Life would be different today for Donna Granata if she hadn’t fallen down that flight of stairs. That kind of goes without saying. It wasn’t a light tumble, after all: She severely dislocated her shoulder, did significant damage to her neck and was forced to put her burgeoning career as an artist and photographer on hold. It was a devastating blow for a woman who had just graduated from Brooks Institute and was beginning to get serious work. Despite all that, however, the mishap could be deemed a happy accident. Because without it, Granata may never have created Focus on the Masters (FOTM), the nonprofit research foundation she created in the mid-1990s.
“I’d probably be doing advertising and making 20 times the income I’m making now,” she says with a laugh.
Maybe so. But then Ventura County would be without one of its greatest cultural institutions. For 14 years, FOTM has been gathering, collecting and warehousing the biographies of artists, both local and international, via its popular Tuesday
Talk series. Each month, Granata hosts a public interview with a different artist, discussing their craft and how their experiences have shaped their work. And on Oct. 12, she switches roles, sitting in the interviewee’s chair to share her own story for the first time. “I think of it as sleeping in the guest bedroom,” she says. “You’ve got to experience what you’re asking someone else to do.”
Raised in Casitas Springs, Granata grew up surrounded by creative types: Her father was an actor; her mother taught arts and crafts classes; her uncle was a documentary filmmaker. “It was ingrained in me at an early age that artistic expression is just an everyday thing,” she says. At 16, she dropped out of high school and ran off with a rock musician who lived next door. Around the same time, she met Blanche McBroom, a renowned porcelain painter, who inspired Granata’s own artistic awakening, teaching her to paint at McBroom’s home in Ojai. “It was a little safe haven away from the rock’n’roll scene, this ‘normal’ homelike environment. She would give me lessons once a week, painting in a very unusual medium. It encouraged me to go to Ventura College to improve my skills. That really opened the door.” While in school, she discovered what would come to be her primary medium: photography. Visiting European museums on class trips, she would snap pictures of iconic masterpieces, and was enthralled by the immediacy. “I loved it. Instead of laboring over a canvas, I had instant art, just pointing and shooting.”
She enrolled at Brooks and proved to be innately talented, exhibiting at galleries and picking up jobs before she even graduated. Once she got out, however, Granata found herself broke; she mortgaged her home to finish her education and had to work multiple jobs to stay afloat — she even sold her hair in order to buy camera equipment. Rushing to wait tables at the Hungry Hunter one night, that’s when it happened: She tripped and rolled down a set of stairs outside the restaurant. Doctors told her she would be out of commission for at least a year, and even then would have limited use of her left arm.
“I said, ‘That’s not acceptable. I’m a photographer; tell me what it takes to get past it,’ ” Granata says. “If you’re determined enough, you can get through anything. I did every physical therapy exercise, determined to get past it. In that period of my life, it was a horrible reality, that I’d really hurt myself after I worked so hard to get where I was.”
As she rehabbed, Granata began to think about what artistic projects she could do while being, essentially, a one-armed woman. Organizing a backlog of old prints, she came across a photo she had taken of legendary ceramist Beatrice Wood, and it dawned on her: She could sit and talk. “I could teach about the artists, but instead of standing and lecturing, I could get them to agree to sit down in front of an audience and interview them.”
Focus on the Masters evolved from there. At first, Granata conducted the conversations in her home, and early on pulled in some major names within the art world, such as the late photographer Horace Bristol and painter John Nava, whom she describes as “the modern-day Michelangelo.” She would perform extensive research before each interview, culling information about the artist’s life and work from several different sources. Granata quickly realized that housing all that information under a single roof could be a tremendous resource for teachers, biographers and common aficionados. At that point, FOTM became a philanthropic endeavor. She moved its headquarters from her living room into a storefront on
Main Street in Ventura, which now hosts a vast archive of video biographies, taped oral histories, digital files of the artists’ work, written correspondence — “ephemera of all types,” Granata says. According to Granata, other than the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., there is no other comparable facility in the United States.
Over the years, Granata has rarely allowed herself to be given the kind of attention she lavishes upon her subjects. “I’ve always been good at staying in the background,” she says. But her body of work — not to mention her own biography — is as impressive and compelling as anyone else who has participated in FOTM. Her special installment of the Tuesday Talk series on Oct. 12 is a break from her history of remaining outside the spotlight, but it is also a continuation of the program’s central premise: that we can learn something about ourselves by listening to others.
“The beauty of Focus on the Masters and when we talk about these interviews is, every single story is different. No two artists are the same,” Granata says. “By that very nature, we are celebrating our differences and how beautiful it is to be different. If we could just get politicians to sign on to that idea, we’d have world peace.”
Focus on the Masters presents An Evening with Donna Granata on Oct. 12 at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza’s Janet and Ray Scherr Forum (2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks, 449-2100). Guests can view Granata’s portrait exhibit History Is Now prior to the interview, from 6 to 7 p.m. For more information, visit www.focusonthemasters.com.