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.
People walking into canvas and paper are in for a surprise.
The approach is slow.
From the outside, one friend thought it was an art supply or a stationery store. Another, a framing shop. The name is simple and it can lead to various interpretations. Spelled in white lower-case letters on a square, grey sign, the name is clearly visible from the street.
Located on Montgomery Street a couple of blocks north of Ojai Avenue, this small California bungalow house looks renovated and appealing. Soft greys, white trims. Two large, square windows flank the entrance. A flagstone path carves its way through a sea of pea gravel, leading to the front door.
So, past the two olive trees, left and right of the paved walkway, you arrive at the front door, which is wide open. You enter into a spacious room, softly lit. You feel you’re about to discover something different.
Indeed, you are.
There are three art works on display. Only three: one on the left wall; one on the right wall; one on the back wall facing the entrance, each identified by the tiniest possible numbered marker, or a small label. The space is deceptively, purposely simple; quiet; spare, but inviting. Natural, filtered light mixes with recessed gallery spots to create an ideal environment for viewing artworks. A sense of warmth and serenity gently embraces the visitor.
The color of the paint on the wall is a light, warm grey, almost white; an ideal choice for showing art. Georgia O’Keeffe’s biography mentions the keen attention she dedicated to choosing the right color for the walls of Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery in New York, and for her own studio: “a neutral grey, a tone that was best for thinking visually.” The color of the wall behind artworks is a serious matter for any art professional. In some circles, it is the subject of endless debate and subtle considerations. The muted tones of the oak wood floor mix light shades of greys with blues and earthy neutrals, adding to the serenity of this visual oasis.
In the center of the space, under six recessed skylights, is a round, soft grey ottoman sofa: the proverbial Circle in the Square concept embodied in this design. Here is a fine place to sit and slowly look at art, if one wants to. Or, just to sit.
In the window alcove, to the right of the entrance, a stylish young woman sits behind an elegant wooden desk with her MacBook, fresh flowers in a small vase, a guest book, and a one-sheet of information about the works on display.
There are no prices listed as the works are not for sale. But for those curious to learn more about the artists or their work, a short bibliography is provided on the verso of the list. She (Alex Jones) welcomes you to take a sheet, if you wish. She will fully engage in conversation and offer information, if you wish. You can talk. Or not.
Is this an art gallery?
It could be. But there are no openings, no parties, and the art is not for sale.
Is this an art museum? Yes, it is, but one with a twist.
What exactly is it then?
It is a gift. A surprising, enigmatic, generous gift from an art-loving Ojai resident to this town renowned for its art-loving artists, residents and visitors. The space is open and free to visit, Thursday to Sunday afternoons.
The website simply states: “canvas and paper is an exhibition space showing paintings and drawings from the 20th century and earlier in thematic and single artist exhibits.”
The first exhibit opened in October 2018, and showcased landscape paintings by modernist British artist Ivon Hitchens. The website documents this and every subsequent exhibit, facilitating online visits.
It was followed by paintings from the 1950s representing three key painters of the Bauhaus and abstract movements: Josef Albers, John McLaughlin and Max Bill. As a group, their works created a palpable, vibrational effect in the space. One could feel the desire to look and to be in a quiet state of mind, inclined to contemplation and meditation. Quoting Josef Albers: “I am interested particularly in the psychic effect-aesthetic experience caused by the interaction of colors.”
The third show offers “portraits on paper” by Alberto Giacometti. Three pencil on paper drawings of three writers – James Lord (Giacometti’s biographer and friend), Jean Stein (author, editor and oral historian) and Jean Genet (French novelist and playwright) – focus on a lesser known aspect of the famous sculptor’s talent. Rather small in size, their presence nonetheless fills the space with a strong evocation of these significant writers and their exceptional lives.
The next show unveils three still life paintings by Jacob Van Hulsdonck (17th century Flemish), and French modern masters André Derain and Georges Braque. It runs from June 27 to September 1.
Every three months a new group of three works appears, carefully selected by the man behind this project, Neil Kreitman. The art shown at canvas and paper comes from a collection of paintings and drawings assembled by him in recent years.
Born and educated in London, Neil traveled widely and lived in several countries, including years in Greece. He spent twenty years in Los Angeles. As for Ojai, he first lived in the valley between 1988 and 1992, before coming back to settle here in 2010. A quiet man, he speaks softly and slowly, fully engaged as he listens to the visitors.
Growing up Neil was exposed to art collecting by his parents, whose interest was primarily in mid-century modernist British artists. His own earlier interests drew him to South Asian art, mostly of Buddhist inspiration. More recently he re-discovered 20th Century British, American and Western European artists.
