and the work bonds you to people, art and nature. The process isn’t all unicorns and rainbows, but everyone seems to unite under a shared reverence for beauty, and most are moved to seek it for the rest of their lives. We call this the Hubbell Magic, and we thank Tim and Tom for sharing their magic with all of us.
Now … I get to comb through all of their slides and look forward to more craftspeople bringing me their magic memories, Will it be you?
Our new Studio Society is a group of 100 select members who provide necessary operating support to sustain and expand Ilan-Lael programs, buildings (like the drafting studio), and art. Members enjoy special recognition throughout the year, including an invitation to our 40th anniversary celebration. We hope you are inspired to join the Studio Society soon. We appreciate your support in any amount.
Here are some ways you can be a part of the Hubbell Archive:
- Tell us about your Hubbell art. Many records of Jim’s pre-Cedar Fire in 2003 were lost when the flames breached our storage container. (Rest assured, we no longer use such temporary storage units.)
- Volunteer in the Hubbell Archive! You will be fascinated — I guarantee it.
- Donate to the Hubbell Archive effort. Every pledge, no matter what the size, brings us closer to our goal.
MORE “FROM THE ARCHIVE STORIES”
MEET THE METAL MASTER, BILL PORTER
I treasure my memories of time spent on Hubbell Hill, my travel to Findhorn, and the opportunity to documet James’s wonderful creativity. A shout out to Laurel for her generosity, and insightful writing. The Foundation is in good hands!
Grateful to be part of the adventure.
Love to you all.
Great history on film—thank you to Tim, Tom and Laurel for making it happen. Kathy
Laurel, that film was awesome – should be put in a book form too. I’m very interested in the ground up process – from the foundation to mosaic tiling. The process needs to be detailed and recorded – Thanks so much for this.
This is great Laurel,
I’ve got scads of stills and video of our work at Ilan Lael. I don’t have much of a knack for editing anymore, but there’s lots of imagery to piece together, for a progression, from Feb, 2013, through July, 2016, plus updates, from visits through July 2020.
I’m now at my own project in Southern Appalachia.
Jim and I are definitely drinking from the same fountain.