What is the value of art? Not its price tag but its honest-to-goodness true value? CMATO, the California Museum of Art Thousand Oaks, is making a very strong case that art is priceless. Perhaps not in the same way that a long-lost Van Gogh might be (although that would be lovely), but priceless in the sense that the value of what art brings us and what it brings out in us is beyond measure. 

As Tish Greenwood, CMATO’s executive director, wrote: “CMATO believes that art is an important ingredient in the social fabric of the community,” and that CMATO is “a place where ideas are shared and people connect.”

That mission was put to the test shortly after the museum moved to its new, larger space on the second floor at The Oaks mall in Thousand Oaks. (The museum had been at a former Taco Bell building near the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza since 2014.) CMATO had planned an opening night reception for Nov. 8 to celebrate Kevin Sloan’s Collection of Rarities, but on Nov. 7 the Borderline Bar and Grill tragedy occurred. Not even 24 hours later, the Hill and Woolsey Fires broke out, hitting Ventura County and especially Thousand Oaks with a devastating one-two punch.

Needless to say, CMATO postponed the reception out of respect for everyone affected. But the museum also felt the need to respond to the twin tragedies in a meaningful way that would help the community process what had happened and to help it heal.

Kevin Sloan, “Safe Haven,” 2018, 42 in. x 48 in., acrylic on canvas

Kevin Sloan, “The Attraction,” 2017, 72 in. x 60 in., acrylic on canvas

Kevin Sloan, “The Antiques,” 2015, 42 in., acrylic on canvas

Kevin Sloan, “Ninety Six Springs,” 2018, 42 in. x 48 in., acrylic on canvas

Kevin Sloan, “Admit One,” 2015, 84 in. x 60 in., acrylic on canvas

“Tish had a meeting with some art therapists,” says Lynn Farrand, senior curator, and they explained that “it’s a deeper process of expression when you do an activity — a creative activity — rather than just writing [something] down.” That prompted CMATO to create an installation where people could make prayer flags and hang them from colorful ropes made from torn t-shirts. Dozens of flags, filled with drawings, prayers and messages of love, were hung at eye-level in one of the galleries so as to be easily read and impossible to ignore.  

In the main gallery is Collection of Rarities by Kevin Sloan. “Since we’re reaching out to the community,” Farrand explains, “we wanted to do something that families could enjoy together and they could see that we’re here for them.” Two of Sloan’s paintings were inspired by Jungleland, the popular Thousand Oaks attraction that closed in 1969. One painting entitled “Safe Haven” features a swan inspired by a Jungleland swan boat. A wildfire burns in the background. The parallel between the painting and the recent fires is striking.

“Fire is a theme that he has in quite a few of his paintings because it’s something that’s manmade and much of his work is the fragile partnership between mankind and the natural world,” Farrand says. In his paintings, Sloan expresses this relationship in the most imaginative way, creating dreamlike scenarios that convey stark reality. 

“We’re thrilled to have him here,” says Farrand. “He’s a very environmentally conscious artist.” Sloan’s paintings are rich in realistic detail, a testament to his experience as an Audubon artist. Yet the paintings strike a magical tone as well. The exhibition is described as “a surreal journey examining the precarious position facing wildlife today.” It seems that it could not have come at a more relevant time. 

“He’s just amazing,” Farrand adds. “He does a number of glazes over the paintings and that helps give them more depth and color, but it’s so much more than that. He’s just very good with detail and of course his content is totally original.”

Sloan’s work has been the jumping off point for several other CMATO installations and events. There is a selfie wall, inspired by a pattern in one of his paintings. Then there is the museum’s “activity box,” a small room about the size of a closet, currently set up as an infinity room, with mirrors all around. People are asked to write wishes down on paper leaves and hang them on the walls and ceiling.

An event taking place this weekend will appeal to art and animal lovers of all ages. Wild Wonders, a collaboration between CMATO and America’s Teaching Zoo in Moorpark, takes place on Sunday, Jan. 13, 1-3 p.m., and will give attendees a chance to meet some of the zoo’s animal “ambassadors” and learn about animal ecology and adaptations and endangered species.

Yet another element involves the written word. “We have ekphrastic poetry,” Farrand explains; ekphrastic meaning “art inspired by art.” CMATO asked poet Nancy-Jean Pément to help curate poetry written by local poets in response to Sloan’s work. In addition to Pément, the poets include Steve Braff, Jennifer Kelley, Marsha de la O, Friday Gretchen and Fernando Albert Salinas. Their work can be seen in the museum as well as in the exhibit’s catalog. 

One Sunday a month, CMATO hosts a PoeTea, where guests can listen to featured poets read their works while enjoying tea, pastries and finger sandwiches. (The next PoeTea will be held on Feb. 9, 3-4 p.m.)  

Another treat is CMATO’s walking brochures. Created with the help of an expert from the Getty Museum, the brochures help children and their families explore the art in a more meaningful way. “They give them something interactive to do while they’re looking at the works.”

Coming soon is an exhibit by Risk, a local graffiti artist who has moved away from graffiti art towards fine art. “He’s doing all kinds of work, including sculpture,” says Farrand.  

It’s clear that there is always plenty going on at CMATO — all the more reason for people to take time out of the hustle and bustle at the mall to come spend time with works of art.  

“We are very much a participatory museum so we want people to come in and be engaged with the art and anything else we can offer,” says Farrand. She adds that CMATO is already operating as an event space and she hopes that it will be used for other purposes, such as a place for classes and workshops. 

Looking around at the people taking in Sloan’s work and the other offerings of the museum, it’s clear that while the partnership between man and nature might be fragile, the relationship between CMATO and the community is rock solid.  

Collection of Rarities through Feb. 17 at California Museum of Art Thousand Oaks, 350 West Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks. For more information, call 805-405-5240 or visit CMATO.org.