Donna Granata is called the “Oprah of the arts,” a moniker she is quite proud of. The name refers to her unique ability to get artists, often solitary creatures by nature, to open up their homes, their lives, their fears and their hopes to her, and, by extension, to us. Granata is the founder of Focus on the Masters, a nonprofit art appreciation program that preserves and promotes the works and lives of contemporary artists in Ventura County, Calif.
Granata herself is an artist. The most compelling aspects of Focus on the Masters are her revealing portraits; she travels to each artist’s home or studio to take a “snapshot of where they are in their lives.” Granata says you can tell a lot about an artist from his or her studio. Connie Jenkins, an ultra-realist painter, keeps everything meticulously organized, illustrating the discipline her super-detailed work requires. When Granata visited sculptor David Elder, the first door she came to after passing through the vegetable and flower gardens was not for the house, but for the studio. Elder and his wife Linda were clearly saying, “This is who we are. First and foremost, we are artists.”
Being selected as a Focus on the Masters artist is an honor. Each year, a committee of artists, curators and art advocates sifts through nominations to select five men and five women to be formally documented. Artists are chosen based on mastery of their mediums, level of peer recognition and contribution to the community. Granata and her team then get to work compiling files for these 10 artists, collecting published work, recording oral histories, and, in the end, capturing them in a photographic portrait.
The resulting “vault full of incredible stories” is open to the public for research, and the portraits tour the community in special exhibitions. The idea, Granata says, is to preserve these artists and the profound role they play in a healthy society. “The artists who really survive history are those who write or are written about,” she says.
And those who are photographed. Twelve of Granata’s masterful portraits are featured here. Each offers an intimate look at the artist and his or her environment, frozen in time for generations to come.
To see more of Granata’s portraits, or to learn more about Focus on the Masters, visit www.focusonthemasters.com.
The home and studio that sculptor David Elder shares with his wife Linda are built on an ancient tribal meeting place of the Chumash Indians. “Most of our guests feel they are in a special place from the moment they set foot on the grounds,” the Elders say of their Ventura property overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Elder, a master craftsmen, and his wife lovingly handcrafted each detail of their shared studio space, from the giant carved-wood and copper doors displaying a pair of hawk’s wings to each of the hand-forged nails holding the place together.
Elder’s “Off the Rack Series” features carved-wood trompe l’oeil sculptures of women’s fashions. The inspiration for the piece he is working on in this portrait, taken in 2000, was the magazine clipping taped up on the right.
Painter Connie Jenkins’ attention to detail reigns supreme in her Malibu studio, photographed by Granata in 2000. The pile of paint chips on the left is a collection of scrapings from her palette, taken so she can exactly match the colors of the painting later on. Look closely enough, and you’ll notice that the landscape is dotted with red stickers to remind Jenkins of areas that need further attention.
Jenkins’ ultra-realistic oil paintings are translated from photographs that she takes herself, often in the canyons near her home. This particular piece, a commission for the Metropolitan Water District in Los Angeles, measures about 12×20 feet. Granata climbed a scaffold, camera and lighting in hand, to capture the shot.
This portrait, taken in 2004, serves as a permanent reminder of a former phase in fiber and mixed-media artist Gerri Johnson-McMillin’s career. She spent 11 years in this studio at the Studio Channel Islands Art Center in Camarillo. She recently moved to a new location in Camarillo: a converted elementary school space.
No matter where she is, function is very important to Johnson-McMillin. She tries to create “a space that is peaceful and uncluttered, with materials openly displayed and easily at hand,” she says. “A space full of color and fiber.”
When she’s not in her studio, Johnson-McMillin spends much of her time boating with her husband Tom, also an artist. In recent years, she has turned to her love for the sea to create oceanic forms from materials like fishbone and monofilament. Her work will be showcased at Brandstater Gallery at La Sierra University in Riverside through March 8.
If you produce 13-foot paintings that vibrate with color, you need a large studio. Painter Gary Lang had just completed his new 2,000-square-foot Ojai studio, overlooking an orchard on the property he shares with wife and fellow artist Ruth Pastine, when Granata paid him a visit in 2008. She used a special lens to exaggerate the brilliant lines and circles of color that draw viewers deep into his canvases.
“With a studio space, you want a luminous, spacious box with an unassuming architecture that submits to your reverie,” Lang says. “The building doesn’t speak, it listens.” He says that the impeccable light in the studio offers him “the visibility of Superman.” He paints freehand, without the use of rulers or tape.
In the past year, Lang has developed a strong relationship with Ace Gallery in Beverly Hills. He is working with them on an exhibit in Beijing later this year.
Sculptor Richard Matzkin shares studio space with his wife Alice, a painter, who is the subject of the bust he is working on in this portrait. They converted the space from a dingy, windowless garage to a “quiet space filled with natural morning light,” he says.
Granata took some creative liberties arranging the sculptures in the background—mostly figures of old men and women, Matzkin’s favorite subjects—as the shelves tend to get a bit cluttered. She did leave the box of clay, one of Matzkin’s tools of the trade, visible on the floor.
Matzkin and his wife have recently created an art and inspirational book, The Art of Aging: Celebrating the Authentic Aging Self (Sentient Publications), which is in bookstores now. Two of his recent lines of sculpture focus on older subjects. “Lovers,” a series of elderly couples in tender embraces, “portrays what everyone desires for his or her relationships—enduring love,” he says.