What prompted him to create this space?
His lifelong love of art combined with a sincere motivation.
Simply stated: The idea of sharing beautiful things with other people in a beautiful place, with the hope that it will resonate with them. The pleasure of seeing the space evolve as an expression of an idea.” His wish was to create “a space which allows the viewer to feel with no expectations, but the intention is to tell a small part of the bigger story.” Like its architecture and its gardens, this art space is a book open for interpretation.
It took two years for Neil to turn his vision into reality, transforming the property into its current incarnation. He credits the process and its result to four people closely involved with him in the creation of the space: “The architect on the project was Jane Carroll, the garden was designed by my partner Sarah Munster, Kerry Miller was the contractor, and the floor was made by Mike Bennett. It was a collaborative endeavor and it involved a lot of dialogue.”
There are infinite ways to discover art and to experience it. From the emotional to the esthetic, the connection to art covers the rich range of human perception.
Here, at canvas and paper, the space has been carefully designed to allow freedom for a close look at art. The environment engages the viewer in a singular, intimate relationship with the artwork and its maker. Go into the garden. Walk around slowly. It is a serene place for meditation.
Time stands still around here. If you allow it. So does the mind. Let the eyes be quiet, to look and to see.
In art as in music, significance is defined by what is present and/or absent, by what’s there and what’s not; we feel the difference and savor this rare experience whose meaning is shaped by its context.
In the increasingly fast paced, noisy environment of most contemporary art galleries, fairs and even museums, visitors crowd the venues and spent on average 20 seconds with any one work. There are expectations and demands as one enters these places, the traditional and ever more popular temples for art devotees: to look; to learn; to move; to comment; to buy; to take pictures and selfies and share them, fast. The noise and the movement replace the experience itself.
Not surprisingly, a contrarian trend has developed in recent years: the “slow art” movement.
Slow Art Day is “a global event with a simple mission: help more people discover for themselves the joy of looking at and loving art.” An annual event held in April, there were 175 “slow art day” venues around the world in 2019, most of them in museums. The formats vary, but “what all the events share is the focus on slow looking and its transformative power.”
What a surprise to find in our own town a space for experiencing art in an intimate setting, free of noise, demands and expectations, a calm place where we can enjoy a slower pace for contemplation, for spending five to ten minutes or more looking at one single artwork floating on an entire wall. Facilitating an authentic engagement in a tête-à-tête with art – and with oneself – is a rare occurrence. It makes for a refined art experience. Democratic, yes. Banal, no. Intimidating, it could be. Privileged, yes. Demanding, yes and no. Depends on what each person makes of it.
canvas and paper holds a delicate balance, a delicious line undulating between simplicity and complexity.
Step inside. Take time to look, observe and feel: you may be surprised by what develops.
A rekindled interest in pottery activity around the Ojai Valley.
Story by Anca Colbert
In Ojai’s history and reputation of attracting artists and creatives of all kinds we know that potters and ceramic artists have long been drawn to live and work here, in this place, this small town nestled in a heavenly mountain valley.
Naturally, Beatrice Wood’s storied life and career first comes to mind. “Beato” lived here from 1947 (when she built her house and studio in the East End) until her death in 1998, at the ripe age of 105. For many, she put Ojai on the map. She did so for this then-young art lover, freshly arrived from Paris to Los Angeles, who first came to Ojai in 1973 invited to lunch by Beatrice, who at the time was just settling into her new home in the Upper Valley, next to the Happy Valley School. That home and studio, now transformed into The Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts, welcomes visitors on pilgrimage seeking a glimpse into the famed artist’s inner and outer landscapes.
From illustrious potters and ceramic artists to modest craftspeople, from devoted amateurs to occasional or accidental hobbyists, Ojai’s story as a home to those who want to work with clay endures. In recent times, that long-established tradition is rejuvenated and invigorated by the arrival of new potters to the area.
Simply defined, pottery is “one of the oldest and most widespread of the decorative arts, consisting of objects made of clay and hardened with heat. The objects made are commonly useful ones, such as vessels for holding liquids, or plates or bowls from which food can be served.” (George Savage, Britannica)
Pottery is both an object of utility and an object of beauty.
Originally developed for utilitarian purposes, making simple objects for cooking and use in everyday life, over time pottery became a craft, then a decorative craft, and later on an art. As to the distinction between crafts and art… that’s another (long) story.
The main types of pottery (earthenware, stoneware and porcelain) look distinctly different. Due to the huge combination of choices available to a potter – e.g., the types of clay and their quality, the mixing of various materials and the vast range of techniques used (hand-building or wheel, kiln types, firing temperatures, etc.) – the works produced result in astonishingly different shapes and textures. Some of it by design, some of it by chance.
