Gerd Koch rendered within one of his paintings. Photo courtesy of Donna Granata/Focus on the Masters

by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

Ventura College, Studio Channel Islands, Focus on the Masters — some of the most important art and education institutions in Ventura County are indelibly linked to the late, truly great Gerd Koch. The renowned abstract expressionist passed away on June 26 at the age of 91, but remains firmly enmeshed in the area’s cultural fabric, both through his own extraordinary work and the influence he wielded as a teacher and mentor, helping to shape creative minds for over 40 years.

“Gerd was such a huge influence in my life,” said Donna Granata, founder of Focus on the Masters, speaking to the VCReporter on July 2. “Gerd was the very first teacher I had [at Ventura College] . . . he opened my eyes to the whole art world.”

Gerd Koch examines one of his paintings on display at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of Donna Granata/Focus on the Masters

He was active in the Southern California art scene since arriving in the 1950s, and interacted with nearly anyone who was someone from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles. After joining the faculty at Ventura College in 1960, he was instrumental in building its renowned art department. Many years later, in 1998, his knowledge and connections would prove invaluable to the creation of Studio Channel Islands Art Center — originally on the campus of California State University, Channel Islands, later moved to Old Town Camarillo.

“Gerd was an artist of great dignity who understood the importance of sharing his insight with those around him, whether that be through lecturing on his own work or teaching classes in our local colleges,” said Peter Tyas, executive director of Studio Channel Islands, via email on July 7. “He was a pioneer of the arts in our community and just as importantly he was a guide for hundreds of other artists, collectors and audiences.”

Koch had an insatiable curiosity, which led him down interesting paths. Experimental art movements drew him like a magnet, and he had a real knack for merging disciplines. One particular project, for example, involved Koch projecting an image of his work on a group of dancers, who seemed to move within the painting and bring it to life. This desire to learn and experiment only deepened his own understanding — of theory, technique, aesthetics, design, history. 

Helping him stay connected to art’s past, present and future were his extensive travels, where he’d prowl the latest galleries and great museums with equal fervor. He also led numerous art tours, sharing his knowledge, perspective and “just incredible stories” with younger artists.

Granata, who joined Koch for several of these tours, said that having him as a guide was nothing short of transformative.

Gerd Koch at his home in Ventura, Christmas 2015. Photo courtesy of Donna Granata/Focus on the Masters

“It was enormously impactful to me. It helped me appreciate the creative process. That’s where the roots of Focus on the Masters were born, walking the streets of Paris and London and Amsterdam.”

In late 2017, the home Koch shared with fellow artist Carole Milton (his longtime partner as well as a colleague) was lost in the Thomas Fire, along with a priceless art and book collection . . . including many works by both Koch and Milton. Talking to the VCReporter in early 2018, shortly after is 89th birthday, he remained upbeat: He and Milton had moved to a home near downtown Ojai (later relocating to a condo), where friends often stopped by, and he continued to share his wisdom through lectures at Studio Channel Islands. 

The tremendous change, nevertheless, took its toll.

“They really have had a hard time ever since the Thomas Fire,” Granata said. “It just feels like their life never got back to normal.” She notes also that Koch had been in “failing health for several months.” He finally succumbed to septic shock due to pneumonia on June 26.

Granata — who considered Koch as much a beloved friend as a mentor, and remains close with Milton as well —helped plan his small July 7 service (he was buried at Ivy Lawn Memorial Park next to his parents). The service was live streamed, and friends and admirers were invited to drive by the cemetery in order to pay respects, but she lamented the restrictions on crowds which prevented the kind of memorial service that a renowned artist such as Koch deserved.

“Of all people, Gerd deserves quite a crowd,” she said sadly. “Gerd was so conscientious of other artists and the memory of other artists . . . how important it was to honor all these people.”

Even without a crowd, Koch will be remembered with reverence, admiration and fondness — for his art, instruction, personality and creative spirit. 

“He lived an extraordinary life of color and verve,” Tyas said. “His artwork will be shown in our galleries for decades to come and his impact on our community will extend through generations of artists.”

A legacy worthy of any great artist.