Painter Gerd Koch has long been a critical part of Ventura County's art scene, both as an artist and a force behind the scenes.
An artist here for half a century, he also taught for 30 years at Ventura College. At the moment, the presence of the 73-year-old Ventura artist looms large in a space he helped create. Separate, yet linked, exhibitions at the Studio Channel Islands Art Center at Cal State Channel Islands showcase two sides of Koch's life in art.
In the main J. Handel Evans Gallery is "Mentor to Many," a group show of work by Koch-trained students, both from Ventura College and UC Extension classes. In the O'Keefe Gallery is a modest survey of Koch's own paintings, dating back to the early 1960s.
One recent morning, the tall, amiable artist posed for a photo before Hiroko Yoshimoto's life-size portrait of him in the larger gallery. The juxtaposition seemed appropriate. Would the real Gerd Koch stand up?
"I could just pull it off and wear it like a suit," Koch joked about the painting.
Yoshimoto, who took a class from Koch and has been a colleague for decades, said later, "He always looked as he does today. That is to say that he never aged in his ambience or demeanor. He has been always young at heart ... and encouraging to his students [and] other artists."
In another corner, Koch pointed to an oft-exhibited photograph of him taken by another former student, Donna Granata, whose extensive Focus on the Masters program of lectures and exhibits has documented Ventura's art scene for several years.
Koch remembered that Granata was active in his experimental Exploring Visual Arts class, and also took part in the art tours he led to Europe. Among Koch's students who went on to New York and viable art careers were Judy Simonian and Susan Caporael.
Considered one of the more intriguing artists in the county, Koch comfortably wears the hats of both teacher and practitioner.
"It's exciting to be a teacher, and also it's exciting to be an artist," he said.
As seen in the collection on display, Koch's own distinctive oil paintings manage to blend landscape with the Abstract Expressionist school of the 1950s. He cites Joan Mitchell, Robert Motherwell and Willem De Kooning as early influences.
He found another early inspiration in his backyard -- quite literally. He fancied the tangled chaparral on his property in Ojai and incorporated it in some of his landscapes.
"The landscape became a metaphor for rejuvenation," he said.
Later series of works included themes of Greek mythology and topography. Behind it all, he explained, is a structure very similar to classical music or jazz.
"There are repeats, several things at the same time moving in space. There are different passages," he said. "There's just a pure joy of working on a small segment and watching the movement. I realized that it has a lot to do with rhythms."
Born in Detroit in 1929, Koch earned a bachelor's degree in fine arts in 1951 from Wayne State University in Michigan. He was lured to California after a trip here. In 1953, he got involved with a live-in artists' community called the Artists Commune Tree Ranch in the Upper Ojai Valley.
He ended up loving Ventura County so much that he stayed despite the acclaim his work was already receiving in Los Angeles. One of his works was acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and was shown at the Ferus Gallery.
He traveled with celebrated artists such as Peter Voulkos and Edward Kienholz. After going back to school and earning a master of fine arts degree at UC Santa Barbara, Koch began teaching at Ventura College in the late 1960s.
After three decades, he retired. But he was not one to sit still or repair to the studio for long.
When former students Pat Richards and Roxie Ray heard the new Cal State campus had space available, they asked Koch in 1997 to help put together a center that would exhibit art and provide studio space, and he became deeply involved in starting the Studio Channel Islands Art Center.
"I was the only person who had art educator experience and gallery experience. They needed someone like me," he said.
The time and place were ripe. Founders of the Cal State University Channel Islands campus, which opened last fall, had big plans for the school and plenty of space to fill at the former state mental hospital. The center has grown into one of the most impressive art exhibition spaces in the county.
Standing in the gallery, Koch waves his hand around the airy interior. "I'm still painting, but a lot of my energy goes into this place," he said.
From the beginning, Koch has called on his artist friends to show their work at the center. They include Michael Dvortcsak, Priscilla Bender-Shore, Walt Askins and John Nava, all of whom show their art in larger galleries outside the region.
Nava recently completed an ambitious mural project for the new Roman Catholic cathedral in downtown Los Angeles. Nava's third exhibition will start next month.
The maturation of the art center was so speedy that university officials were able to boast about it as soon as they opened the broader campus. Koch says the campus benefits immensely from the center, which is largely self-sustaining.
"They don't have to put any money into this, apart from utilities and providing the building," the artist said. "Right now, it's all one big happy family."
DETAILS: "Gerd Koch: Mentor to Many" and "Gerd Koch Survey Exhibit" from Jan. 5 to Feb. 1 at Studio Channel Islands Art Center, on the Cal State Channel Islands campus near Camarillo. Gallery hours: Thurs.-Sat., noon-3 p.m.; 383-1368.