PHOTOS BY CECILIA ORTIZ
Sarah Jenks Flesher is no stand-up comic, but her art often elicits laughter. There’s a sense of humor to much of her work, from rotund papier-mâché birds in a rainbow of hues to towering sculptures with fantastical elements to playfully decorated instruments to goddess paintings that seem equal parts cartoon and consecrated. It’s all very colorful, and brimming with life and levity.
“I’m just having fun,” says the 63-year-old artist, recognized this year as the 2019 ArtWalk Ventura Artist of Distinction. “That’s my main thing. I like to make people laugh. Kind of irreverent.”
Flesher is a native of West Los Angeles; she came to Ventura around 20 years ago when her husband, Bob Flesher, started teaching chemistry at Ventura College.
“My mother was an artist and she ran a really prestigious art gallery in Pasadena,” Flesher says of her youth. “I was really lucky.” Manhattan Galleries featured the likes of Charles Levier, Peter Ellenshaw, Luigi Corbellini and Fernando Farulli. Her mother also put together art collections for Hollywood stars Edward G. Robinson and Vincent Price.
Flesher’s maternal grandfather, an L.A. attorney, was good friends with restauranteur Caesar Cardini, inventor of the Caesar salad, who had several eateries in Mexico. As a child, she was widely exposed to that country’s indigenous art forms.
“Mexican folk art was always around me,” she recalls. And indeed, with rough lines and primitive forms in vibrant colors, there’s an undeniable folk quality to Flesher’s work — mixed with a sense of play and, yes, irreverence. She also cites Louise Nevelson and Niki de Saint Phalle as major influences.
“When I was a kid, Niki de Saint Phalle did these really crazy papier-mâché figures. I was always entranced by her,” Flesher recalls. Thus, she herself has become an expert in the art, and her creative, multicolored works have been delighting Ventura County locals for over a decade. Bell Arts Factory, Vita Art Center, Ojai Art Center and Stoneworks have all exhibited her showy sculptures, and many have been noticeable landmarks on Main Street or elsewhere during ArtWalk.
“Every child is an artist,” Pablo Picasso is believed to have famously stated. “The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” The origin of this quote is the subject of some debate, but the sentiment seems to fit Flesher.
“As a little girl . . . I was finding trash and making art. Everybody thought I was really weird,” she says.
Being surrounded by so many talented, boundary-challenging artists at her mother’s gallery, however, was simultaneously inspiring and intimidating.
“Probably because of the people I was raised around, the art education I had . . . [I felt that] ‘you’ll never be Picasso so why bother.’ ”
She sublimated her talents into a love for animals.
“For 30 years I was a vet tech and dog trainer,” Flesher explains. “As a career, it’s too demanding. Mentally it sucks you in — it’s hard to get away from it.”
The physical demands of the job — which often meant wrestling with big, unruly dogs — ultimately forced her to quit in her 50s. “My body finally gave out,” she recalls.
But giving up the only career she ever knew took a toll as well. “I went through a really big depression. All of a sudden, I wasn’t strong anymore. I was in a dark space.”
An Artist is (Re)Born
A good friend convinced a despondent Flesher to take a field biology class at Ventura College.
“She woke me up!” Flesher recalls. “I was having a blast. I was making friends. And I started drawing for the biology class.”
“I think what it did for me was get me out of my shell,” she continues. “I was stuck in this routine for 30 years. I’d been doing art at home, but it was my own secret thing.”
Art classes followed shortly thereafter, and she began “doing what I was supposed to be doing all along.”
Her teachers at Ventura College included Deanna Pini, Bob Moskowitz and Pam Huth.
“With all that encouragement . . . I fell into Green Art People,” Flesher recalls. “And that was it. I found my home, my family . . . I became myself.”
She also found a particular niche which has earned her some renown locally.
“I’m known as the boob lady,” she says, laughing.
Indeed, breasts are prominently featured in many of her paintings, which often depict well-endowed women with bold, colorful nipples.
“I’ve always been drawn to that Earth Goddess thing,” says Flesher. “My mother used to call me her little Rubens.”
But really, it all started with a project she did for a good friend with breast cancer.
“I did a cast of my friend’s chest right before a mastectomy,” she explains. It was decorated in her traditionally playful and flamboyant style, and featured the script “Gone But Not Forgotten.” It was a hit with friends and artists alike, and she ended up casting similar pieces, using her friends as models. These casts became an installation at Stoneworks a few years ago.
“I have all these boobs in a big crate at home now,” she muses.
Flesher definitely prefers to do art with a community, collaborative or activist component.
“I have to be in a weird mood to just come up with something in the studio,” she explains. “I like doing group stuff and public art.”
According to her ArtWalk bio, Flesher is an artist “called upon to lead with compassion” — and her creative endeavors attest to that. Generous to a fault, she donates much of her work to local fundraisers and organizations. She’s a member of the Buenaventura Art Association, and on the board of the Arts for Earth Foundation. She volunteered endlessly for Green Art People, and helped raise money for Thomas Fire victims and Ventura County Pride. Drag Queen Bingo at Paddy’s often featured her work as a prize.
