Gerd Koch is back in Ojai.

After his longtime partner, expressionist artist Carole Milton, lost the Ventura home the couple shared to the Thomas Fire, he, Milton and the couple’s cats and dog have relocated to a charming abode not far from downtown.

“We lost everything,” the artist says, with emphasis but not bitterness. While it’s true that countless works of art (including many of Milton’s newer paintings, and works by several local artists that had been acquired over decades), a vast and valuable collection of art books, paints, canvases and more were consumed by the fire, Koch’s spirit remains undaunted.

He speaks with excitement about the new things happening in 2018: his travel lectures at Studio Channel Islands, the art center’s upcoming 20th anniversary celebrations, and his inclusion in the latest Marquis Who’s Who in America edition as a “Lifetime Achiever” in art and education.

“It’s going to be two pages and in full color,” he says with obvious glee. “That’s a first!”

Now, just a few weeks after celebrating his 89th birthday (“We had a grand time!”), there’s a sense of coming full circle: Ojai was the first place Koch landed when he arrived in Ventura County in the 1950s.

From Snow to Sun

Gerd Koch at his studio in Ojai, circa 1959. Photo courtesy of Focus on the Masters Archive, Gerd Koch Papers.

Koch was born in 1929 in Detroit. His father worked for an industrial firm, and one of his first jobs was as a bicycle errand and messenger boy. His parents were German and went to Europe a few times to visit relatives — providing Koch with both an excellent German accent and a love for travel that has never left him. A friend’s mother was interested in getting her son into an art institute, which Koch says started him on a creative path.

“I was a terrible artist!” he insists. “But it was a start. I began to understand what it was all about. I never thought I’d be a teacher.”

His life’s work, of course, tells a different story.

The abstract expressionist is as much a part of Ventura County’s cultural fabric as the ocean and the chaparral-studded hillsides. As an artist, teacher (at Ventura College, where he taught for nearly 30 years), mentor, traveler, collector and community activist, his impact on the local art scene can’t be overstated.

“He is a true champion of the arts, never wavering from his commitment to bringing the best artists to the fore in Ventura County,” says Peter Tyas, executive director of Studio Channel Islands. Koch was, of course, one of the founders of that institution 20 years ago. “Gerd has shaped the arts in the county for over six decades, striving for excellence and working with the most exciting artists and demanding the best from everyone he works with.”

Koch first came to California after graduating from Wayne State University in 1951, when he attended a summer workshop at UCLA. He visited Santa Barbara with friends and quickly fell in love with the sunny climate and local art community. He ended up enrolling in an MFA program at UCSB, and taught UCSB extension classes. “I did it for seven years, 34 classes,” he recalls of his early days teaching at various locations around Southern California. Those extension classes eventually led to teaching positions at both Santa Barbara Community College and UCSB.

But Ojai was the first place in California he would call home.

“Spring Garden with Sunlit Path,” 1959. Collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of Focus on the Masters Archive, Gerd Koch Papers.

“I lived in Ojai in 1952,” he recalls, noting that he originally arrived to start an artists’ commune.

Artistic Immersion

Ojai was already a creative crucible, where Hollywood celebrities came to get away from the city and artists such as Beatrice Wood and Otto and Vivika Heino found that the valley’s peace, solitude and beauty stimulated the muse. Koch and other artists leased a large plot of land from Iris Tree, a wealthy socialite, poet, actress and model who had been painted by Modigliani, photographed by Man Ray and sculpted by Jacob Epstein. Rent was just $100 a month.

“The property we were on had 23 acres, three horses and a cow — with a lot of buildings!” Koch says with a laugh. “She didn’t want to pay a caretaker. . . . I made lots of friends who helped, but financing it was really tough.”

Some of those friends included the architect Zelma Wilson (designer of Meditation Mount, and with whom Koch would launch Ojai Beautiful) and Alan Hooker of The Ranch House.

Koch was also involved in the L.A. art scene. He showed at the Ferus Art Gallery, which was opened in 1957 by Walter Hopps and Ed Kienholz and hosted the likes of Ed Moses, Robert Irwin, Ed Ruscha and Andy Warhol — and helped distinguish the West Coast as a formidable, vibrant art hub. A friendship with modern dancer Kate Hughes Kinzler led to some interesting collaborations where art, music and dance came together in a creative spectacle. Wherever avante garde art and culture flourished, Koch seemed to be a part of it.

“I was always experimenting,” he says of this time.

One watershed moment was winning the First Purchase Award during the 1959 L.A. County Museum of Art’s L.A. and Vicinity Annual Exhibition.

“It was considered a major exhibition,” Koch recalls. “It was really a spectacular thing to happen. I got a lot of attention — it put me on the map.”

Lasting Influence

“Spring to Summer,” part of the Russian River Series. Photo courtesy of Focus on the Masters Archive, Gerd Koch Papers.

