All the World’s a Stage at Artist’s Mountain Retreat : Arts: The artist and award-winning set designer wonders if his paradise is about to be lost to county planning department zoning regulations.
Unlike Prospero’s magical island, a tempest is not required to deliver visitors to artist Tony Duquette’s 175-acre ranch. It’s an easy drive for visitors to Sortilegium (Latin for “land of enchantment”), located at the top of a sun-drenched world in the Santa Monica Mountains of Ventura County.
But once through the gates, culled from an 18th-Century Spanish church, one immediately senses a shift in reality.
Even before encountering ornate pagodas or the Venetian gondola atop the boat house, guests may feel as though they have walked onto a movie set. And they have--several, in fact--starting with the transplanted courtyard of a Chinese temple from the old Paramount ranch.
Since 1957, Duquette and his wife, Elizabeth, who is nicknamed “Beegle,” have cultivated their personal Shangri-La as a work of living art. And here they have entertained students, artists-in-residence and luminaries. The guest list has included Vincente Minnelli, Christopher Isherwood and Greta Garbo.
Until recently, Duquette--a Tony award-winning set designer, was the only American to have been honored with a one-man show at the Louvre. And last month at his 79th birthday party, held at the ranch-retreat, he was presented with a proclamation from the California Legislature honoring his lifetime achievement in the arts.
Despite the accolades, all is not well in paradise.
Through what county officials are calling creative and illegal development of his property, Duquette ran afoul of the regulations on development with the Ventura County Planning Division about two years ago. Currently, both sides are trying to resolve the building code and zoning violations that Duquette fears may result in the bulldozing of his dream.
The approach to the lushly landscaped deck, which leads to a covered luncheon terrace, illustrates that Duquette’s vision of life is not limited to the traditionally framed view through a proscenium arch. Like Shakespeare, whose work he is fond of quoting, Duquette sees the world as a stage and people as players.
Guests navigate through a maze of potted plants to the main dwelling and the covered terrace that resembles a tree-house worthy of the Swiss Family Robinson. While descending a green metal stairway salvaged from a Navy ship, one’s gaze is captured by an ethereal metal-and-carved-wood antique sculpture of Indian musicians perched above the railing, with Boney Mountain serving as the backdrop.
Over lunch, Duquette says his artistic bent for landscape adornment started in childhood when he decorated moss gardens with birthday candles.
“And as a little boy I was drawing Mandarins and Indians--but with ermine tails, not buckskin,” he said.
Duquette is a cancer survivor and he is noticeably mystical in his conversation, praising the healing power of green. As he quietly discusses his art, he twists the jewelry he wears for health: a gold and jade toad ring and a turquoise archer’s ring from Tibet.
“I’m fighting totally the least common denominator,” said Duquette. “This comes mostly from television. I see the individual disappearing. And I find there is no interest in art today. So I’m inventing a game to make people think. We’re pretending we’ve found a lost civilization here at the ranch that we’re calling the ‘Chu-chin-chow-mash.’ ”
Duquette’s hypothetical civilization is part of a teaching project for which students who come to the ranch must pretend to dig up archeological artifacts. Three graduate students from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles are presently at the ranch as part of a six-week summer internship. Duquette expects them to invent an entire culture for the civilization, including furniture, art, jewelry, musical instruments, fashions and even a religion.
“He was looking for creative students. It didn’t matter what discipline they were from,” said Jeanne Orfinik, chairwoman of FIDM’s visual presentation department. “It’s an opportunity to work with a great artist who is renowned in so many areas you can’t slot him into one category.”
This is Duquette’s first collaborative teaching effort with FIDM. But he has taught many classes for UCLA, including some on the ranch.
“Tony is one of the most important people in the history of design,” said Jody Greenwald, chair of the Interior and Environmental Design program of UCLA’s Extension program. “His value to us is his ability to have people release inhibitions and pull on inner visions and childhood images. And he never accepts barriers in art or in life.
“He’s the master of the objet trouve-- the found object. If this were Japan, he’d be a living treasure.”