Last year, she participated in the Rubicon Theatre Company’s 20th anniversary celebrations by painting two pianos for display on Main Street in Downtown Ventura. One was inspired by South Pacific; the other playfully represented Return to the Forbidden Planet.
“I had a blast doing the one by the mission,” she says of her South Pacific piano. “All the homeless people sat on the fountain and watched me — and offered critique. They’d bring me food. In the middle of the night, people would play the piano. It annoyed the priests [at the mission] so one of them came out and screwed the lid shut.”
“ArtWalk is going to be a blast this year!” Flesher exclaims with obvious excitement. “I’ve been a participant in ArtWalk, but this is my first year volunteering.” In fact, she joined forces with Michelle Nosco, Jessica Hemmy, Sharon Taylor and others to keep this year’s event alive. (See sidebar below, “Hitting Its Stride.”)
While her studio on the Avenue won’t be one of the venues (she recently moved), the public will have plenty of time to see her art: she has created large, 4 ft. x 6 ft. paintings on custom-designed frameworks (made by Terry Wheeler) to display at various points around ArtWalk. Each painting is a Flesher-style riff on a famous artist: Salvador Dali, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Diego Rivera, her beloved Niki de Saint Phalle and others.
While she is honored to be this year’s Artist of Distinction, she’s mostly looking forward to “cruising around,” seeing the variety of art and supporting her friends. Naturally, she hopes the community enjoys the playful pieces she has created just for them.
“When people see my stuff and they’re grinning and laughing, that makes me happy,” Flesher says. “I think to myself, ‘my work here is finished.’ ”
Hitting its stride
ArtWalk 2019 features a new crew and different vibe
The 26th Annual ArtWalk Ventura takes place this Saturday, Sept. 28, in Downtown Ventura, and art lovers should breathe a sigh of relief: Ventura came close to not having its premier arts festival this year.
“It almost got canceled,” says Sarah Flesher, 2019 ArtWalk Ventura Artist of Distinction.
Organized by a staff of volunteers (many of them helping out year after year), ArtWalk is
an impressive but enormous undertaking that spotlights art and artists throughout Downtown Ventura and the Westside. This year, many of the usual suspects (Marie Lakin and Josh Addison among them) stepped down, citing family issues, prior engagements and plain-old fatigue.
“They did a brilliant job,” acknowledges Ventura artist Michelle Nosco, and their legacy inspired her to take up the baton. This summer, she organized a crew of her own — including Flesher, Jessica Hemmy, Sharon Taylor of the Buenaventura Art Association (which is acting as the fiscal sponsor), Art City, the Museum of Ventura County, Working Artists Ventura (The Wav) and others — to get ArtWalk on its feet again.
“Talk about a great team!” Nosco says enthusiastically.
The show will indeed go on, but this is a new kind of ArtWalk for 2019.
“The focus is more on the artists and the venues,” Nosco says. “It’s more artist- and gallery-oriented.”
One of the biggest changes for 2019 is that ArtWalk will be a one-day affair, rather than taking place over a full weekend. There won’t be any PODS® Container galleries — local galleries, museums and studios will be the main attractions. There’s no Bowl Hop, either, but a free shuttle service has been added, to make sure attendees can hit all the hot spots.
Three shuttles will operate, with pickup near the parking structure on Santa Clara and Chestnut, the Museum of Ventura County and The WAV. The route takes riders along Main Street and the Westside, with a detour to Art City — one of the highlights of ArtWalk every year, but somewhat off the beaten path. (This year, Art City will host an exhibition of work from Ventura College artists.) The route will also cover Ventura Avenue, where 643 Project Space, Pacific Wonderland, Bell Arts Factory and other studios are not to be missed. In all, there will be 21 venues to explore.
The visual arts won’t be the only delights on display. Actors from the Rubicon Theatre Company will perform songs and excerpts from Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (onstage Oct. 23-Nov. 10) at points on the route, and possibly even on the shuttles themselves.
“It’s an experience,” Nosco says. “It’s not only visual. It’s a multi-sensory thing.”
ArtWalk proper ends at 7 p.m., but The WAV will be a hub of activity: an after party in the amphitheater will feature live music by Fish Fry, The Burton Trio and The John Bardi Group. The concert starts at 6 p.m., and there will be a beer and wine garden for guests ages 21 and up. Shuttles will continue to run until 9:30 p.m., to get everyone back to their cars after the party.
Yes, ArtWalk is taking a different approach this year, but Nosco thinks that’s what will make it so special.
“These artists in town are so amazing — they’re world class,” Nosco says. “It’s all about being together as artists and as a community.”
ArtWalk 2019 takes place on Saturday, Sept. 28, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. The concert at the WAV starts at 6 p.m. The event is free. For route, schedule of activities and more information, visit www.artwalkventura.org.