From its simplest utilitarian manifestations thousands of years ago to the complexity of modern and contemporary sculptural works, pottery is a cultural artifact that traces the evolution and reflects the richness of human history and civilizations around the globe.
At the Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts, now a mecca for ceramics lovers, one can view Beatrice Wood’s legendary luster glazes and provocative figurative sculptures, and learn about her extra-ordinary life. The Center’s Director, Kevin Wallace, tends to her legacy and opens the doors to visitors by organizing art events, art shows and workshops. The latter are more like retreats, opportunities to learn, surrounded by nature. Valerie Freeman, a painter and sculptor, took one workshop and then started creating her own lustrous glazes. In addition to ceramics, the workshops offer also basketry, fiber, and woodwork; these experiences attract artists and students, private family and corporate retreats. Her spirit is still present in her studio at the foot of the Topas.
Vivika and Otto Heino’s lives played a key role in developing the identity of Ojai as a place for potters. Married for fifty years, the couple produced a significant body of work in their artistic partnership, mostly traditional vessels decorated with delicate glazes of their own.
In 1973, they moved to Ojai after purchasing the McAndrew Road studio of their friend and former student Beatrice Wood, and established their own studio: The Pottery. Former students, collectors and devotees flocked to their studio year after year. After Vivika’s passing in 1995, Otto continued to work, with help from younger potters and assistants. He developed his world famous (secret and much coveted) “yellow” glaze, regaled visitors with colorful stories about his life, tended the kiln, and worked with students and apprentices till his death in 2009 at the golden age of 94.
How could we include every gifted potter and ceramicist who came to live and work in Ojai? Impossible in this space. For now, let’s briefly acknowledge only a few whose presence and influence made and continues to make a difference.
Larry Carnes’s studio near the Ojai Lumberyard was for many years a must-stop for pottery lovers. Larry was versed in clay chemistry and its scientific analysis, and had collaborated with Otto Heino. He welcomed students of all levels. After he moved away, his place sold in 2017 and its activities were rekindled as the Firestick Pottery Studio and Gallery.
Potter and sculptor Myra Toth started teaching ceramics at Ventura College in 1976. The influential teacher, now retired and with more time to work on her own art, holds yearly workshops in her Pyramid Studio in Ojai and attracts students from all over the world.
Out of the sixty-eight or so current members of OSA (Ojai Studio Artists) six are artists or sculptors who are creating and innovating primarily with clay: Richard Flores, Richard Franklin, Valerie Freeman, Bruce Tomkinson, Sandra Torres, and Wyatt Amend.
Frank Massarella, the popular potter and teacher, opened his “Firehouse” studio and school in 1982 on Montgomery Street, where the Ojai Vineyard is now located; Frank recently re-opened his studio in Oak View. His influence endures in Ojai.
Following up on Beatrice Wood’s legacy, a few independent potters in the valley work with luster glazes, e.g., Sooz Glazebrook and Nanci Martinez.
To make pottery you need a studio.
Not every artist can afford to maintain one, so having access to properly equipped studio space with good light is essential. Potters often need to have access or rent space in other potters’ studios. A professional studio usually offers space and use of equipment that includes kilns, potters’ wheels, slab rollers, and more. Walls are usually lined with shelves for works in progress at various stages of completion, and dozens of pots and jars filled with chemicals. A spirit of camaraderie develops among potters as they talk shop and collaborate while sharing work spaces, resources, tools and techniques. And the occasional drink. Pottery is the kind of craft that is best learned from teacher to student, from “master” to apprentice. You learn a lot by seeing how others do it. Same goes for glass artists. And cooks! But to become a “chef,” you must spend years chopping the parsley just right, or cooking the rice to the perfect temperature and consistency for sushi. Attention to detail. Focus. Practice. Patience. All skills and traits a potter must have in order to become good at their craft. A sense of humor is also much-needed on the road to “perfection,” as one must deal with the inevitable failures that are part of the learning experience.
Firestick Pottery Studio on Ojai Avenue offers classes, studio spaces and a gallery.
In June 2017 Robin Nahin bought Larry Carnes’ house and studio. Robin has been throwing pots at Long Beach City College since 1970. She has been coming to Ojai for 37 years and is now bringing renewed energy into the spacious studio and outdoors areas. Local potters Wyn Matthews and Sean Ponder have taken turns there in teaching and tending the five kilns (3 electric, 2 gas) on the premises. The studio has attracted beginners and serious potters, and a couple of established local artists who have expanded their work to include luster glazes (painter and sculptor Valerie Freeman) or paint on ceramic vases (plein air artist Jeff Sojka). A gallery space indoors displays and sells works made on the premises.
