Editor's Note

Imagination Running Wild

By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

Photo by Mike Baker

Steve Axtell is a magic man.

Not a magician, mind you — although he has, indeed, practiced magic as a performer. His talent lies in bringing the most wonderful, whimsical objects to life. The founder, CEO and creative director of Axtell Expressions in Ventura is known for his colorful, detailed and . . . well, expressive puppets. But don’t let their charming looks deceive you: These are not toys, but professional-quality tools of the entertainment world, used by ventriloquists, amusement parks, the movie industry and even, in some cases, psychologists. Axtell is often called “the next Jim Henson,” but while Muppets have been an influence and inspiration, his creatures are entirely his own, springing from his fertile, playful imagination — which as you’ll discover in our cover story, has extended to animatronics and artificial intelligence as well.

Axtell isn’t the only creative thinker in these parts.

Ex Voto Chocolates and Confections, featured in About Town, makes sweet treats that are as pleasing to the eye as to the palate. Jennifer Smith and her daughter and business partner, Sophia Smith-Grunder, have followed their intuition and artistic sensibility in crafting fine chocolates prized all across the county for their bean-to-bar freshness, gourmet flavors and extraordinary sculptural quality. Thai chili, local beers, apple cider and other uncommon ingredients show up in these bonbons on a regular basis, and in the house-made gianduja (a chocolate hazelnut spread), any nut is fair game. An artist at heart, Smith-Grunder paints and airbrushes her chocolates in glorious colors with touches of silver and gold, making each piece absolutely distinctive — and an edible work of art.

A group of optimists in Ojai dare to imagine something that, at times, seems to be impossible: respectful disagreement in the face of political upheaval and deep division. The Agora Foundation, through its Great Books Seminars, philosophical discussions and Chautauqua assemblies, aims to bring civility back to debate, and generate true discussion where people with sometimes diametrically opposed views can come together to share and learn. Executive Director Andrew Gilman talks about the mission and the method in Conversation.

As we begin a new year with a new issue, Ventana Monthly salutes those who follow their hearts and chase flights of fancy: the romantics, the visionaries, the brave souls who come up with a wild idea and run with it. Ventura County is a brighter, more surprising, possibly even a more gracious and forgiving space because of those who dare to dream. One New Year’s resolution for all of us, perhaps: Resolve to follow one’s imagination, no matter where it may lead.


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