December 2017 was dominated by the Thomas Fire and its aftershocks. As the county got back on its feet in 2018, there seemed to be a real need for lightness and frivolity. The theater community offered plenty of that, with several productions that reveled in comical, silly and lighthearted entertainment. From Camarillo Skyway Playhouse’s Five Women Wearing the Same Dress to Panic! Productions’ farcical Inspecting Carol to High Street Arts Center’s Mister Roberts and the musical madness of Rubicon’s Return to the Forbidden Planet, boisterous comedies were on a roll all year long. There were fun productions for kids, too, with Shrek (5-Star Theatricals) and Cinderella (Ojai ACT) reminding audiences that fairy tales can be hilarious as well as heartfelt.
Even more laughter came via an impressive lineup of comedians that came to town. Eddie Izzard, Carrot Top, Paula Poundstone and Dennis Miller were some of the bigger names that performed on local stages. But the roster wasn’t limited to comedy: Legends-in-their-own-time William Shatner and Lily Tomlin made appearances as well, and master illusionist Ivan Amodei brought his magic touch.
Numerous institutions celebrated big anniversaries in 2018. Rubicon Theatre Company’s “season of enchantment” marked 20 years of being in business, as did a series of colorfully painted pianos scattered about Downtown Ventura. Studio Channel Islands also celebrated its 20th anniversary, with a year full of programming and events that both honored Ventura County’s longtime artists (SCI founders Gerd Koch and Pat Richards Dodds both received Medici Awards) and celebrated new and emerging talent — one of the most memorable being Linda Stein’s Fluidity of Gender exhibition. Billy Clower Dance Studio reached the 65-year milestone, while the Majestic Ventura Theater held a big birthday bash to celebrate the grande dame’s 90 trips around the sun. It also introduced a toy convention in September, and in December announced a new deal with entertainment company Live Nation.
Less joyous but equally relevant, 2018 also marked 90 years since the St. Francis Dam disaster, and in February and March, lectures, special tours, exhibits and more took place across the county to commemorate it. The Channel Islands Maritime Museum recognized the 100 year anniversary of the end of “The Great War” in November with the special exhibit World War One: History in the Making.
And speaking of history . . . In May, the long-awaited Ventura Historic Mural was finally unveiled. A whopping 48 feet long and 9-1/2 feet high, the mural tells the story of this city — its people and places, memorable events, cultural aspects and all the elements that make it special — in beautiful, colorful tiles designed by artist Michael O’Kelly. Now situated in front of the San Buenaventura Mission, it is likely to become one of the city’s most seen (and possibly most recognizable) landmarks. Among the many “Ventura greats” featured in the artwork are Joe Cardella, ART/LIFE publisher and pillar of the local arts community, and Helen Yunker, city patron and philanthropist. Both passed away in 2018, but we’re grateful that their spirits will live on in the mural.
The California Museum of Art Thousand Oaks found a new home this year. CMATO had hoped to make their location near the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza a permanent one. But after being denied exclusive rights to the property in 2017, a Plan B became necessary. It moved to The Oaks mall in the fall, officially opening its doors Nov. 14. Vita Art Center and the Buenaventura Art Association gallery also moved this year. Vita is now at 28 W. Main St. in Ventura, while BAA moved into Vita’s old residence at the Bell Arts Factory. BAA’s grand opening took place in October during ArtWalk, which this year honored John M. White as its Artist of Distinction. Vita Art Center hosted ArtWalk Global Artist of Distinction Song Byeok.
The Atrium Gallery at the Ventura County Government Center stirred controversy when a politically charged exhibit opened in October. Chaos and Order and Still At War featured works that tackled gun violence, feminism and racism . . . and their presence in a public government building ruffled some feathers. Complaints were made, and some of the work was taken down. Then, after concerns about free speech were raised, it was put back up . . . in a less conspicuous location. The compromise didn’t satisfy everyone, but both Government Center and Atrium Gallery officials felt that the solution addressed both critics and those concerned with First Amendment rights.
As 2018 came to a close, art inspired by the Thomas Fire could be found all over Ventura County. The Santa Paula Art Museum, Agriculture Museum, Kwan Fong Gallery and the Carnegie Art Museum all opened exhibits of paintings, photography, fiber art and more that related in some way to the inferno that engulfed Ojai and Ventura a year ago, or to the new growth that sprung up afterward. The book From the Fire: Ojai Reflects on the Thomas Fire by Elizabeth Rose and Deva Temple debuted, depicting photography, poetry and interviews. The Hill and Woolsey fires broke out right around the time that many of these exhibits were opening, giving art lovers (and all Ventura County residents, really) a chilling sense of déjà vu.
High-stepping theater, high-spirited laughter, galleries on the move, art exploring politics, destruction and rebirth. Art and culture had its ups and downs in 2018, for sure, but one thing can be said: It was never boring. We live in interesting times indeed.