Another resource for studio space and learning opportunities is The Ojai Pottery and Clay School on Fox Street, established years ago as “a professional studio for adult students at all levels dedicated to teaching and supporting the creation and promotion of ceramic arts.”
A few artists contribute to the recently revived activity in pottery around town.
In 2006 Sandra Torres moved with her family from Santa Barbara to Ojai. Having recently joined the Ojai Studio Artists, her studio was open to visitors during the October Studio Tour. What a treat to discover her and her masterful artistry!
“The character of my current work resides in the exploration of small but significant variations of shape, size and patterns.”
An architect, with an MBA to boot, Sandra first turned to ceramics in 1999 and acquired an international education through apprenticeships and classes in Santa Barbara, in Mexico, China, Hungary, and Belgium – influences visible in her artistic pursuit. The simplicity of her shapes and exquisite quality of her porcelain works stands out by its technical achievement and its delicacy.
Eight years ago, Scott Chatenever moved his home and studio from Santa Barbara to Ojai. A dedicated ceramic artist, he came to pottery from a scientific background as an engineer; he is driven to research the materials and the process of working with clay. Scott makes his own tools and marks to use on his pottery and ceramics.
With an extensive experience of studying and teaching pottery techniques, he generously shares his deep knowledge and passion for the medium and its history. His work is organic, reflecting a keen attentiveness to the natural world with its range of textures and dimensions, from the roughest (tiny, muddy mushrooms carefully carved out) to the smoothest (huge, fish tiles and murals illuminated in lustrous glazes). This consummate craftsman plays masterfully with forms and techniques: “I work obsessively to create new life forms.”
Scott Chatenever demonstrates and embodies the obvious fact that pottery is both an art and a science.
Wyatt Amend grew up in Ojai surrounded by a world of opportunities to pursue a creative path. The young artist found his own distinct direction. He combines superb technical skills with sculptural innovation. Treating clay like wood, he is “using the ceramic wheel in a reductive way to carve out his pieces.” For him, the glazing process is particularly important. “Although my glaze is all in the details, sometimes the patterns get lost in the molten half of ceramics. A pristine gridded out application of glaze mixed with the high temperature of my firings can lead to a whole new mandala of colors. The exact patterns are as important as the variation of firing, and are not possible without one another.”
From bold, modernist sculptural forms to meticulously crafted vessels inspired by the golden age of Venetian glass, Wyatt Amend explores his artistic medium in an innovative, adventurous manner.
Marc Millovich has been hand-building pottery exclusively out of micaceous clay for 18 years.
A California native, he traveled the world. A year ago, he and his family moved from La Madera, New Mexico to Carpinteria. Two months ago, he rented studio space at Firestick Studio on Ojai Avenue to do his work and, maybe, teach classes.
Making pottery with micaceous clay is a method dating back at least 800 years. The clay contains mica (hence the sparkle) the fire pit must be outdoors, and the vessels are good for cooking. They look ancient, simple and spectacular. I believe Marc Millovich is the only potter to practice this technique in this area. Felipe Ortega was his mentor in this craft.
“Playing in the mud is a timeless human pastime. I only make cookware, as this is clay I have to dig for myself. For me to use it for anything else would be a shame as it adds richness to all flavors married in it.”
Marc’s interest in sustainable living and holistic cooking will no doubt enrich Ojai’s like-minded community. “I am as passionate about my pottery and process as I am about cooking in them.”
Beatrice Wood often compared her pottery making to cooking. When asked about the recipes for her famed luster glazes, she would reply: “Oh! Well, just a pinch of this and a pinch of that.” Like Otto Heino, Beatrice would also talk about her excitement of getting up early in the morning to open the kiln and see what came out of the overnight firing. Yes, more cooking.
A ritual relationship develops between potters and their kiln. It is one of the utmost importance.
What comes out of using your hands to mix clay with water, to shape something out of nothing, to turn the wheel, and to see the result transformed through fire is nothing short of magical. It’s sheer alchemy.
Pottery making is slow, three-dimensional, and tactile. In counterpoint to a fast-moving world and a contemporary culture hooked on two-dimensional, image-based technology and virtual reality, “making” with one’s hands is a form of meditation, a grounding therapy, a creative exercise in slow motion, and a sensual experience. Remember the erotic pottery-making scene in the movie “Ghost?”