The Phoenix Rises
The Duquettes were married in 1949 at Pickfair, the home of Mary Pickford and her husband, Buddy Rogers. Pickford and Rogers served as matron-of-honor and best man.
When Pickford and Rogers proposed a silver tea set for a wedding present, Duquette replied: “I’d rather have your doors.” He was referring to three sets of 18th-Century English doors stored in the Rogerses’ garage.
Those doors are now part of the ranch, along with an unexpectedly beautiful pagoda sprouting reindeer antlers that came from William Randolph Hearst’s ranch at San Simeon. Then there is one of Duquette’s favorite pieces, an old iron elevator from the Hollywood Hotel. A peek in the walk-in closet of one of the ranch buildings reveals a window from the love nest shared by John Gilbert and Greta Garbo.
All over the property are impressive examples of Duquette’s ability to recycle items into art. Witness a pagoda near the greenhouse: It is made of an Indian oil drum and wooden cable spools topped by an Indonesian electricity conductor. Another pagoda sports finials created from plastic dime-store lemon squeezers. And the hillside is adorned with 20-foot totem poles made from street cleaner bristles. Metal landing strip grids obtained at Navy sales in Port Hueneme form gazebo latticework. Spent gun shells have been reincarnated as pagoda tassels. And orange plastic--commonly used to retain soil along freeway embankments--creates a mosaic effect on the boathouse’s exterior walls.
But Duquette does not limit his artistic expression to sculpture. A visit to his wife’s favorite room, called the Gallery, reveals his whimsical nature in placing children’s toad masks on carved wooden Indian temple guards. And as he stood with Elizabeth before a window covered with ivy, Duquette praised the “living chintz” curtains formed by vines outside the window.
Lest anyone think Duquette’s artistic days are behind him, he is currently working on a new project.
“It will be,” he said, “a monumental group sculpture entitled ‘The Phoenix Rises from His Flames.’ ”
Sortilegium started out as a weekend retreat in 1957. In the early days the couple stayed in a mobile home on the site. To avoid intruding on the landscape with a single large house, Duquette began building a cluster of one-bedroom pavilions--one of which serves as the main dwelling--using colors that blended with surrounding foliage.
The bungalows, which are still there, were built to accommodate the seasons: The summer quarters open out onto the landscape, while the winter quarters are sheltered by the hills.
Duquette’s many trips to Bali, Thailand and Hong Kong over the years have added to the Camelot-like atmosphere with the addition of dozens of carved wooden horses, temple guards that flank the garden pathways and complex ornamental structures.
And living walls of oleander, white and blue agapanthus, spiny yucca, drought-resistant succulents and Italian cypress trees line the dirt and partially stone-paved pathways help to complete the effect.
“I used to walk along the park in Beverly Hills and see the succulents lying by the side of the road thrown out by the gardeners,” recalled Duquette. “So I’d come back later, often in white tie and tails, with a station wagon to get them.”
But in 1988 Sortilegium took on a new meaning when a fire destroyed the Duquette Pavilion, the San Francisco home that held most of Duquette’s work, including the 28-foot-high angels created for the Los Angeles Bicentennial.
A year later came the onset of his wife’s Parkinson’s disease, which has rendered her nearly unable to speak. “We were a unit and did everything together,” he said. “That’s the hideous thing about this disease.”
After the fire, the couple took up permanent residence at Sortilegium, a move that Tony Duquette called therapeutic. It has also been inspirational and has spurred his creative impulse to create new projects--including the lost civilization scheme--and to embellish the bungalows.
“Tony will find something that inspires him and create a house around it,” said interior designer Hutton Wilkinson, the Duquettes’ long-time friend and neighbor and director of their Foundation for the Living Arts.
According to Duquette and his admirers, the bungalows have contributed to his fame and his piece of mind. And critics concede they are rich manifestations of his artistry.
“They are intended as environmental works of art,” that will be part of Duquette’s legacy, maintains Wilkinson.
But as legacies, they may prove to be castles in the sand.
Art and Building Codes
As it was in all of Shakespeare’s comedies, Duquette now finds himself caught in a clash between his view of a pastoral world and the strictures of civilization.
