by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

At this time last year, Ventura County was still reeling from the twin disasters of the Borderline shooting and the Hill and Woolsey fires, with aftershocks from 2017’s Thomas Fire continuing to shake things up as well. The art world responded in the way it always does: with creative

2019 ArtWalk Artist of Distinction Sarah Jenks Flesher flirts with the dark side in a devil mask inspired by Mexican folk art. Photo by Cecilia Ortiz

minds of all stripes putting their experiences, fears and hopes on canvas, in clay, on the page or otherwise built into the very fabric of their artistic expression. 

This was seen most poignantly, perhaps, at the California Museum of Art Thousand Oaks, which debuted Empathy: Beneath the Surface in October. The exhibit wasn’t concerned primarily with local tragedies, but its theme of “empathy and personal agency” was, indeed, inspired by the events of November 2018. In a community that feels, at times, torn by political, economic and social strife, the multimedia works on display served as a powerful reminder of the ties that connect all members of the human race, regardless of their differences.

While the shadows of those events seemed to lay over everything in 2019 (and not just in the art world), that wasn’t the only story being told.

Reel Action

Ventura County loves movies — and not just because Hollywood is a mere hop, skip and jump down the 101. The medium is so popular that the Ventura Film Society, which took a three-

Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi’s Bakoso: AfroBeats of Cuba was screened at the Sight + Sound film festival.

year hiatus in 2016, returned in 2019, now under the leadership of Mike Miller (hand selected by founder Lorenzo DeStefano). Oxnard got into the action for the first time, debuting its new Sight + Sound film festival in September. The ever-popular Ojai Film Festival celebrated its 20th anniversary in November, followed not long after by the Ojai Short Film Fest in December.

Inclusion and Diversity

The OFF wasn’t the only entity celebrating an anniversary. 2019 marked 20 years since the inception of Ventura County Pride, and the celebration of all things LGBTQ+ took place in Ventura at downtown’s Plaza Park in August.

Also over the summer, the Kingsmen Shakespeare Company presented two spirited productions at California Lutheran University. The fun, frivolous, mod-inspired Merry Wives of Windsor was set in the 1960s. But what really raised eyebrows was the gender-swapped version of Richard II, with actress Hannah Tamminen starring as popular political rival Bollingbroke. Unity Theatre Collective did something similar with The Importance of Being Earnest, where cast members played a variety of roles, bringing a fresh, relevant take to the material.

Brett Elliott (Richard) and Hannah Tamminen (Bolingbroke) star in Richard II. Photo by Brian Stethem

Ventura’s Westside was all about community during Va Por la Avenida, a series of bilingual events intended to bring neighbors together and celebrate the unique qualities that make the Avenue and adjacent areas so special. Festivities kicked off with Ofrenda (offering) in October, featuring — among many other things — handmade displays honoring loved ones who have passed away. Posadas just took place in December, and future events are planned for spring and summer 2020.

Drama on Stage

The theater world saw lots of ups and downs in 2019.

On the downside: Camarillo Skyway Playhouse found itself in the unenviable position of trying to find a new home when the Oxnard Union High School District (which owns the theater’s space near the Camarillo Airport) entertained plans to sell the building. For now, the theater company has been able to remain and present a season of quality productions, but it’s not clear how much longer the current situation can go on.

Carnegie Art Museum in Oxnard.

O’My Theater is in a similar predicament, as it joins the entire community of Oxnard in watching the drama unfold at the Oxnard Performing Arts and Convention Center. The PACC was set to close due to budget shortfalls in the summer, along with the Colonia Branch library and the Carnegie Art Museum. While the latter two institutions did, indeed, close, the PACC has been hanging on by a thread, thanks to robust programming and the interest of Oxnard-born luminaries such as Anderson .Paak and Cola Boyy. If the city decides to close the PACC at the end of 2019, O’My’s January production, Frozen Jr., could be left (pardon the pun) in the cold.

Also struggling to survive is The Elite — formerly Elite Theatre Company — in Oxnard, which changed artistic directors midstream and remains in a funding crisis.

There were, however, a few bright spots this year. Four new theater companies — Muse of Fire in Ojai, Beacon (run by Tom Eubanks), the aforementioned Unity Theatre Collective and Center Stage Players and Arts Repertory all made their debuts in 2019. For theater lovers, that means more modern, original and experimental productions are in the works, featuring all-inclusive casts and more ambitious material. It’s not easy keeping the curtains up on a theater company, but Ventura County has shown, again and again, that hard work and a true love of the art form can work wonders.

Fond Farewells

Guy Webster in his Venice studio in 2014. Photo by David Comden

Ventura County lost some of its most luminous lights in 2019. Art lovers far and wide mourned the passing of celebrity photographer Guy Webster (Ojai), expressionist painter and Studio Channel Islands co-founder Roxie Ray (Camarillo), watercolorist Katherine McGuire (formerly of Ventura) and painter Michael Jon “Mickey” Dvortcsak (Ojai).

Ventura County has certainly weathered its share of tragedy these last few years, which has been reflected in local art and culture. There have, however, been some bright spots as well. Here’s hoping for more of that in 2020.