The pleasure of touching the clay is powerful. The pleasure of feeling the texture of the various artifacts, of experiencing the way light is absorbed or reflected on their surfaces is seductive. It’s a form of play for all our senses.
Standing in line for tacos at the OSA opening night party mid-October, the woman next to me introduced herself as having just moved to Ojai from San Diego. That’s how I met Lynn Render and her husband. It turns out she is (you guessed!) a potter who would like to set-up a studio here and work again, now that her husband retired.
“I’ve known Frank Massarella for many years as my husband, Ron, and I would come to Ojai for me to attend workshops with Vivika and Otto Heino, stopping to visit with Beatrice Wood. We would always stop by and chat with Frank and Dusti in their “Firehouse Pottery.”
Full circle to our story…
Lynn is fascinated with the variety of expression that comes out of people’s hands. “Those of us with more years in the business might have more technique, but what comes from the heart is amazing!”
Consider the kind of direct, palpable choice that making pottery brings to a person’s life. A child can quickly learn how to do it. A ceramic artist spends a lifetime refining their skills. In both cases, it’s profoundly satisfying to mold clay to be able to enjoy and to share with others the creation resulting from that experience: a physical, sensual, playful, simple and complex experience.
Anca Colbert is an art adviser, curator, writer, and long-time resident of Ojai.
She gratefully acknowledges the courtesy of the various artists and photographers giving her permission to select and use their photographs to illustrate this article.
This article appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of The Ojai Quarterly, and is posted here with permission. “The Art of Dennis Shives” exhibit is on view at the Ojai Valley Museum from Oct. 14, 2017 through February 25, 2018.
Dennis Shives His Way
For the better part of seven decades, self-taught Ojai artist Dennis Shives has followed his own path, often while going barefoot. Now, that long and winding road has led this notable free spirit to the Ojai Valley Museum, which this fall is honoring him with a career-retrospective exhibit. After forging a career on his own terms, far from the art-world limelight, Shives finally is ready for his close-up.
THE BUILDING was nondescript, an unassuming stucco affair fronting on El Roblar Drive west of Padre Juan Street in Meiners Oaks. But its display window was lit up at night, and something in it caught the eye of the artist Gayel Childress as she passed by one evening in the early 1980s.
“There was this wonderful wooden Gatling gun in the window,” she says. “I said I had to meet whoever made that.”
The creator turned out to be Dennis Shives, an artist and woodworker who used the building as his studio and the window as his gallery. Childress discovered to her delight that Shives’s hand-cranked Gatling gun actually worked, except that it fired rubber bands rather than bullets. He had crafted it a few years earlier using wood left over from another project – oak, ash, a bit of walnut – and part of a bronze light fixture he had salvaged from the Smith-Hobson House while it was being converted into Ojai’s City Hall. Childress was charmed by this whimsical, one-of-a-kind creation, and by the man who made it.
“I’ve been a fan ever since,” she says. “He really is a wonderful artist.”
That’s high praise coming from Childress, a co-founder of the Ojai Studio Artists group. Nor is she the only one who thinks so.
“A really incredible talent,” says Khaled Al-Awar, who in years past has featured the Gatling gun and other Shives pieces in his Primavera Gallery in the Arcade.
“He’s brilliant,” agrees Danna Tartaglia, who sells Shives prints, and framed photographs of his “Making Faces” rock art, in her Tartaglia Fine Arts gallery. “He’s an original – maybe the original Ojai artist.”
But Tartaglia and Al-Awar agree that Shives is not the easiest artist to represent, because of his unconventional attitude toward his career. He insists on asking dauntingly major-league prices for his major pieces, in part because of all the work he puts into making them, and in part because he seems too attached to his creations to let them go.
Partly as a result, Shives has struggled all his life to make a decent living, and to win wide recognition in the art world. Nevertheless, he has remained true to his chosen vocation. And now, on the eve of his 70th birthday, the spotlight finally has found him, in the form of a career-retrospective exhibit opening Oct. 14 at the Ojai Valley Museum. Which prompts the question: After a lifetime of wandering in the wilderness, is Dennis Shives ready for the red carpet?
BORN in Santa Paula in 1947, Shives mostly grew up in Ojai’s Upper Valley, where he attended the Summit School. Later he attended Matilija Junior High and Santa Paula High, from which he graduated in 1965. As a child he was drawn to art, due in part to encouragement from his maternal grandmother, a talented amateur painter.
“I always knew I would be an artist,” he says.
But he hated the art classes he took in high school and at Ventura College. There were too many rules about how to make art, and too much emphasis on how to make a living from it.
“I really didn’t learn anything in school,” he says. “So actually I’m self taught.”
