PICTURED: Bob Privitt’s “Captured Semisphere” (left) and “Colorspace Plaza” by Carlos Grasso, two works on display in the courtyard of the Museum of Ventura County. Photo by Jonathon McGee/Museum of Ventura County

by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer



During the pandemic, we’re taking everything outside. Dining. Music. Movies. Haircuts. It’s only natural, then, that galleries and museums would do the same. Because while viewing pretty pictures online is a perfectly lovely way to consume art, there’s nothing quite like seeing the real thing, in real life, up close and personal.

“The Hare,” Gloria Bradley. Photo by Jonathon McGee/Museum of Ventura County

Now through November, art lovers can enjoy recent works by Ventura County artists just by hitting the street or the trail. The Museum of Ventura County (MVC) and Ventura Botanical Gardens (VBG) have teamed up to offer a sculpture installation at both locations: on the path that winds through the hillsides behind Ventura City Hall, and in the museum plaza facing Main Street.

According to Denise Sindelar, MVC deputy director, bringing art into the gardens is a years-old idea.

“Barbara Brown, the former board president and current board member at VBG, has been instrumental in envisioning permanent art installations in the gardens,” explained Sindelar. “She served on the city of Ventura Public Art Commission when I was working for the city and had thought about how best to make this a reality. Years passed and the Thomas Fire took its toll, but the idea surfaced again in response to the museum’s extended closure and the garden’s ability to reopen this summer.”

Joseph Cahill, executive director of VBG, contacted Sindelar in May about an outdoor art collaboration, which was funded through the Bonita C. McFarland Art Endowment.

Creating an outdoor gallery

Rather than issuing a traditional call for submissions, Sindelar and Cahill formed a jury made up of local artists and art aficionados tasked with finding works with the right scope and scale for the project: Peter Tyas of Studio Channel Islands, Chris Beirne from Ojai Studio Artists, university professors Matthew Furmanski (California State University, Channel Islands) and Michael Pearce (California Lutheran University), VBG’s Brown and MVC’s Sindelar.

“The Where and The Why,” Wrona Gall. Photo by Jonathon McGee/Museum of Ventura County

“There was a lot of work that came in for consideration,” Furmanski said. “The jurors reviewed work from the Buenaventura Art Association, Ojai [Studio] Artists and Studio Channel Islands as well as many other artists both locally and from further afield.”

Most came from Ventura County, however. 

“The logistics of moving artwork and installing it during COVID-19 was a consideration that all artists had to contend with,” Furmanski noted.

“There were about 50 artworks from 20 artists considered,” recalled Tyas. The executive director of Studio Channel Islands said that judging criteria included merit of the work, suitability for the location, scale, visual impact and challenges related to installation.

Speaking for himself, Furmanski said that he looked for pieces that fit the outdoor environments. “I was looking for a work that would either contrast or compliment the location in some way that would be intriguing to a viewer/participant.” He did not, however, notice a common theme emerge. “If I did, it was simply the diversity of work that was brought together for the two spaces. A potpourri of styles and materials.”

According to Tyas, he saw “the connection of creativity with nature, natural processes and structures, personal narratives of space, light and form. The locations have a strong aesthetic and any work placed there would respond to the history, geography and community.”

He selected work that evinced the “playful joy of nature” (as in Gloria Bradley’s bronze rabbit), stoked “powerful memories of recent events” (like Bob Privitt’s conceptual work) or simply inspired “wonder at nature’s beauty (Bijian Fan’s kinetic sculptures).” 

Sculpture garden

Art at the gardens is currently near the visitors center and on the lower levels of the trail, and runs the gamut from literal (“The Hare” by Gloria Bradley) to lyrical (“Embrace” by Sudad Shahin) to lofty (the towering stone “Nuclear Family” by Paul Lindhard and Kevin Carman).

“Embrace,” Sudad Shahin. Photo by Jonathon McGee/Museum of Ventura County

Then there’s the work of renowned conceptual artist and Pepperdine University professor emeritus Bob Privitt: a large, bright red metal base supporting a triangle framing a variety of geometric shapes. This piece is called “Fire Shrine,” and brings to mind the energy and chaos of licking flames.

