By Laurel Costa

Charlene Penner leads me through her beautiful hand-built adobe home in Ramona, California at the base of Mt. Woodson and recounts how she joined the Ilan-Lael volunteer community.

“It all began with this dragon…” she laughs, “Her Radiance is actually the world’s slowest heater.”

Her Radiance is the radiant heat system that uses solar panels attached to the roof. Tubes of water flow from the roof into the house and back again. It took six months to build the dragon; she handcut all of the curls and scales of the dragon and then soldered each piece onto the copper pipe. When she finished the functional artwork she threw a “naming party” to ask friends to help come up with a clever title.

After viewing the magnificent piece, a few friends urged her to meet James Hubbell. It’s easy to understand why they made this connection when you enter her warm and welcoming home. James’ and Charlene’s art have a number of commonalities: adobe construction, mosaic embellishment, reverence for nature and most of all the audacious spirit that propels the artist. Taking her friends’ advice and visiting Ilan-Lael, Charlene was drawn to support our mission because she connects with Hubbell’s philosophies.

“His poetry exposes how he thinks. Of course everything he does reveals that, but the poetry puts it in words for me. His respect, companionship, working with, being at one with nature. That feeds into why I forage rather than garden. Things that happen to me or around me are never “bad” – even something as “destructive” or “devastating” as the fire. Even those terms are inappropriate. Everything that happens is an opportunity to grow, expand, develop some aspect of myself and life.”

As we walk into the thick brush, Charlene points out edible native plants along a pathway that leads to her crown jewel, what she calls the Cistern Chapel. We sample a few, with the taste of filaree still on my tongue, she leads me through a small door into a tall metal structure with a grounding red clay floor. It’s a meditation space that she built and offers to the community to use for sound therapy, labyrinth walking and other ceremonies/practices. The project grew organically from an experience where she stumbled upon the amazing acoustic properties of a nearby metal water tank on her daily walk. While it was under construction she found herself singing each night inside of the tank and reveling in the healing echoes and reverberations.

Charlene explains the Cistern Chapel has a pendulum and a sundial

She says “the Chapel built itself” when describing the process of finding the right plans, materials and help. It’s the type of statement Hubbell often makes, displacing personal credit to those around him for how things fall into place. Once you get to know Charlene you understand she is a person who listens carefully, follows her intuition and is never afraid to embark on new journeys. She embodies Hubbell’s Three Commandments for the Artist:

Thou must start.

Thou must not fear. 

Thou must be true to your own dream.


Her spectacular house is just one piece in the mosaic of Charlene’s adventurous life. She has traveled to 23 countries, hitchhiked several times across North and Central America, she is an accomplished dancer who has performed professionally all over the country. She earned a MD and completed a medical internship in Pakistan in her 20s, but after careful thought decided not to participate in western medical practices. She now practices massage therapy and other forms of spiritual/emotional healing. She published a book on anatomy and physiology, writes poetry and has survived a rattlesnake bite!

Charlene grew up in Canada in a community of General Conference Mennonites, she tells me she first learned to build with her father.

Inspecting a Beluga whale vertebrae

“I was born on my dad’s birthday, which meant I was his right hand man. He was hired to be a ‘church planter’ so we moved a lot and we were always building something: a church, a barn, a home. He  built a camper on a truck body before RVs were invented.”

It’s clear Charlene has made volunteerism a mission in her life. She volunteers for countless organizations currently spending her time with Ilan-Lael Foundation, The Wolf Center, Project Wildlife and Miracle Babies to name a few. She has practiced and performed extensively in the art form of Contact Improv and Butoh dancing in addition to partnering with dancers in wheelchairs. She has traveled to Russia and Ukraine with a dance partner, 

Charlene and Bruce Curtis dance together

Bruce Curtis, with a mission to spread awareness about disabilities and inclusive dance art.

“When I moved to San Diego, I ended up finding a contact improv group that met in a gymnasium on 6th Ave, I joined even though I had never danced before… (referring to the Mennonite church rule that forbids dance) I became totally obsessed and started attending “Dance Jams”, I traveled to Los Angeles and San Francisco regularly and that is where I connected with Bruce and got involved with wheelchair dancing.”

Charlene with dance partner Sarah Jaffe, performing Firestorm Flower

One of Charlene’s contact improv performances took place on charred land after the cedar fire in 2003. She titled Firestorm Flower. Just as James and Anne did after the fire, Charlene saw an opportunity to create something beautiful in the aftermath. These days you can see Charlene’s Butoh dance performance at a local Ramona Art festival called Anomar. During her performance most think she is playing a statue on her 4 ft high pedestal but if you stand and watch for a few minutes she is moving in slow motion.

Charlene at Anomar preforming “Time Flies” a slow motion Butoh piece

Each time Charlene arrives at Ilan-Lael, I can expect to learn more from her and more about her adventurous life. Her luminosity is a gift to our community and we are so grateful for the dragon that delivered her to us.

About the Author

Laurel began working at Ilan-Lael as a mosaic tile artist for Hubbell Studios. But it wasn’t long before her many other talents were put to work by James. You might see Laurel repairing the roof of a building, or waist-high in a hole shoveling dirt, or photographing the art and nature on the property, or helping out in the studio forge or stained glass studio. Her favorite place is in the archive where she’s served as the Ilan-Lael Foundation Archivist since 2018. She’s tasked with organizing, cataloguing, and preserving the vast body of James’ work.  In 2022 Laurel also became the Ilan-Lael Operations Manager, helping to run programs while working with the Ilan-Lael team to serve the foundation’s mission. 

One response to “Her Radiance”

  1. Yvonne Wade says:

    I was a tour coordinator for Valley Wide in San Jacinto in the 90’s and early 2000. I read an article in the newspaper re:Hubbel’s fantastic works in Julian. I got in contact with someone who found out how I could get a tour to show myself and others his incredible houses. We all enjoyed so much and would love to go back. At that time I do believe it was Father’s Day was only day they did tours, not sure though.

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