The point of art classes, as Dennis saw it, was to tame the wildly creative urges that welled up within him, and channel them in approved directions. He declined to submit. He was a classic case of the child who refuses to color inside the lines.
“They are trying as hard as they can to kill that thing within you,” he says. “You’re supposed to be who you are. People need to do what they need to do, instead of sitting and copying other people.”
Despite his interest in the visual arts, the first career he pursued that of a musician. A true child of the ‘60s, Shives grew his hair long and tried his hand at rock ‘n’ roll, playing harmonica and singing with the Ojai All Stars, the house band at a rowdy, rough-and-tumble dive called the Ojai Club (located where Ojai Pizza is today). This was a fraught period when the local flower children and the local rednecks were frequently at odds.
“We were the hippies and they were the alcoholics,” Shives says. “This was a drunk cowboy town. There was a brawl every Saturday night.”
The All Stars’ lineup also included local guitar legend John Orvis, along with the brothers Norman and Curtis Lowe and others.
“We had a great time,” Shives says. “But then I switched into the arts.”
He took up woodworking, sculpture, painting, and whatever else intrigued him. He was a craftsman too, creating gold and silver jewelry, custom-carved rifles, exoticlooking furniture, even a house in Alaska for his Ojai friend Jack Estil. He never worried about not being formally trained. He just plunged in, and figured it out for himself.
“What the process is all about is learning not to be afraid,” he says. “Fear is the biggest killer of creativity.”
His longtime friend Sergio Aragones, the famous Mad Magazine artist, admires Shives’s extraordinary versatility.
“He’s the true Renaissance man,” Aragones says. “He’s a man who can do everything – and well! He has spent his life perfecting every craft.”
And to what end? To amuse himself, and other people, by telling stories that make everyone smile. There is an implied narrative embedded in most Shives pieces, whether it’s a painting of snails in a garden eating a flower, or a carved-wood door featuring a charging rhinoceros, or a soapstone sculpture of an octopus going for a walk.
“It was the storytelling process that I was interested in,” he says. “You’re playing with the story. It’s a way of entertaining people.”
When Shives turned his hand to creating parade floats, he entertained the entire town. People in Ojai still talk about the one he and his friend Rick DeRamus came up with in 1984, the year the Los Angeles Summer Olympics held rowing events at Lake Casitas. Shives’s float for that year’s Fourth of July parade was inspired by the legend of Old Hoover, the monster-sized largemouth bass said to lurk in the Casitas depths, too wily for any angler to hook.
“All the local kids dressed up as minnows and frogs,” he says, “and we chased ‘em down the street with the fish.”
For the 1986 parade, Shives and DeRamus constructed an even more elaborate version of Old Hoover. This second mechanized fish float was 40 feet long, 10 feet wide and 14 feet high, with a tail that wagged, gills that emitted air bubbles, and a huge mouth that swung open and shut as the bass pursued a man in a frog costume riding a bicycle along Ojai Avenue.
This was classic Shives: He put in seven months, uncompensated, to create Old Hoover II, then spent his last $5 on gas so he could drive it in the parade. People loved the float, of course, but they didn’t pay anything to see it.
“I never did anything that made me money,” he says. “I just barely scraped by.”
That period in the early ‘80s when he had the building on West El Roblar Drive was an anomaly. Generally, Shives has made his art in borrowed spaces, or at home. These days his studio is the house on Willow Street he shares with his life partner, the acupuncture provider Laurie Edgcomb. Here, Shives is surrounded by his sculptures, paintings, carved masks, bubble-blowing devices and fanciful furniture pieces. Many have attracted the attention of collectors, but Shives seems reluctant to part with them.
“Making art is completely different from making money,” he says. “I’m not doing this to sell stuff. I’m doing this because it makes me want to get up in the morning.”
On the other hand, he concedes, “You need to make a living.”
Indeed, and making a living as a working artist poses enormous challenges. Those who succeed usually find that they must put as much time and energy into marketing their art as they do into creating it.
“I guess you have to go out and seek it and chase it down,” Shives says, with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm. He’d much rather drive his ancient Volkswagen van out to the East End, take off his shoes, and go for a walk in Horn Canyon.
Shives is not averse to making a buck or two, if he can do it his way. He sells hand-carved wooden walking sticks, baby spoons and magic wands (a Shives specialty). He also sells copies of his charming 2014 book, “True Stories To Be Read Aloud,” a collection of autobiographical stories. (A follow-up collection is due out this fall.) And, while he seems reluctant to sell his paintings, he happily sells prints of them at Danna Tartaglia’s gallery. She says they are popular choices with visitors looking for something Ojai-esque to take home with them – such as “Smudgepot Bears,” featuring merry ursine revelers cavorting in an orchard on a cold winter’s night, with Chief Peak providing the backdrop.