“He created habitable structures out there,” said Russ Baggerly, senior administrative assistant for Ventura County Supervisor Maria VanderKolk. “And you can only have one main structure and a second structure per legal lot. He never obtained permits for those structures.
“We’re trying to get him to decommission the buildings so his workers can’t live there anymore,” said Baggerly. “Residents out there have a Wild West concept of what they can do on their property. (Duquette) has been at it for quite some time.”
But what he has been “at” is open to interpretation, according to Duquette’s attorney, Stan Cohen.
“Tony is an artist, not a developer,” said Cohen. “If he tried to alter these buildings so they meet all the building codes, they would probably no longer be art.”
“It may be art--that’s not for me to judge,” said Baggerly. “But they are certainly habitations.”
While things remain deadlocked, Duquette is contemplating several options in an attempt to maintain the property as it is, said his attorney.
“We’ve been meeting with Russ Baggerly, Maria VanderKolk and the superintendent of the National Park Service,” Cohen said. “We’ve also met with representatives of UCLA and Pepperdine. These schools are very anxious to acquire the property and protect the artistic work Tony has created.”
But according to David Gackenbach, superintendent of Santa Monica Mountain National Recreation Area, “our understanding is that the county will pursue the compliance issue, whether the federal government accepts (the property) as a donation or not.”
And time is running out, as far as the county is concerned.
“We have been working with Mr. Duquette and his representatives for some time to find ways in which most of the structures can be retained,” said Todd Collart, zoning manager for the Ventura County Planning Division. “But our only recourse at this point is going to court because we had, at his request, prepared a compliance request, which is a contract outlining ways to resolve the regulatory problems. But he has not signed it.”
Neither Baggerly nor Collart believe the end result of all of this will be the bulldozing of Sortilegium, as Duquette and his friends fear.
“My guess is Duquette would be found guilty of a misdemeanor and put on probation until he brings his property into compliance,” said Baggerly.
But while county officials see buildings as buildings, the other side sees buildings as art.
“I don’t think it could ever be fixed so that a permit would be issued if Tony walked into the building department,” Cohen said. “Clearly it has to be dealt with as art.”
Which is what Duquette has been saying all along.
“The idea of the property is to leave it as a document of art, of my work, of an artist’s expression of an area,” he said. “I just couldn’t get permits for the work, and I didn’t try. It is just an impossible crisscross of theories on how to live.”
Duquette at a glance
Chouinard Art Institute and Yale School of the Theater.
1961, Tony Award for best costume design, original Broadway production of “Camelot.”
1993, honored by joint resolution of the California Legislature “for his remarkable artistic talents and impeccable style, as well as for his invaluable contributions to the cultural enrichment of the State of California.”
Costume and set designs for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and 20th Century Fox productions including “Kismet,” “The Ziegfeld Follies” and “Can Can.”
Other costumes and settings for opera and ballet productions in Los Angeles and San Francisco include: “Der Rosenkavalier,” “The Magic Flute” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
1956, opened the legendary Tony Duquette Studios, a salon in converted film studios of Norma Talmadge, where the Duquettes entertained friends such as Arthur Rubenstein, Aldous Huxley and Jascha Heifetz.
Private and corporate clients include: Mr. and Mrs. Norton Simon, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, J. Paul Getty and the Music Center, Los Angeles.
1951, first American to be honored with one-man show at the Pavillon de Marsan of the Louvre Museum, Paris.
Other exhibitions of painting, sculpture, tapestry, furniture and jewelry include: Los Angeles County Art Museum, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, M. H. De Young Museum in San Francisco, Museum of the City of New York and California Museum of Science and Industry.
Extensive teaching experience in decorative and theater arts.
1979, formed the Anthony and Elizabeth Duquette Foundation for the Living Arts, a nonprofit public foundation dedicated to presenting exhibitions of museum quality to the public.
1980, 14-foot work of environmental art “Our Lady Queen of the Angels,” created as a gift to the people of Los Angeles in honor of the city’s bicentennial.
1988, a sculptural monument occupying an entire gallery conceived as an environmental work of art, made as a tribute to the City of San Francisco in honor of St. Francis of Assisi.