Custodians of culture

In Ojai, museum-esque Casa Los Robles updates the ranch-style archetype to showcase a stellar collection of pre-Columbian art

By Leslie A. Westbrook

In the great room, drywall was stripped to reveal wooden beams and extensive stonework was reduced to make way for specially lit display cases. Congolese textiles adorn the high wall.

There are many ways to “give back” to one’s community, but perhaps none is more invasive than inviting a thousand or so looky-loos into your own home.

Joyce Roberston, a member of the Ojai Music Festival’s Women’s Committee, came a knockin’ three times before Greg and Mechas Grinnell finally acquiesced. She’d met Mechas through a group of golfing gals called the “Front Niners,” and learned that the couple own not just a stunning house, but a remarkable collection of Pre-Colombian ceramics, Amazonian feather work, and Southeast Asian textiles and other artifacts.

Mechas also happens to be a talented architect, and her thoughtful remodel of the couple’s Ojai home provides a museum-like setting for the collection. Many of the Pre-Columbian ceramics from Peru and Colombia, grouped by culture and age, are displayed in custom-designed coves in the open great room and adjoining kitchen and entertainment room. In the bedrooms, textiles hang on bamboo poles like modern art. A rare piece greets visitors in a specially created niche in the new foyer, providing a fine prelude.

The outside of the home is equally appealing, particularly for sunset cocktails and pink moments from an expanded patio. The two-acre property boasts sweeping 180-degree views of the Ojai Valley and surrounding mountains. A back patio, where Mechas was stretched out on an Indonesian daybed recovering from a recent surgery, is especially inviting, with Egyptian lanterns strung from a tree. The vistas reminded her of her native Colombia, where the couple met some 30 years ago while Greg was working and living in the country.

“My interest in these cultures began in the late-1970s and early-1980s while working as a banking representative for Security Pacific, especially the shamanic practices,” noted Greg, who also toiled in real estate finance, while pointing out a large ceramic piece he collected on an expedition. (Some of his exploits in the Amazon sounded downright hairy, rivaling those outlined in the book “River of Doubt,” about Teddy Roosevelt’s Amazon expedition a century ago.)

The couple moved from Hermosa Beach to Ojai just two years ago, trading the ocean and noises of the city for the tranquil country life. They thought something like the Holiday Home Look In, a benefit for the Ojai Music Festival and its BRAVO! music education program, might provide an opportunity to meet likeminded people in their newly adopted hometown.

They both admit they love Ojai’s “diversity,” ranging from “Krishnamurti to hula hoopers to cowboys and Hollywood writers.” And it’s still close enough to the big-city arts scene in L.A., where Greg’s parents live.

“Greg turned me from a city girl into a country girl,” laughs Mechas, whose anthropologist sister works with indigenous tribes. Mechas followed Greg on hiking, trekking, and diving trips around the globe, collecting and learning along the way. Annual fly fishing trips to Patagonia, Montana, and New Zealand also color their passport stamps.

Mechas’ passion for architecture and design is perhaps slightly dwarfed by Greg’s infectious passion for their art collection. He’s been a longtime member of LACMA’s Collectors Committee and was recently elected president of the Ethnic Arts Council of Los Angeles, which promotes tribal art in Southern California museums. Many pieces in their collection have appeared in traveling museum shows.

Greg takes the Ethnic Arts Council of Los Angeles (EAC) philosophy to heart. “We try to instill the idea that when one collects tribal art, they are doing so as the custodian of the art, to preserve it for future generations,” he explained. “A serious collector can actually help to ensure that important collections are created, documented, and preserved to be passed on either to a museum or public institution to be shared and studied.”

A recent exhibit at LACMA called “Aztec” attempted to show the development of Chicano culture in Southern California from its Aztec beginnings, using Pre-Columbian art, Mexican folk art, and modern sculpture and murals that depict Chicano life in Southern California. “In Southern California, with its very diverse cultural base and multi-cultural focus,” said Grinnell, “the ethnic art collections can and should be used to remind people of their cultural beginnings and ancestral forefathers.”

The secret to the Grinnell’s almost 30-year marriage, they agree, is having common interests and being active together. But some nails and a little fishing line help, too. Mechas recalled a six-month period during which she bugged her husband to please secure their ceramic collection in a former home. He finally got around to it, and the next day, January 17, 1994, the 6.7 Northridge earthquake hit.

It was 4:31 a.m. Suddenly realizing he’d forgotten to secure one piece, Greg jumped out of bed, ran from the room, caught the piece, and cradled it safely in his arms.

“I said, ‘What about me?’’” laughed Mechas in retrospect.

By now, of course, she understands that her husband’s passion to share his legacy is probably the only reason he let her open their home to the masses this month.

Let’s just call it one for the girl golfers.

The painting on these Amazonian ceramics accurately represents the body painting of the Karaja tribe.

Karchi culture ceramic figures, circa A.D. 900, Colombian Andean highlands near Ecuador.

Greg and Mechas Grinnell at home in Ojai.

Mechas Grinnell created a series of niches to showcase artifacts like this marriage presentation plate carved by the Paiwan tribe of Taiwan and a trio of pre-Columbian ceramics from Colombia.

Heavy wood elements and green granite countertops link the kitchen with an attached entertainment center and new entryway. “The idea was to incorporate the three as one visual unit.”

Moroccan style lamps purchased in Egypt hang in the courtyard.


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