With his reputation building, Koch joined the faculty of Ventura College in 1960, where a rich and diverse art department (under the direction of William McEnroe) was already taking shape. Koch’s contemporaries included Jack Baker, William Winterbourne, Carlisle Cooper and (later) Hiroko Yoshimoto — names synonymous with art and culture in Ventura County.

Koch is an exceptional artist, whose abstract landscapes (many of the chaparral hillsides), topographic explorations and myth-inspired renderings are filled with motion and texture, and almost imperceptible patterns determining the composition. He has referred to his work in the past as “visual music.” The tune is intoxicating, the jumble of color and flowing brush strokes drawing the viewer in, hypnotic and a bit adventurous. It’s not always clear where a Koch painting will take you, but you’re definitely going somewhere.

Just as valuable, however, are the contributions he has made as a teacher. For nearly 40 years Koch has taught, mentored and guided art students, helping put them on the path to realizing their full potential.

Donna Granata, founder of Focus on the Masters, studied under Koch at Ventura College, and through him gained a deep and abiding love for and understanding of the creative process. Koch was one of the first artists documented by FOTM. “Those of us who are fortunate to be one of his former students were imbued with a fearlessness. A willingness to take chances, to experiment, to explore, to ask, ‘What if?’ To dream.”

Koch takes this aspect of his profession very seriously. 

“That was my goal at Ventura College,” he says. “I wanted to get people ready for the next step. You could help them — introduce [students] to sophisticated things, something of a university exposure. [Artists] need preparation.”

Artists both locally renowned and internationally accomplished have benefited from Koch’s tutelage: John Nava, Suzanne Caporael, Roxie Ray, Elain Thompson, Pat Richards Dodds . . . just to name a few.

SCI Scion

Another lasting contribution that Koch has made locally is with Studio Channel Islands (SCI). The art institution, which was originally founded on the campus of California State University, Channel Islands, and later moved to its current location in Old Town Camarillo, owes much to

“Spring Near Russian River,” 2000. Collection of Carole Milton, lost in the Thomas Fire. Exhibited at Studio Channel Islands in 2008/2009; Gerd Koch Retrospective. Photo courtesy of Focus on the Masters Archive, Gerd Koch Papers.

Koch. Along with co-founders Pat Richards Dodds, J. Handel Evans and Maggie Kildee, Koch helped nudge the fledgling organization along, bringing in fantastic artists for impressive exhibitions that brought it prestige and renown.

“Gerd Koch has been a fixture within SCI at every step of its development,” says Tyas. “He has mentored many of the artists in residence as well as playing an invaluable role in bringing about some of our most ambitious projects.”

“I’m a guy who likes to stick my neck out,” Koch explains. “That’s why Pat Richards Dodds called me. I curated around 15 shows to put the university on the map. I had a reputation and I knew a lot of well-known artists.”

Now in its 20th year, Koch has been involved with SCI’s anniversary celebrations.

“Gerd has been helping us to reach out to his students and peers,” Tyas says, noting that Koch helped identify some 30 individuals “who went on to greatness.” Many of these people will be featured in exhibitions this year.

In addition, Koch has been offering travel lectures at SCI. The first one was in January and gave Koch a chance to share his vast knowledge of the places he’s visited, as well as tips for getting the most out of the trip. A lifelong globetrotter, Koch has run numerous tours abroad, discussing everything from art and architecture to history, cuisine and culture.

“You really have to be educated when leading a tour,” Koch says.

His Jan. 27 lecture was such a hit that a second one has been added for March 3.

Looking Ahead

Despite losing everything (the only painting they saved was one of Milton’s), Koch is facing the future with optimism.

“We’re in a sweet little home that’s very contemporary,” Koch says of his new digs. “It’s a nice, interesting place. It’s fun to be back in Ojai, because I have such fond memories of it.”

Ojai has embraced its newest residents wholeheartedly. Ojai Studio Artists have made both Koch and Milton honorary members, and friends and family drop by frequently. Granata recently gave them some paint and other art supplies. Even Koch’s neighbor is a fan, having taken an art class from him at Ventura College some years ago.

“There’s still a lot up in the air,” Koch admits. “We haven’t decided if we’ll buy another home.” The land where the former home was “is a very valuable lot — everybody wants to buy it.”

While he decides the next chapter, his travel lectures and SCI’s anniversary celebrations are keeping him busy . . . and connected to the art community that he loves so deeply and has spent a lifetime sharing with others.

“I want to get people to understand more about art, collect and get to do new things,” Koch says.

Looking back on the years he has spent in Ventura County, the friends he’s made, the students he’s taught, the art and travel and people that have filled his life, Koch is both humble and a bit bemused by it all.

“It’s an interesting, small world, really,” says the artist with a smile.

Gerd Koch offers a travel lecture on Saturday, March 3, at 12:30 p.m. at Studio Channel Islands, 2222 E. Ventura Blvd., Camarillo. For more information, call 383-1368 or visit studiochannelislands.org. For more information on the artist, visit www.gerdhermannkoch.com.