Artists in Paradise

“Topa Topa Bluffs” pastel on paper by Alberta “Bert” Collins.
Permanent Collection, Ojai Valley Museum

This essay by Anca Colbert originally appeared in “Ojai Studio Artists – 3 Decades” a book published in  2013. Colbert is an art adviser, curator, writer, and long-time resident of Ojai. It is published here with Colbert’s permission.  ©2013 Anca Colbert – All Rights Reserved. 

This book offers a glimpse into the lives of 60 artists who live and work in Ojai, a small town, more of a village really, nestled in a fertile mountain valley surrounded by nature of breathtaking beauty and bathed in legendary light. Together as members of the Ojai Studio Artists, yet always alone as individuals, they weave stories reflecting their life and their vision in this magical place.

Consider the spectrum of artists in this group. Stylistically, they represent a vast range of visual arts creativity, from figuration and hyperrealism to expressionism and abstraction, from traditional to experimental, from plein-air to political. They use most media: painting in oil, acrylic, encaustic or pastel; drawing with pen and ink; printmaking; photography; collage; assemblage; making sculptures, ceramics, pottery.

If one of art’s highest purposes is to ask questions of those making it and of those experiencing it, it seems relevant to ask questions about the OSA group: why does it exist? And why here?

Geography and nature have much to do with the group’s existence. Ojai, an old Chumash Indian outpost, was always a land cultivated for its agricultural abundance. In the late 19th century it was embraced by many newcomers for its beneficial climate. During the 20th century it became a magnet for educators, writers, artists, celebrities, creatives in all fields, and seekers of life’s meaning and higher purpose.

By now Ojai is renowned as a fertile paradise for its orchards and its artists.

My first visit to Ojai was an invitation to lunch at Beatrice Wood’s. It was the early 1970s. I had just moved from Paris to Los Angeles, and Beatrice had just moved to her new house and studio in the Upper Valley, facing the Topa Topas. I was mesmerized by Beatrice’s iridescent luster glazes and whimsical sculptures, and charmed by her conversation and personality. On that very first trip I fell under the spell of the Ojai Valley.

Why have so many visual artists chosen to settle here? Ojai is a place unlike most others. Those drawn to this valley have a strong sense of belonging here, of living in an earthly haven. A few other art communities are famous for their singular settings. Taos comes to mind. The Hudson Valley. St. Paul de Vence. Similarities abound: natural beauty, spiritual energy, space, silence, light quality, a protected environment, a gentler life than in the cities, yet a convenient proximity to important art centers.

Artists use their imagination to create worlds: theirs, and ours. The process is fraught with uncertainty and doubts about the purpose of their life work, about exposing it and exhibiting it, about financial survival, about recognition. That takes courage. A support system is essential. Ojai offers a nurturing environment for all creatives, but members of OSA choose to participate in a somewhat structured community of kindred souls. Their homes and studios are within minutes from each other. So they meet, they party, they talk, they bond.

For “Reflections,” an OSA group exhibition organized by the Ojai Valley Museum in 2013, the museum asked participating artists to ponder what it meant for them to belong to the group. The painter Elisse Pogofsky-Harris wrote on that occasion: “Art making for me is a solitary undertaking, which being an only child, suits me well. But as I journey down the path my paintings require I follow, I am grateful that there is an OSA to provide the possibility of having colleagues, peers and even friends with whom to share moments of joy as well as times when the muse is hiding.”

Being an artist carries the central contradiction of a self-enclosed, isolated life trying to connect with others in the world. Not an easy balancing act. As Georgia O’Keeffe famously wrote: “I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for.” Artists tend to favor solitary lives, and usually do not like to talk about their work. Yet here they come together once a year in October for the OSA Tour.

The tour has drawn thousands to Ojai over the years. Most art lovers cherish the opportunity of being welcomed into the artists’ studios, to connect with them in an intimate manner: It’s a highly charged personal experience, one of immersion into that individual life, work and environment. The power of images in an intimate setting has a singular quality far different from their effect in public museum spaces, or in the often desensualized world of big city galleries, or in the all-encompassing, fast-paced, consumer-oriented international art fairs, which in recent years have changed the nature, geography and economics of the art world.

Picasso’s comment about art being “just another way of keeping a diary” rings true as one looks at the stories told by this group of OSA artists. As painters, sculptors, photographers, et al., they leave a palpable trace of what they see and what they feel. Yes, artists do tell stories: about fruits and vegetables; mountains and skies; their loved ones, dreams and visions. The thread of a singular life’s story interwoven with others creates the fabric of their connection. It keeps changing slowly under our eyes, just as do the shifting rays of light in this valley.

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