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Artistic Tradition

Ojai Studio Artists tour offers an engaging look at the area's cultural roots.

October 21, 2000|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It could be that traditions have extra meaning in a region like Southern California, where we may still be struggling to get over our frontier status. As cultural geographies go, we are young, sure. But we are also eager to celebrate our roots.

In Ojai, that haven for artists and spiritual seekers, one perennial cultural ritual is the Ojai Studio Artists tour. By this point, the tour has a comfy chair feel for regulars, and life in these parts would seem emptier without it.

Last weekend, it brought a large cadre of visitors to town, tooling about the streets, dodging pedestrians and impatient drivers no doubt miffed by the looky-loos.

They were in search of the telltale pink signs, indicating stops on the tour. The tour itself has a definite sense of tradition, in that many of the same artists are on the map year after year. But what has emerged is a concurrent, guerrilla event known as Art Detour, with its more colorful but less official-looking signs also posted around town.

Art Detour might be subversive in a friendly way, but any festival or cultural tradition worth its salt, inspires the start of an alternative or "fringe" event.

Sometimes, the two cross-town entities merge, as at the home studio of David Reeser, an Ojai Studio Artists member, and Carolyn Fox, an Art Detour exhibitor. Their affiliations may clash, but their aesthetics are complementary. Reeser's paintings show playful and colorful visual charm, full of curvy abstract gestures. Fox--one of whose paintings, incidentally, was seen in the film "Pleasantville"--cooks up tenderly fantastic vignettes, blessed with subtlety.

Headquarters for Art Detour is ringleader Carmen Abelleira-White's place, a rambling and rustic property on McAndrew Road, just up from one of the most popular Ojai Studio Artists sites, Otto Heino's home-showroom-workshop for his celebrated pottery. Art was strewn about the shaded acreage like blossoms in a secret garden, including the folksy modernist spin of Steve Ruffino's paintings, Michael McCarty's surfer-meets-sci-fi comics images, and Abelleira-White's own assemblage work, an artful salvage operation.

A good way to navigate the tour is to first stop at the Ojai Center for the Arts, where a sampling from the artists involved offers a one-stop sense of the the tour. Highlights include Leila Kleiman's intriguing landscape-cloudscape painting "Thunderclouds," the every-brush-stroke-in-place precision of Kent Butler's "Clock Smith" and the characteristically questioning spirit of Albert Fins' "Holy White Wash."

As always, the tour is also a survey of the surprisingly diverse spread of the Ojai Valley. On the far side of Meiners Oaks is the evocative artist Jan Sanchez' place, full of her neon art and other ritualistic notions. Toward Thacher School, above Ojai proper, is the home of Sylvia Raz, with a rusty tin man as sentry. Her amusing assemblages make soft-edged social statements, as with "Good Morning, Mr. President," a whimsically macabre vision of a skeleton in a sexy dress. Her gallery also included 3-D Cubist wink of the relief piece "Guitar Theme."

The intrepid art tourist does well to drive up to the upper Ojai segment of the tour. Up there, it's inspiring to stop at the home-studio of the late Beatrice Wood, who died a few years ago at age 105 but remains a charismatic force in the Ojai art scene. By viewing Wood's folk art collection from around the world in her living room, and a back gallery of her wry, spry drawings, in addition to the ceramic wares in her public showroom, visitors could get a sum-of-the-parts view of the artist's thinking.

Farther up the road are the Matzkins, painter Alice (recently featured in an article in Ms. magazine) and sculptor Richard. Together, they often portray just plain folks and elderly folks, sometimes unclad and in the full flush of affection, sexual and otherwise.

It's always pleasurable to end the tour at its southernmost stop, near Thomas Aquinas College, where painter Nancy Whitman does her stuff. Her genial paintings runneth over in the house, dousing the interior with warm, pink-leaning hues and flowing post-impressionistic spirit. The paintings are also piled up, in varying states of completion in her studio, overlooking a pond and seeming utterly detached from the travails and venality of the "real" world.

The Whitman stop epitomizes an underlying concept of the tour, which is to show the diverse nature of connections between artist and environment, between artistic instinct and real estate.

Another purpose, of course, is the selling of artwork. And, for visitors, there is yet another purpose--a breezy day in the country lined with pretty pictures and refreshments. It's a happy occasion, all around.

DETAILS

Work by artists from Ojai Studio Artists, through October at the Ojai Center for the Arts, 113 S. Montgomery St., Ojai, 646-0117. Tue.-Sun., noon-4 p.m.

* Josef Woodard, who writes about art and music, can be reached by e-mail at joeinfo@aol.com

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