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Celia Thaxter Hubbard, 92, of Cambridge; gallery was hub of expression

Celia Thaxter Hubbard represented prominent artists in the 1960s and 1970s.

Hubbard family

Celia Thaxter Hubbard represented prominent artists in the 1960s and 1970s.

Painter Celia Thaxter Hubbard launched the Botolph Group art gallery on Newbury Street during the 1950s with a visionary eye toward fostering contemporary expression in religious art.

By 1967, her gallery was nationally known as a hub of modern religious artistic expression. She exhibited the vibrant antiwar prints of Sister Corita Kent and organized a sold-out show at a South End rock club dubbed “An Evening With God.” Judy Collins sang, bongos were played, and activist priests took the stage with a Combat Zone belly dancer.

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“Yes, there was music and all of this excitement, color, and strobe lights,” said Vermont artist Mickey Myers, a friend who worked at the gallery in the late 1960s. “There was all that, but there was also very serious intent that in fact we could, to borrow a phrase, come together as people of God and have a fabulous time and offer a prayer for our fellow human beings.”

Miss Hubbard, a longtime Cambridge resident whose gallery represented prominent artists including French-Canadian painter Norman Laliberte, illustrator Tomie dePaola, and abstract painter Robert Cronin, died of pneumonia Aug. 12 in Meadow Green Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Waltham. She was 92.

As changes in the Catholic liturgy where instituted in the early 1960s after Vatican II, Miss Hubbard worked with architects and designers to remodel churches and religious institutions, forge new chalices, and redesign priests’ vestments.

Her Cambridge home, a renovated barn where her father once raised homing pigeons, was the site of many gatherings of artists and celebrities in the 1960s.

Hubbard family

Celia Thaxter Hubbard founded the Botolph Group, which promoted contemporary religious artwork.

Miss Hubbard was hosting Corita Kent, who had become a symbol of the modern nun, at her home when Kent resigned from her order citing personal reasons and made international headlines.

Born in Boston in 1920, Miss Hubbard was raised as a Protestant and converted to Catholicism in the late 1940s while designing sets and costumes for the “Grand Ballet” of ballet master George de Cuevas.

She considered becoming a Carmelite nun, according to her family, but a spiritual adviser counseled her to bring people to God through art.

In the heyday of the gallery, Miss Hubbard wore green eye shadow and a blonde pixie haircut. She carried a thick address book full of contacts and notes for her latest projects, Myers said, and she craved innovation.

“She would always pull us back whenever it looked like we were falling into any kind of repetition, or a rut, in any way,” Myers said. “We would experiment and try all sorts of things.”

One of Kent’s serigraphs, displayed in the gallery, borrowed a quote attributed to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.”

“Celia was giving birth to dancing stars all the time,” Myers said.

Miss Hubbard ran the Botolph Group gallery for almost 20 years before rising rents and an economic downturn led her to close in 1971, she told the Globe. She then focused on her own painting and photography and ran a small antique store on Huron Avenue in Cambridge.

Friends joked that when Miss Hubbard drove, she was perilous on the road.

“She would see something and start photographing from behind the wheel or leap out of the car,” Myers said.

A cigarette package in the gutter, smashed into the shape of a heart, would prompt Miss Hubbard to abandon her vehicle while she retrieved her find.

Often stuck in traffic on her way to her summer house on Cape Cod, Miss Hubbard made a compelling series of photographs of the backs of trucks, her family said.

Ms. Hubbard was the daughter of the former Elizabeth Thaxter and Dr. Eliot Hubbard Jr., a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital. She was named after her great-grandmother Celia Laighton Thaxter, a Victorian era poet and writer whose stories appeared in The Atlantic Monthly.

She grew up in Cambridge and attended the Museum School in Boston and The New School for Social Research in New York City. In 1943, Ms. Hubbard began her career working for advertising agencies in New York. She later became an assistant art director for Mademoiselle magazine before moving to France.

In Cambridge in the early 1960s, Miss Hubbard and artist Rita DeLisi opened an experimental school later called Project Inc., where hundreds of students, from children to senior citizens, took art classes. The school closed in 1984.

Though Miss Hubbard never married, she assumed a key role in the lives of her nephews, who said she helped them through troubled times in their youth and supported their careers.

“Celia was not only my godmother, she was very much an Auntie Mame character in my life,” said her nephew Eliot.

He said she encouraged him to pursue his dreams in New York City, where he and a partner opened the cabaret club Reno Sweeney in the 1970s.

“She reached out to me when I wasn’t getting along with my parents,” Eliot recalled. “I was also emerging as a gay man and she was the first family member I told about that. She said, ‘I have two words to say to you about that: So what?’”

As a young art student in the 1960s, Eliot spent vacations working in his aunt’s gallery.

“There was always a lot of laughter and just fun,” he said. “Being around Celia was wonderful. She was so vibrant and so full of energy.”

Her nephew Peter said Miss Hubbard’s letters helped him navigate a tumultuous childhood after his mother died when he was 12. He was expelled from boarding school and was coping with learning disabilities.

“She was this positive force for me, nurturing a creative side and providing a lifeline,” said Peter, who lives in Chelsea, where he works on theater productions. “She wasn’t so much a maternal presence but more of a champion.”

At a memorial service in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Peter, Eliot, and another nephew, Jon of Chicago, placed flowers on her simple wood coffin. As she requested, Miss Hubbard was buried with the ashes of her beloved cat, Lois Lane.

J.M. Lawrence can be reached at jmlawrence@me.com.
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