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Ojai, an oasis of art and serenity

A winter weekend in peaceful Ojai is made up of gallery-hopping and visits to artists' studios.

February 04, 2011|By Madeline King Porter, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Ojai artist Sandy Wolk shows off her sculptures outside her home studio.
Ojai artist Sandy Wolk shows off her sculptures outside her home studio. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

Reporting from Ojai — In Ojai, serenity prevails. Over the years, I've felt it here during many a laid-back weekend visit. But my most recent trip wasn't intended to be serene. I had a specific goal: to take the inside track and visit the home studios of my favorite Ojai artists, whose work I had seen online and in galleries. They were scattered from one end of the valley to the other, and I didn't expect to have much time to relax.

Live and learn. Ojai is all about relaxation. It began with my home base — a bed-and-breakfast inn called the Pepper Tree Retreat. It was originally the guest house of Jiddu Krishnamurti, an Indian teacher and philosopher who lived in Ojai for 64 years and who, from what I've since learned, was all about peace and harmony. We felt it immediately as my friend Barbara and I were welcomed — with a hug. In all my travels, that was a first. But Michelle, the hugging "innkeeper," is far from an anomaly in Ojai. Her warm spirit set a tone that never wavered throughout the trip.

I knew nothing about Krishnamurti, but we were staying in his guest house, so out of respect, we stopped by the inn's library, once Krishnamurti's main house and now a repository of his work. There, we watched a video of his teachings and began to understand the appeal. Like the Pepper Tree itself, he was both captivating and calming.

His words ensured a lovely frame of mind in which to set out on visits to local artists, beginning with sculptor Sandy Wolk, who spoke of her work in tones as pacific as Krishnamurti's. I had been drawn to her website by her description of art as "the song that sings us home."

Wolk's actual home looks out on a spacious yard, where many of her sculptures — predominately of women — sit in tranquil settings. The works have a primitive, soothing quality, and I wasn't surprised to find that Wolk considers art a vehicle for healing. Just hanging out in her yard with her and her dog, Tobias, was therapeutic.

Ojai hosts a Studio Artists Tour every October, — a great weekend event. But, as I discovered, those who can't make the tour aren't necessarily out of luck. Like Wolk, most local artists have home studios and, if available, welcome visitors by appointment.

Not on the tour is Leslie Clark, who has her own downtown gallery. The Nomad is open year-round, but she spends much of her time living and painting in Saharan Africa. Her startlingly beautiful scenes of nomadic life are in demand among art lovers who value the work — and the fact that a part of Clark's sales benefits the Nomad Foundation, which brings economic opportunity to the wandering tribes of Niger.

Ojai's best-known artist is Beatrice Wood, who died in 1998 at age 105. In her younger days, Wood defied her socially prominent mother to lead the bohemian life of an actress and artist, eventually turning to pottery. "When I ran away from home, I was without any money. And so I became a potter," she said later. The Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts in Ojai's Happy Valley is well worth a visit.

Just down the road from the center is the home and studio of Alice Matzkin, whose painting "Beatrice Wood at 100" hangs in the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. She knew the potter toward the end of her life and painted several portraits of her. One is the cover illustration for "The Art of Aging" by Alice and her sculptor-husband, Richard. We stopped by after a morning at the center and were welcomed by the couple who share a home, a studio, a love of art and an almost-beatific view of life and of old age, which they evidence movingly in their book.

Alice Matzkin's portraits are of friends and family, many of them at an advanced age. "There's not much art today around old people," Alice said, and Richard agreed. His recent work concentrates on elderly men — touching and often amusing — and lovers in tender embrace, all of them in the last decades of their lives.

The Matzkins have achieved success in their art and a wonderful peace in their lives. Ojai suits them.

As it does soft-spoken artist Ruth Farnham, with whom we visited at her downtown home. Farnham, referring to a painting finally completed to her satisfaction 17 years after it was begun, said simply, "Hang around awhile and things work out." She's known for painting what she sees and not necessarily what's there, taking inspiration from her travels. She often says of a completed work of art, "It was fun." Fun for the buyer too, because Farnham attaches two wires to many of her abstract paintings, "so you can hang them either way."

Art is everywhere in Ojai. It fills not just galleries but also restaurants, cafes and even dress shops. Seemingly every store in downtown Ojai displays local paintings, sculptures, jewelry or crafts.

We arranged to meet Katie Van Horne and see her art at the Pottery Studio. Van Horne brought along recent work that she's excited about, including monotypes that came out backward. "It's so much fun when a mistake works!" she said.

Known for portraits and figurative paintings, she works in just about every medium and does abstracts "to stay goofy."

She was the last artist we visited on our weekend in Ojai, which began with a hug from Michelle and ended with a hug from Katie. Ah, serenity.

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