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Ojai Artist Makes It Big

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

John Nava says his most famous artwork is the “Dump Weldon” bumper sticker that adorned so many Ojai Valley cars in the early 1990s in a campaign that quashed plans to build a Weldon Canyon landfill.

Come fall of 2001, though, the Ojai artist will be celebrated for works displayed in a much more distinguished setting than the back of a Buick. About 36 of his tapestries will hang inside the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles.

It’s the commission of a lifetime.

“It’s very easy to do work that’s minor, but every once in awhile you come across something incredible,” said Nava, 52.

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Nava said he and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles finalized their agreement this week. Neither he nor church representatives would reveal the price.

Nava’s tapestries of the Communion of Saints will be the only art, other than such functional pieces as the cross and altar, in the central part of the $163-million headquarters for Roman Catholics from Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, said the Rev. Richard Vosko, the liturgical and public art consultant for the project.

Nava didn’t even know of the planned cathedral when a letter arrived in summer 1998 saying he was one of several hundred artists being considered to work on the project. Linda Ekstrom, a Santa Barbara artist on the archdiocese’s Art and Furnishings Committee, had suggested consideration of her longtime friend because of his skill at drawing and painting the human figure.

Nava studied art at UC Santa Barbara and reveled in the works of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci while earning his master’s degree in fine art in Florence. He taught art at universities for 12 years before quitting and dedicating himself full time to art, primarily figurative oil paintings.

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After Nava was named a finalist for the cathedral job last fall, he began working in earnest on the project. Church planners originally discussed sandblasting or etching saints into the walls, but acoustical problems necessitated a change to sound-absorbing tapestries. Nava researched the use of computers to transfer art to tapestries while making sketches of the saints using friends and family members as models.

The archdiocese awarded Nava the commission in April, although they continued to work out details of the agreement until this week. Vosko said they chose Nava not only because he is a “wonderful artist,” but also because he had the technical knowledge to produce the tapestries.

Nava also intrigued them with his ideas for portraying 133 saints in a larger-than-life form. His novel approach complemented the originality of the building’s design, which includes translucent alabaster-lined windows and an angling of the entire structure to catch maximum sunlight.

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“I think it’s really quite stirring and very unique,” Ekstrom said of Nava’s plan for the tapestries. “The whole piece will be phenomenal in its scale and uniqueness.”

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Nava didn’t want to simply depict the well-known canonized saints. He proposed popular saints like Peter and Mary Magdalene with modernized appearances mixed in with lesser-known saints and unknown people of all ages, body types and ethnic groups represented in the archdiocese.

“We tend to think of only the canonized saints, but anybody who makes it to heaven is a saint,” said Nava, who was raised Catholic by his Basque mother and Mexican father. “If you lead a good life, you earn heaven. It’s not necessary that you perform miracles. That is what I wanted to convey.”

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Vosko said featuring unknown people in church portraits is a new take on an ancient art form.

“One will be able to look up there and hopefully find a reflection of oneself,” Vosko said. “I would hope that people would imagine themselves as part of that sainthood and maybe we can get rid of some of the rudeness and incivility in our society.”

The faces and hands of the saints will be vivid. Instead of period clothes, they will wear simple robes, all of the same light color that fades into the background. This, Nava said, will allow viewers to “focus on their humanity.”

“That’s what’s most interesting about the saints, their humanity, not their historical context,” he said.

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Nava will draw and paint heads, bodies and hands separately. Then he will scan the images into a computer, move them around to form the saints, group them together and manipulate the colors. These digitized images will then be sent to an electronic loom. The full portraits will not exist, except on computer, until they are woven on the loom. Tapestries have never been created this way, so Nava is developing a new process.

Long after the last of the “Dump Weldon” stickers have peeled from their chrome holders, the tapestries will continue to hang in the cathedral. The church itself is being designed to last 300 to 500 years. If Nava’s tapestries do eventually deteriorate or are destroyed, they can be re-created exactly with the digital files he will create.

The 20- to 65-foot-high tapestries will have a rough stone-like texture, and the strong silhouette images will look like frescoes on the walls of the 3,000-seat cathedral.

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For Nava, the portraits of the saints are the pinnacle of an artistic life spent primarily painting the human form. For most of the 12 years since he moved to Ojai, his portraits have supported his family while his wife, Jessica, stayed home to care for their sons, Matt, now 13, and Mike, 10. Working in a large wood studio with vaulted ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on the orange orchards surrounding their home, Nava immediately ships every canvas he finishes to one of his dealers to sell.

Away from the studio, Nava’s time belongs to his family and the causes he believes in. He met his wife at an anti-Vietnam War rally. Shortly after moving to Ojai, Nava and his filmmaker brother, Gregory Nava of “Selena” fame, made themselves known by starting the coalition that quashed plans to build a Weldon Canyon landfill in town.

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Nava is the kind of person who calls attention to what he thinks is wrong. He has portrayed man’s darker side in his paintings, which include a tableau of an unsympathetic crowd gathered around a dead body after the Los Angeles riots. But he feels blessed to now find himself glorifying what is right about the world in the cathedral tapestries.

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“It’s rare nowadays to do a painting of humans that is not ironic, sardonic, sarcastic or tongue-in-cheek,” Nava said “It is a great thing to paint a really affirming, beautiful, hopeful image of humans.”


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