“I’m not sure what success is,” Shives says. “I do what I do, and feel pretty successful in my own little realm.”
Case in point: Shives is spectacularly successful at sand sculpture. He has a shelf full of first-place trophies won at contests held at Cayucos Beach and elsewhere. This probably is the art form for which he is best known outside of Ojai, but these are things he cannot sell – and that’s partly what attracted him to sand sculpting in the first place. He creates a large-scale piece in a few hours, takes a photograph, and walks away.
“If these things last the afternoon, they’re lucky,” he says. “Nothing lasts forever.
SHIVES is a familiar sight in Ojai: tall and tanned with long white hair, a flowing beard and a gentle smile, he favors khaki work shirts and cargo shorts, and gives the impression that he has never owned a pair of socks. If you want to walk a mile in his moccasins, you’ll have to do it barefoot, for when Shives hits the trail in the Los Padres National Forest he does it sans shoes.
“For two years, I took every Wednesday off and walked with him,” Khaled Al-Awar says. “This man has an incredible knowledge about nature.”
Roger Conrad of the Ojai Valley Museum says that Shives’s art is powerfully informed by his strongly felt connection with the natural world.
“His vision is derived from nature with childlike enthusiasm to see, touch, and create vivid experiences for himself and those that interact with his art,” Conrad says. “Whimsy is his language to find the spiritual in all living things. His message is that the lives of all creatures matter.”
“Whimsical” is a word often applied to Shives, and it’s not one that connotes serious artistic purpose in today’s high-powered art world. Untutored artists like Shives who lack academic credentials often are pigeonholed as outsider artists or folk artists. But Gayel Childress says Shives falls into none of these categories.
“I love outsider art, but his is quite sophisticated,” she says. “He has that outsider spirit, but his art is certainly not naïve. I don’t think there’s a term for Dennis. He’s one of a kind – part inventor, part engineer, part dreamer, part carpenter, part painter. Little touches of everything.”
Conrad, who is helping to organize the museum’s upcoming Shives exhibit, is similarly unwilling to hang a label on this unique artist.
“His art defies categorization,” Conrad says. “Some of his work seems primitive but other works display the hand of a seasoned artist. He pleases himself and dismisses being labeled. Above all else his art is enchanting and fun.”
The museum exhibit is a big deal for Shives, and his friends and supporters are thrilled for him.
“It’s his time,” Childress says. “I really want everyone to see this show. I want everybody in Ojai to know about him. I just want to see him honored because he surely deserves it.”
“It’s about time,” Aragones says. “He deserves it because of the variety of his art.”
To be clear, Shives had not exactly spent the past few decades hiding his light under a bushel. He creates his strikingly original artworks and steampunkish devices, and puts them out there. He writes and publishes his stories and reads them aloud to audiences. He paints frogs and other fanciful figures on classroom walls at the Monica Ros School. He shapes his sand sculptures for all the beach-going world to enjoy, if only for an afternoon. And everyone who drives along Ojai Avenue through the center of town has seen his work – he crafted the replacement lion’s face for the Pergola water fountain, after the original deteriorated.
Shives also provided facelifts for the stone lions at the entrance to Foster Park, and he designed the life-size sleeping bear that reposes near the front door of the Ojai Valley Museum (one of his “Specialty Monuments” for Rodger Embury’s Rock & Water Creations).
“The most important part of the whole thing is to stay an artist,” he says. “Most of the people I know who went to art school don’t do art anymore.”
Remaining an artist allows Shives to wake up in the morning knowing that he will spend the day doing what he wants to do, and being who he is. “Then I feel as good as I can feel.”
Shives is pleased about the upcoming exhibit in part because he hopes to inspire other would-be artists to follow their own paths, as he did.
“What you’re doing is inventing your life,” he says. “Anyone can do this if they really wanted to. You sit down and figure out how to do it. But most people are too smart for that. They go for the money.”
Not Dennis Shives. He chose freedom instead. He’s happy with the way things have worked out for him, and he thinks more people should make the same choice, so that they “can have a great life too.”
“I had a wonderful time,” he says. “I really did.”
Art Sunday Parking Lot Display. In 1964 a group of local artists called The Ojai Artists began displaying and selling their paintings every Sunday on the back lawn of the Oaks Hotel. The called it “The Art Sunday Show”. It soon outgrew its original location and moved to the parking lot of the Security First National Bank (now the Bank of America). On any given Sunday, 12-15 artists would display their work. Among them were such established local artists as Doris Gilbert, Lois Powers, Harry Lauter, and David Borgen.