The home that wood artist Jim McCarthy has created with his wife, painter Christine Brennan, is truly a labor of love. What started as a 670-square-foot bungalow in Ojai has been transformed into a customized space with evidence of the artists’ own hands tucked into every nook. “We added on to our small house back in 2000, but I wonder if it will ever be complete,” McCarthy says. “We’re always refining something, changing things, taking notes for future work.”
Granata captured much of the furniture maker’s own work in this portrait, taken in 2002—he handcrafted the lighting fixtures, railing, even the windowsills. The painting is Brennan’s.
McCarthy’s other great love is music. He and Brennan designed their music room from top to bottom, including a recording studio completely encased in a rolling cabinet. In addition to working on furniture commissions, McCarthy has begun making acoustic guitars again, after a 25-year hiatus.
Living and working at what used to be a center for Buddhist meditation has gifted mixed-media artist Sylvia Raz with a great sense of appreciation for the beauty of the world around her. “Although my work likes to point at our society’s shortcomings, I feel more inclined to want my art to help people feel better about life and themselves,” she says.
Although much of Raz’s work has a serious message, Granata wanted to focus on her humorous side in this portrait in her Ojai studio by including the piece on the right, which depicts haloed chickens floating up to heaven amidst clouds covered with poultry recipes. “With great good humor she invites you into her world,” Granata says.
Raz enjoys participating in local exhibitions with her own children, photographer Alan Raz and painter Karyn Raz. Using found objects like Barbie dolls, she explores a number of issues affecting women today.
When fiber artist Michael Rohde searched for the perfect house 18 years ago, he knew it needed a room large enough to accommodate his 8-foot loom. He found the ideal location at the end of a canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains. Just outside his studio is a shady patio where he hand-mixes his natural dyes.
Rohde’s tapestries are influenced by his travels to places like Tibet, China and Indonesia. His studio is full of treasures he’s picked up along the way. “I’m attracted to boxes and containers, unique pottery, small figures or dolls that show the costume of other cultures,” he says.
Granata was struck by Rohde’s long and lean figure, and how this same shape is mimicked in his fiber work. When posing Rohde, she placed his hand in a way that emphasized his long fingers.
Rohde recently began creating knotted vessels in addition to his tapestries. His work will be shown at the Palos Verdes Art Center through March 27. He is also co-chairing the American Tapestry Alliance’s Biennial 8, which will be traveling the country through mid-2011.
Glass artist Susan Stinsmuehlen-Amend considers herself a painter; she paints with glass on glass. Her inspirations come from everyday life—her designs float through glass the way thoughts float through her mind.
Stinsmuehlen-Amend shares her Ojai home with her husband, fellow artist Richard Amend. This 2008 portrait captures some of her most common inspirations: the desktop doodles she mindlessly jots while she’s on the phone.
Granata is impressed with the layers and layers of meaning that Stinsmuehlen-Amend manages to weave into work, as well as the way she was always able to balance art with her duties as a busy mother. “She’s always carved out time for her art,” Granata says.
Cheryl Ann Thomas
This portrait, taken in 2005, captures ceramic artist Cheryl Ann Thomas during a very uncertain time in her life, just weeks after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She asked Granata to include the black crow on the right as a symbol of her mortality, but also of her determination to recover. Today, Thomas is cancer-free.
“My work is an intimate and experiential inquiry into fragility and loss. I construct, I sabotage, I reconcile,” says Thomas, who is known for her coiled vessels. She recently began experimenting with lost-wax bronze sculpture. This portrait was taken in Thomas’s former studio, located in the Studio Channel Islands Art Center in Camarillo. She has since moved to a new, industrial studio space in Ventura. “I like a quiet, bare space, free of distractions,” she says.
Thomas is currently preparing for a January 2011 exhibit at the Frank Lloyd Gallery in Santa Monica.
Leslie Thompson’s black-and-white porcelain vessels are amazing feats of precision. She doesn’t measure anything; she creates the designs using tiny tick marks to divide and subdivide the spaces again and again. Her works are strongly influenced by both Pueblo pottery and Amish quilts.
This 2008 portrait was taken in Thompson’s meticulous studio (she admits she’s been called obsessive-compulsive), inside the 2,900-square-foot Oak View home she shares with her husband Simon Chatwin, a computer programmer. The home’s cylindrical exterior is reminiscent of Navajo hogans or Pueblo kivas. It’s a wonderfully creative space for the couple; Thompson’s studio is right across from her husband’s woodworking room.
Ceramic artist Kathleen Waggoner’s 2005 portrait came about thanks to a bit of serendipity; Waggoner, who shared a studio with Cheryl Ann Thomas, happened to be firing late the night Granata came to take Thomas’s picture. The yellow bracelet she wears is in honor of Thomas’s battle with cancer.
Waggoner is planning to move to her new studio space in April—the same old elementary school where Gerri Johnson-McMillin relocated. A sense of camaraderie is important to Waggoner in a studio space; she likes to be near other artists. “I surround myself with my finished work on pedestals, like close friends,” she says. “This also creates a gallery feeling for visitors to view my work.”
Themes of the sacred feminine are very important in Waggoner’s work. Recent travels to South America have greatly influenced her current pieces. “My work is now more detailed and colorful, with a more obvious spiritual component,” she says. Waggoner has recently started a relationship with Primavera Gallery in Ojai.