Joe Cardella, a pillar of the Ventura art community since moving here in 1988, died late on Tuesday, May 15, after a battle with esophageal cancer.

Renowned as a conceptual artist whose sculptures and carvings are objects of both intrigue and beauty, he was most closely associated with ART/LIFE, the extraordinary fine-art publication he produced by hand from 1981 to 2006. These limited-edition magazines, once described as “traveling museums,” contained original art and poetry from artists across the globe, opening Ventura up to the art world at large and challenging its residents to reconsider their preconceptions about the definition of art itself.

From the start, Cardella was a breath of fresh air and something of an iconoclast. He studied at Syracuse University and had been part of the experimental Fluxus art movement that came out of the New York art scene, building a reputation as a contemporary and performance artist alongside such luminaries as Allan Kaprow, Alison Knowles and Yoko Ono. What initially brought him to this “sleepy beach town” were its sunny skies and warm weather.

“I had grown up in Connecticut,” he recalled in a phone interview conducted shortly before his death. “Half of my life was shoveling snow. We had to skateboard on icy streets after midnight. In May of 1974, I shoveled myself out on my way to California.”

Cardella landed first in San Francisco, then in 1981 made his way to Santa Barbara and, later, Ventura. The area’s Mediterranean climate agreed with him.

“When I first moved here, the first thing that impressed me was how similar the climate was to my favorite part of the world — the Greek isles,” Cardella recalled. He had spent some time stationed in Greece in the 1960s as a global communications specialist in the U.S. Navy, and his love for the region never left him. The Central Coast proved to be a reasonable domestic alternative.

He found the art scene less agreeable, however — very conservative, not open to outsiders and a little behind the times.

“There were some attempts at contemporary art, but it was really cliquey,” Cardella said. He recalls Santa Barbara undergoing a Fluxus “rediscovery” with parades and festivals, which “I found rather amusing. All the people they were celebrating were my old friends from Soho in 1973-74. But it was all brand-new to everyone in Santa Barbara.”

“I wasn’t accepted into what was already happening,” he continued. “I decided to do a publication instead.”

Cardella began to amass original works — paintings, drawings, mixed-media assemblages, even poetry — to bind together by hand and publish in book form. It wasn’t just a magazine, but a gallery of signed, limited-edition art — portable, accessible, tangible and easy to disseminate. His own work appeared in it, as well as that from artists near and far — people he knew from New York, members of the Fluxus movement, artists from around the world with whom he exchanged ideas by phone and mail. He called it ART/LIFE, and labeled it “Communication for the Creative Mind.”

“Through ART/LIFE I could tap into the eternal network . . . of free and democratic artists,” he explained. “It’s purely the whole point of it — to share.”

For 25 years, Cardella (and a handful of assistants) spread art and ideas through the monthly ART/LIFE. Each issue was limited to just 200 copies. Even so, ART/LIFE became one of the most prized publications of its kind. It wasn’t just individuals, but libraries, museums and universities across the world — places like the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art, Yale, Paris’ Jeu de Paume — that would collect its editions. Cardella says that ART/LIFE was the longest continually published artists’ periodical of the 20th century.

When he retired from publishing in 2006, it was partly because “the digital age had changed the world of communication.” Email, the Internet and social networking had made it easier than ever for ideas to be shared. ART/LIFE hadn’t become irrelevant, but Cardella sensed that a cultural shift had taken place.

While he appreciated the benefits of this modern age of communication, he recognized that something had been lost, too.

“There are whole new groups of people who are making handmade books, manipulated books . . . because with digital, there’s no emotion, it has no human contact, there’s no skin in the game,” he explained. “People like having a little skin in the game.”

For Cardella, retirement didn’t mean inactivity. One of the first things he did after finishing ART/LIFE’s last issue in 2006 was purchase a ticket to his beloved Greece. It became an annual pilgrimage every year after that.

Freed from the labors and deadlines of a publication, he also had more time for his artistic “R and D,” conducted in his home art studio. The surfboards he carved to create a cameo effect are some of his most breathtaking works. “I’ve always enjoyed experimenting with new techniques and materials,” he said.

With such a vast knowledge of art (and life) and a deep and abiding love for sharing and exploring ideas, he was a touchstone and an inspiration for artists in the community. He helped re-launch the Ventura Artists Union (which he had originally founded in 1993) last year, and was honored with his image on a tile included in the Ventura Historic Mural. At the May 6 unveiling reception, artist Michael O’Kelly, who designed the mural, spoke about how Cardella had “made me feel like I was in a big city again,” and encouraged the muralist to always “dream big.”

Cardella was diagnosed with esophageal cancer last year and was cared for by a network of friends and fellow artists. Photographer Dina Pielaet, writer Amy Jones and Jonell McClain were among his primary caregivers, while others kept up with house and yard work. He spent time with friends and colleagues as his energy level allowed.

“Joe is surrounded by a lot of love,” Pielaet said in the days before his death. “And his wit and artistic charm shine through every day. It continues to be a great honor and an amazing journey with Joe.”

ART/LIFE will no doubt shine as Cardella’s great legacy. But his own art, and that which he collected throughout his 72 years, also serve as testaments to a life steeped in creativity.

“His wish is that his home, which is already an art museum filled with his work, along with his ART/LIFE publication archives, remain intact as the ART/LIFE museum and his legacy, a nonprofit that continues to support art and artists in Ventura,” Pielaet said.

Joe Cardella came to a sleepy beach town and helped wake up its creative spirit. He forged his own path in both art and life . . . and helped pave the way for others to do the same.

“Well, I’ve done all I can here,” Cardella said, reflecting on his life and career. “I’m ready to move on and start on my next gig.”

For more information on Joe Cardella and his work, visit art-life.com.