In a vast, airy studio where mentally ill patients once painted and sculpted, a colony of artists has grown, creating an eclectic array of work that can defy easy description.
Amid giant murals of blue skies and green valleys are sculpted red ladies with fangs and tails of serpents. In a small nook lies a black skull, aging spice tins and a stuffed viper. Anatomy books sit in uneven piles and somewhere classical music plays.
For three years, local artists have shared space at the 22,000-square-foot Studio Channel Islands Art Center on the grounds of the Cal State Channel Islands campus near Camarillo. The studio was the art therapy center when the campus was Camarillo State Hospital.
When the college’s founding president, Handel Evans, saw the empty building, he decided it should remain a haven for artists.
“I wanted to give an opportunity for the arts to have a place on the new campus,” said Evans, who recently stepped down as president. “I hope a fine arts curriculum will develop from this.”
He said he expects the studio to remain intact when the college opens, scheduled for next year.
The curator is Gerd Koch, who taught art at Ventura College for 32 years. He does workshops, puts on exhibits and expects to open the facility to students. Today, the studio will hold its second annual invitational exhibit from 4 to 7 p.m. to show off some of what goes on inside.
And what goes on ranges from the traditional to the most modern and abstract. Twenty-one artists pay about $75 a month to rent studio space and share creativity with others.
Each studio is like a small foreign country with its own language, customs and landscape.
In Kathleen Waggoner’s studio, the eye is caught by finely sculpted female heads with deep black grooves running all over them. She carefully carves into a clay torso bearing the faces of women of different races embedded in the striated and raised flesh.
“In central Africa, women tattoo themselves starting at puberty,” the Moorpark artist said. “It’s a sort of Braille board of the body, a personal history. When they are born, they see a blank slate made beautiful by experience.”
On one wall is a fearsome ochre-colored sculpture she calls “Eloquence of Rage.” In it, a female figure bares her fangs as its body tapers into a rattlesnake. It is one of a series of pieces.
“The trend has always been for sculptures of heroic males, but I think of these as contemporary artifacts elevating women,” Waggoner said.
In another room, Julia Pinkham, 43, of Oxnard paces, trying to find some crucial depth for her painting, “The Day I Laughed.”
She comes to the studio seven days a week. Working at home was distracting, she says, noting how uninspiring a load of laundry can be.
“I painted at home for eight years,” she said. “I like the close proximity you have to other artists here.”
Elsewhere in the maze-like building, 36-year-old Fotini Renzoni of Thousand Oaks works on a 9-by-17-foot landscape that will adorn the pediatrics unit of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y. In the painting of sky, trees and valleys, she has hidden the alphabet for children to find. An ‘N’ sits almost unnoticed in a tree, a ‘W’ in a field.
Outside, Eric Richards, 41, installs a 12-foot-wide weather vane with a metal dog, man and horse standing atop it.
“It’s kind of a poetic statement but, like a haiku, it is not meant to transmit any information but should cause a person to have an emotional response,” the Santa Paula sculptor said.
Other pieces are more modern. David Feinner’s “Dead Wait” features a foam-rubber cast of himself stuck all over with syringes and being slowly turned on a spit.
Feinner, 44, taught sculpture to mentally ill patients who once lived here.
“They really didn’t want to be told what to do,” the Northridge resident recalled. “They had a little gallery of their work. I was amazed at how good some were.”
Curator Koch, 72, is a respected artist and world traveler but prefers to sing the praises of the studio.
“There is a compulsion here to create,” he said.