The above is an excerpt from”Ojai: A Postcard History”, by Richard Hoye, Tom Moore, Craig Walker, and available at Ojai Valley Museum or at Amazon.com.
Beatrice Wood was a ceramicist, who lived in the Ojai Valley for fifty years. During the First World War, she made what was to be a lifetime acquaintance with Marcel Duchamp. He was a leader of New York Dada, and a pivotal figure in the history of modern art. He was also the painter of Nude Descending a Staircase, which was such a scandalous success at the Armory Show in 1913. Beatrice Wood, at the same time, was an accomplished artist on her own merits, as a ceramicist and author, an actress and dancer, who also drew compelling line drawings.
Beatrice was born in San Francisco on March 3, 1893; but by 1900 was in Paris, attending a convent school, about which she retained pleasant memories. “I learned to read French before I learned to read English,” she recalled. She received an excellent education at the Ely School in New York City and the Shipley School at Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. She studied drawing at the Julien Academy in Paris and also attended the Finch School in New York City. After all this education, she announced that she wished to live a “bohemian life of an artist and paint in Paris.”
Paris was an exciting place to be. She attended the riotous premiere of the Ballet Russe production of Le sacre du printemps. She then joined the French National Repertory Company in New York City, where she appeared in over sixty parts. It was about this time, in 1916, that she met the composer Edgard Varese, who introduced her to Marcel Duchamp and other members of the New York Dada group.
Duchamp encouraged her to draw, and she produced impressive line drawings. One of the drawings was of a stick figure, thumbing its nose as it strode along. It was used for a poster to advertise a Blindman’s Ball. The jaunty figure followed her till the end of her days.
Beatrice’s life changed in the 1920s when she became a member of the Theosophical Society, which she joined in 1923. It was this interest which first brought her to the Ojai Valley. Jiddu Krishnamurti, the Indian philosopher and teacher, at the time associated with the Theosophical Society, was rapidly gaining worldwide attention; and he selected the Ojai Valley as a location for his teaching in the United States. Beatrice Wood came to the valley to attend his first “Star Camp” meeting in 1928.
Beatrice led folk dances at the Star Camp. She had danced professionally in Europe and received lessons from Ivan Clustine, the choreographer for the great ballet dancer Ana Pavlova. Beatrice’s demonstration of her mastery of the dances taught to her by Clustine was performed in the presence of the renown dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Beatrice was also an acquaintance of the famous dancer Isadora Duncan.
Beatrice developed an interest in ceramics in 1928. She wanted to produce a teapot to match some “luster” plates she had purchased in Holland. “Luster” refers to a metallic finish, simulating silver or gold. The project was more extensive than she thought, and in time she found herself successfully in the profession of a ceramicist. Her works were exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City as early as 1940.
Her workshop and home, located in the San Fernando Valley, were destroyed by a flood in 1938. Ten years later, she moved to the Ojai Valley, where she settled on March 3, 1948 (her birthday). The nearby Happy Valley School, with a founding board of directors which included Aldous Huxley, Krishnamurti and Annie Besant, attracted her attention. She was associated with the Happy Valley Foundation for the rest of her life. Her ceramic work then entered what has been described as “a mature expression of her luster glazing technique.” She didn’t think of herself as a chemist, but she was very methodical about testing different chemical formulas for glazes. She also worked with Otto and Vivika Heino, who where themselves noted ceramicists.
Another great change occurred in her life, when she was selected as a “Goodwill Ambassador” to India by the U.S. government in 1961. She visited India, where her works were exhibited in fourteen Indian cities. She also took up the cause of promoting India’s traditional handicrafts. Before long, she took to wearing Indian saris and heavy and abundant Indian necklaces and bracelets. Her appearance was striking, but her explanation was simply that the saris were very comfortable.
During the final three decades of her life, her works were exhibited in galleries and museums around the world. Her book, The Angel Wore Black Tights, was published in 1982. Her autobiography, I Shock Myself, was published in 1985. She received a variety of awards from universities and arts councils. A documentary about her life, Mama of Dada, was shown on public television in 1995.
One of her great achievements was her longevity. Her 90th birthday was celebrated in Los Angeles in 1983 with a Dada Ball. Her 100th birthday was celebrated in 1993; and even through these final years, she was still creatively productive. On March 3, 1998, she celebrated her 105th birthday. She died at her home in the upper Ojai Valley a little over a week later on March 12, 1998.