In Memory of Stephen Hillenburg

In Memory of Stephen Hillenburg

Dear CalArts Community:

I am writing to share the sad news that alumnus Stephen Hillenburg (MFA 1992), husband to trustee Karen Hillenburg, died Monday the 26th of November after a long illness.

Many of you know Stephen as the creator of SpongeBob SquarePants, a character who lived in an underwater community, and whose stories featured in an extremely successful television series, two films, and a recent Broadway musical. SpongeBob, and his pals in Bikini Bottom, have been part of the lives of millions of fans over the past 19 years.

Steve and Karen were among the very first people I met as part of the CalArts family, and they could not have been more welcoming.  Steve’s path to CalArts, his experience here, and his journey after, is so representative of our community. Indeed, he was able to take his passion for making art (he loved painting), as well as for marine biology, and merge them into a creative project that has had a huge impact on society, in the U.S., and internationally. Steve was greatly influenced by his CalArts faculty mentor, Jules Engel. Steve called Engel “the most influential artistic person” in his life, and dedicated the first SpongeBob movie to him. So many of the stories Steve relayed to me in the short time I knew him involved Jules and his fellow CalArtians.

CalArts was very important to Steve, a fact to which many of our alumni who were here when he was can attest. He and Karen have generously supported the Institute through scholarships and endowments, by volunteering their time through service to alumni, and by re-connecting former students back to the Institute. Karen has been a member of the Board of Trustees since 2016, and is currently Chair of the Development Committee.

We hold Steve and his family close in our minds during this difficult time. He leaves this world a more joyful place than before, which will be the memory of him that endures in all our hearts.


Ravi S. Rajan
President, CalArts

Public releases:

The Hillenburgs and the Rajans