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INNER LIFE

Her magical world

Artist Huguette Caland lives in her most vivid creation: her Venice home, rich in reminders of her journey from Lebanon to Paris to California, and beyond.

June 19, 2003|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

It's hard to decide whether the Venice home of artist Huguette Caland is more diary or memoir.

There are the antique framed sepia photos of a childhood as a member of the Lebanese political elite. There are the erotic drawings ("I was very naughty") that mark her metamorphosis from runaway wife to independent artist in Paris. There is the enormous hallway collage, patterned with love letters from a doomed affair.

And there is the house itself, a visual magic carpet ride that takes you from her father's ascendance as Lebanon's first president after independence from France, to her marriage to the nephew of a family political opponent, to her sudden decision to one day pack up and wander the world, leaving a husband and three children back in Beirut.

An episodic journey, yet Caland, 72, seems to have left little behind. Her luscious bedroom floor, stained a luminous salmon red, echoes the salmon in her family's heirloom woven carpets. The mural she painted in the kitchen, however modern, evokes the mosaics the Byzantine Empire left in Lebanon and echoes the crosshatches of embroidery on traditional textiles throughout the house.

Her art studio opens before you like a chasm as you walk through the vaulted front door and follow her collection of paintings and sculptures up the stairs.

Like a diary, her home records intensely personal moments of her life: the sensual, the painful, the joyful. Like a memoir, she has edited and sifted, turned away from darkness and toward the light. It is a fairly open book: Even her bedroom and bathroom have no doors.

This quintessential artist's house is the fulfillment of the promise that seemed to lie behind her move to the American West, where Caland sensed that mavericks such as herself would not be shown the door, but embraced and celebrated.

Here, as her grandchildren play in the courtyard and Venice artists such as Ed Moses come calling, she has married the past, present and future of her rich odyssey and turned it into a visual narcotic that leaves even the most jaded visitor under the influence.

No wonder that so many seem to linger here, on long afternoons that stretch into evening, as Caland brings out platters of cucumbers, baby carrots and yellow tomatoes on celadon platters, and begins the story of how her life led her into the heart of bohemian society in Venice.

"California is a blessed place," she says. "I feel totally at home in Venice. I have good friends. I know many artists. You have a mixture of people. I like the way things move. I was told it was a cultural desert, but it's not. You can be an intellectual here, a writer. I wouldn't live anywhere else in California but Venice. I feel it's a blessing for me."

Caland's block has not quite risen to yuppie Nirvana. As you drive, you notice the high walls of a neo-Hollywood compound. You pass the unreconstructed suburban box with the "No War" sign and the box with the American flag. A British woman's yard is a menagerie of fake geese, pink flamingos, deer and grinning dwarfs. In other words, a typical Venice street.

Caland stands watering near the front garden -- a haven of lavender, lemon and wildflowers -- under her home's facade which, like a traditional Moorish compound, is an all-but-unbroken wall. The massive walls in the back yield to sliding glass doors, high windows and a moat-like, 75-foot-long pool running along the eastern border of the compound.

"It's not like a Lebanese house. It's not like a French house," she says. "It's more like a chateau fort, the big constructions of medieval times where you had the dungeons and the water near the house."

How the design of the house evolved is a bit more straightforward than Huguette's life story.

When she began to plan the house eight years ago, she told her architect, Neil Kaufman, "I want my house to be like a cathedral. It is my institution. I spend 90% of my time in the house."

Kaufman told her that neighbors wouldn't like a blank front wall, but she waved that away.

The room facing the street would be her studio. "I didn't want the people down the street seeing me work," she says. And as an artist, "I don't want differences of light."

Using Kaufman's plan, she and the contractor, Paule Michel Nahas, worked out many of the final details. She scotched the plan's interior doors. Except for a small guest bathroom downstairs, there is not a single one -- not even to her master bath.

"I don't ever want to feel claustrophobic in my house," she says.

She made other changes. Caland had the floors elaborately stained to highlight the dramatic broad grain. The windows were moved higher, Caland says, and the stairs were turned into towers so they would not eat up interior space. In keeping with the plan, the 4,600-square-foot home's modern lines were complemented with industrial-style materials like plywood floors, something Kaufman had done in the past.

"When you walk into it, it's pretty powerful," Kaufman says.

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