Three members of Ojai Studio Artists show the breadth and depth of talent that thrives in the Ojai Valley.
By Madeline Nathaus
For more than 35 years, the organization known as Ojai Studio Artists has brought together creatives from across the Ojai Valley who are actively engaged in bringing their work into the community. Through a mix of public outreach (via regular studio tours), education (through art scholarships and mentorships) and other endeavors, OSA and its members have helped establish Ojai’s legacy as an arts enclave.
Dozens of extraordinary artists in every medium are affiliated with OSA. And while it would be impossible to showcase each and every one, Ventana Monthly took the opportunity to turn the spotlight on three – two recent additions and one 25-year veteran – who each bring a distinctive perspective to their work, and give a sense of the profound and diverse talent that has flourished in the Ojai Valley’s creatively fertile substrate.
Robert Larkin: Collage v. Chaos
“I’m a big fan of not completely knowing what I’m doing,” said conceptual artist Robert Larkin. “My work kinda tells me what I’m doing as I go along.”
A proud New Jersey native, Larkin, known for satirical collages, became a member of the Ojai Studio Artists earlier this year. He exhibited during the 2022 Ojai Studio Artists for the first time since 2010 at SFMOMA.
“The work I’ll be showing is definitely the most honest work I’ve made since I was a kid,” Larkin said.
Larkin’s collages, which mainly feature easily identifiable classical and modern works overlayed with humorous clippings, aren’t made with the goal of pushing his opinions on the viewer.
“You can call it political, and people have, but not the politics of Democrat and Republican,” Larkin said. “I’m not trying to be didactic with anything.”
He said he rather aims to merely create a platform where the viewer can see whatever makes sense to them, especially when they see something in his art that he doesn’t.
“Bob is a true visionary with a sharp and incisive style that’s quite unlike anything else in these parts,” said Chris Noxon, fellow OSA artist. “His digital collages are striking and unforgettable. He makes work that freezes a chaotic world in crazy, cheerful order.”
Larkin began his artistic journey as a painter when he was a young boy. Self-taught for the first 20 years of his career, he later received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in artistic studies in his 40s. Although he was always interested in collage, it wasn’t until he saw paintings based on collages at a museum in London in his late 20s that he truly felt motivated to start doing collages as his primary medium.
After that experience, he went to his studio and started experimenting more with the craft. He considers these pieces, that he was able to exhibit and sell, his first success with collages. He even added that he’s recently had a fun time making Internet memes.
“I went through periods where it gets a little embarrassing to tell people I’m a middle-aged man who makes collages,” Larkin said with a laugh. “People are saving the planet, and I’m cutting out little paper dolls and dancing around with them in my studio.”
Regardless, Larkin said he loves his art and couldn’t be more grateful for his family. He finds great pride in his wife, an attorney for Native American children, and three brilliant children ages 16 to 30.
And they couldn’t be more supportive of his art.
“I’m inspired by everything,” Larkin said. “I can honestly say I’ve never in my life had a creative block, there’s always something batting around in my head.”
Marie McKenzie: Deep Sea Diving
“I’ve been inspired by nature for as long as I can remember, and I’ve been creating art for as long as I can remember,” said Marie McKenzie, a woodworker and painter known for her representations of kelp and sea life.
It wasn’t until just five years ago, however, that McKenzie, originally from landlocked Kansas, moved to Northern California and became truly inspired by the ocean.
Though this doesn’t mean she didn’t depict the ocean prior to coming to the coast. A few months before moving, McKenzie painted sea dreamscapes of scenes she could only imagine at the time.
“Dreams and the subconscious are so interesting to me,” McKenzie said. “These visions would just come to me of places I’d never been.”
After her move to California, she described this serendipitous feeling of recognizing her paintings from her visions in real life. Two and a half years later, she moved to Ojai and earlier this year became a resident with Ojai Studio Artists (OSA).
“A maker of evocative paintings and elegant wood constructions, Marie creates artwork meant to be savored and lived with,” said Chris Noxon, fellow OSA artist. “Her images of kelp and other sea life are rapturous. Her gestural sculptures are otherworldly. McKenzie is an artist of impeccable taste and deep sensitivity.”
And McKenzie’s work with the ocean continues in a big way.
“The more I learn about kelp and the ecosystem, I only fall more in love and become more impassioned with it,” McKenzie said. “I want to find ways to bring more awareness.”
Her collaboration with Sea Trees, a nonprofit ocean restoration group, has ignited a new body of work. Ten percent of the profits from her kelp-inspired pieces goes to Sea Trees.
A big proponent of sustainable practices through her materials and methods, McKenzie has been putting a lot of focus on creating kelp forest sculptures through steam-bending. To do this, McKenzie puts rattan, a bamboo relative, or reclaimed wood into a steam chamber and forms and molds the wood while it’s hot then lets it cool in that shape. After everything is assembled, the result is a kelp forest above the sea the viewer can literally walk through.
“Time spent by and in the water inspires me to keep creating,” McKenzie said. “I really treasure being so close to the coast.”
She’s also currently working on a two-story-tall kelp forest sculpture for the Channel Islands Maritime Museum that will show in 2024.
McKenzie added that she feels she’s right where needs to be and is ready for wherever her career takes her.
“I feel like I’m on the path,” McKenzie said. “I believe that the more you listen and live intuitively, it will take you where you need to go.”
Sylvia Raz: The Provocateur
“Every time I do something new I’m in love with it, it’s like my best piece,” said Sylvia Raz, a political artist who focuses on women’s issues. “And then a new piece comes and takes over.”
Born 1939 in Uruguay from Jewish descent, Raz has spent her life creating stimulating pieces that she describes as both “ugly” and “beautiful.” Her work aims to invoke a visceral response, good or bad.
“I just like to present work and confront the viewer and let them deal with it and decide how they feel,” Raz said. “Some people have a hard time with this work, it’s not work that people like to put in their living room.”
Living in Ojai for more than 30 years now and a member of Ojai Studio Artists for 25 years, her art spans across mediums — from stone to clay to yarn to canvas. She even turns trash into treasure.
“I fell in love with finding objects that were going to go to the garbage and giving them a new life,” Raz said.
Raz began her journey with sketching when she was only 10, inspired by the beautiful drawings of a fellow girl in her class. Though she never had formal schooling until later in life, she started painting while she and her husband were working at a psychiatric hospital during the 11 years she lived in Jerusalem.
Looking back on her career, Raz referred to herself as a real-life “Nurse Ratched.” Though she saw horrific sides of human nature during this time, the spectrum of human emotion she witnessed enthralled her to start creating pieces that explore and comment on the human experience.
“Sylvia’s playful, provocative constructions are delightful, ingenious and thought-provoking,” said Chris Noxon, fellow OSA artist. “She’s really an overlooked icon, a pioneering maker of dolls, sculptures and whole worlds overflowing with wit and wonder.”
Currently, Raz is working on a piece that comments on the recent decision to revoke abortion rights. While Raz recognizes her work and their themes may not be what sells, she finds the concern for women’s issues far more important.
“You may hate me or love me, but I want a response to the problems or situations about women or life or the world,” Raz said. “There’s no end to it, it’s there for us to work on.”
She said this work makes her life worth it. She is excited by people’s reaction to her work, and sees her art as her contribution to humanity. She knows she will continue to create for the rest of her life.
“I feel that when I die I’ll still have a million ideas that I wanted to create,” Raz said. “But that’s the fun of the process — the dreaming, the planning, the getting excited. Going on the trip is more important, in many ways, than arriving.”