Both the name and its installation on the hillside evoke the 2017 Thomas Fire — the “powerful memories” Tyas referred to — which devastated the botanical gardens. Interestingly, however, “Fire Shrine” predates that inferno by a few decades (one of those uncanny coincidences of life seemingly imitating art). Privitt has two sculptures in Arte Forastero; “Captured Semisphere” is installed in the MVC courtyard.

“These pieces were done in the 1980s,” he said. “I showed several large-scale works at the Ron Turcotte Gallery in L.A. . . . I personally did all of the welding, grinding, drilling, thread-tapping, painting and engineering.”

“Fire Shrine,” Bob Privitt. Photo by Jonathon McGee/Museum of Ventura County

There’s both elegance and strength in these substantial works and an outdoor environment is the ideal way to showcase them (which Privitt noted was always the intention). This isn’t the first time that “Fire Shrine” has been seen locally (Vita Art Center exhibited it two years ago), but viewing it on the VBG hiking trail gives it an added element, enhancing its grace and majesty.

“Denise Sindelar had selected the space,” Privitt said. “That space is very nice, has a mountain/valley background from one angle, plus an ocean view from the opposite angle.”

Sindelar said that artists were involved in both site selection and installation, with assistance from MVC and VBG staff and volunteers. But as with any art on view, even temporarily, in public spaces, there were factors to take into consideration. One large piece, “Vessel” by Amy Sharp, for example, had to be hauled into place with golf carts.

“Heavier works were placed on the museum plaza as well as the lower portions of the gardens and nursery,” she said. “We have other, lighter works planned for the upper pathways.”

In total, there are 13 works at VBG, with two more to be added soon.

Art in the courtyard

“Flaming Medusas,” Paul Lindhard and Kevin Carman. Jonathon McGee/Museum of Ventura County

The Museum of Ventura County is currently closed. Its plaza, however, is visible from Main Street, where art lovers can see seven pieces on display, including Privitt’s “Captured Semisphere” and a series of painted panels by Carlos Grasso called “Colorspace Plaza.” Paul Lindhard and Kevin Carman, whose towering rock sculptures grace the botanical gardens, also have two works — “Flaming Medusa” and “Acorn” — at the museum.

One exceptionally large piece, “Nereocystis,” is suspended from the bars near the pavilion. Made by Emma Akmakdjian, the 25+-foot piece is made largely from derelict fishing gear — buoys and nylon rope — that washes up on the shores of the Channel Islands, and resembles the Nereocystis genus of kelp found along the California coastline. “Nereocystis” is placed right near the plaza entrance and almost seems to float, giving the viewer a sense that “you’re walking through a kelp forest to get through the exhibit,” Akmakdjian explained.

Through her work the artist is attempting to shed light on the fragility of the ecosystem, and the human impacts on it.

The concrete “holdfast” of Emma Akmakdjian’s “Nereocystis,” with hand-casts from Russell Bradley, Robyn Shea, Matt Furmanski and Maru Garcia. Photo by Jonathon McGee/Museum of Ventura County

“My artwork is about bringing recycled materials . . . and repurposing things, as a way of demonstrating how plastics [and other pollutants] are affecting life in the ocean,” said Akmakdjian, a graduate of CSUCI who studied under Furmanski. He encouraged her to submit her work to Arte Forastero. “Kelp forests, especially in Northern California, are crashing as a result of rising temperatures due to climate change and ocean acidification.”

Through her studies and volunteer work — she has a genuine love for marine biology — Akmakdjian has gotten to know many of the scientists studying climate change’s effect on the ocean environment. The base or holdfast of “Nereocystis” is made of concrete hands, some of which are cast from biologists she’s met working at Channel Islands National Park.

With this piece, she muses on the idea, “What if, one day, this is the only way to experience a kelp forest?” A sobering thought that, like the art, hangs in the air.

The Spanish word forastero translates to stranger, although its Latin root, foris, means outside. Arte Forastero seems to call on both these meanings: manmade works that are foreign to the natural world, sitting outside the walls of a gallery. Some might, indeed, be a little strange, but with their compelling compositions and careful placement, these works of art do come into harmony with the sky and landscape around them. Don’t be a stranger — come out and see for yourself.

Arte Forastero will be on display through Nov. 30 at the plaza at the Museum of Ventura County, 100 E. Main St., Ventura; and at the Ventura Botanical Gardens, 567 S. Poli St., Ventura. For more information, visit venturamuseum.org or www.venturabotanicalgardens.com.