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SIGHTS : Culturally Curious Get Insiders' Tour of Ojai's Artistic Side : Annual fund-raising event offers a personal view of unique works and the settings in which they were created.


Conventional wisdom tells us that Ojai is home to all manner of artists, spiritual seekers, and types who tend to wander off the beaten socio-cultural path. But what proof is there?

From cursory, outside appearances, Ojai is a slightly funky, refreshingly unadulterated little burg with stern ideas about vulgar signage. It's an oasis of Spanish Colonial-esque tranquillity that caters to visitors on the weekends, yet refuses to sell out.

The culturally curious had a rare opportunity to get beneath the surface recently, as part of the Ojai Studio Artists tour. The annual event raises money for art scholarships as well as providing the artists a public forum and giving the Ojai art scene a rallying point.

On another front, the tour functions as a map to the artists' homes, piquing the interest of voyeurs, art lovers and art buyers alike. For two days, a steady stream of visitors filtered through the private spaces of two dozen local artists, perhaps as much intrigued by the access to private spaces as the art itself.

A lot can be gleaned from the tour, which took the avid self-guided tourist from the Oakview end of Ojai through Meiners Oaks to the far end past Upper Ojai. It amounted to an economic cross-section: from a mobile home park to idyllic, expansive spreads, with plenty of middle ground between.

The tour always provides a good opportunity to check in on the state of Ojai artists--a varied lot, to be sure. Although many of the artists involved return year after year, changes in venue, texture and personal evolution make the tour a special part of the cultural calendar here.

One-hundred-and-one-year-old Beatrice Wood, the renowned ceramist and two-dimensional artist, has been the tour's centerpiece in the past. In fact, she remains a sort of plucky grande dame of the Ojai art world. Wood, recuperating from an illness, was sadly absent this year.

As a consolation, the Childress Gallery showed a wall of Wood's whimsical drawings and examples of her iridescent ceramic vessels. Gayel Childress' space has, in the past year, developed into a force to be reckoned with in Ojai and Ventura County, generally.

Here, the sampler-plate show put up for the tour ranged from Childress' own impressive works to photographic views of the landmark Ojai Post Office--Phil Harvey's paean to civic pride.

The most notable newcomer to this year's tour was the famed photojournalist Horace Bristol, who has lived in and around Ojai at various junctures for 70 years. As Bristol moved around the house in his wheelchair, visitors strolled a living room area liberally strewn with images that told individual stories, as well as the broader tale of his own itinerant life.

The collection particularly emphasized his work in Asia. Bristol shot many memorable images during the Depression and in World War II, such as the famous shot of a buck-naked gunner jumping into action before God and his enemy.

But it is Bristol's peacetime, quasi-anthropological work that leaves the strongest impression. In these images of quotidian life in a non-Western scene--bare-breasted female divers, activity in an opium den, a tattooing session--Bristol shows a keen, sentient eye for composition. He has danced along the line that separates, and sometimes binds, photojournalism and fine art photography.

Jan Sanchez, Ojai's resident neon aesthete, played a prominent role in the recent show of neon art at the Childress Gallery, and her house played host to pieces that accommodate both physical and metaphysical aspects. Humor is afoot too, as in "Midnight Swim," a coffee-table-like piece with neon subtly tucked into the design.

Physicality, on an almost aggressive order, is at the heart of the metal sculptures by Theodore T. Gall. Gall deals in heroic and/or mythical male figures and warriors, sometimes with wings, and always with bad attitudes. The arched backs, pronounced buttocks and exaggerated musculature of his figures suggest that the artist has read too many heavy metal comic books.

In the studio, the sound of Tom Petty was spilling out of the radio, completing the picture of a rock 'n' roll artist at work and at play.

Last year, the road to the Gall studio wended high up off of upper Ojai. This year, the artist and his wife, fellow metal artist Claudia, are ensconced in a spacious new studio/workshop closer to the heart of Ojai. The space is full of industrial grade metal working machinery, while all around are orange trees and exotic cacti.

Only in Ojai.

Among the most interesting places to visit on the tour is Frank Kirk's studio, nestled deep in an orange grove to the rear of an exotic Mediterranean house. Kirk's art leans toward sharply detailed surreal visions, Art Deco-era manners, and a gentle, chic brand of dread. Muzak bubbled away incongruously in his studio as he brushed away at a canvas, fleshing out a tangle of foreboding shrubbery.

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