A lot has changed in Ojai’s Arcade during the past four decades. No longer home to the Elbow Room, the Mighty Bite, the Music Box, or even the beloved Village Florist, it is now famous for its galleries and boutiques — reflecting Ojai’s rising status as an artistic destination.
Among the first of those galleries, Human Arts, formerly known as Running Ridge Gallery, is now celebrating 40 years in business. It was founded at the Arcade’s walkway at 310 East Ojai Avenue by three couples, Bob and Barbara Grabowski, John and Ruth Farnham and Jett and Sharon Spencer, in June 1975 during the Ojai Music Festival.
Now under the ownership of Stan and Hallie Katz, Human Arts represents 135 artists from around the country, 18 Ojai-based, and including one each from Great Britain and Canada. The variety and selection changes frequently, but the theme of merging the beauty of art into everyday life hasn’t changed since the beginning.
Stan and Hallie met in high school and married in 1968. While Hallie pursued jewelry making, Stan worked as a journeyman metalsmith, fabricating stainless steel range hoods for a restaurant equipment company. In 1970, they opened their first business — a jewelry school in the San Fernando Valley. “We taught hobbyists mainly, and a few professionals who wanted to learn new techniques, and had an adjacent craft gallery,” Hallie said. “We offered up to nine classes a week, a complete supply store, and a gallery next door to display our work plus other art and crafts we admired.”
Stan Katz said, “We ran that first business by the seat of our pants for many years. I found I took over the running of the office, and pretty much all of the management and bookkeeping tasks. This left the artistic and creative side of the business to Hallie.”
During those years, the culture of crafts and folk art was burgeoning. “I was quite inspired by my teachers, who were all accomplished artists,” Hallie said. “I was totally smitten with the idea of living a craftsman’s lifestyle. We used to hang out at the Egg and Eye, which became the Craft and Folk Art Museum.”
They met like-minded people, and like-minded artistic people are likely going to cross paths with Ojai at some point.
The Katzes were introduced to Ojai through the Spencers, who they met through mutual friends in Los Angeles. “We visited the Spencers a number of times in Ojai and became friends, too, with the Grabowskis and Farnhams,” who also took in Stan and Hallie as business partners, replacing the departing Spencers.
In 1980, they moved to Ojai; in 1990, they took over sole ownership of the gallery, and, in 1994, they opened a second, larger location, for furniture and home accessories. Then, when Ojai’s tourist-based economy took a tumble in 2008, they closed the original location, combining the fine arts and crafts with the artisan-made furnishings. “Having all the art, jewelry and furnishings under one roof was much more interesting for customers and fans who visited us regularly,” Hallie said.
Having repeat business is one of the rewards of being in business 40 years, Hallie said, with the Ojai Music Festival weekend “being like a reunion.”
The couple keeps their artistic fires burning, as well. Hallie keeps up with jewelry designs and techniques. “During our early years in Ojai I taught people who were helping me produce my jewelry to sell in craft markets and galleries around the country,” she said. “More recently I taught the basics of fabricating silver jewelry to a few of our gallery assistants.”
Stan Katz is clearing space for a metal shop. “I’ve started to draw on my early skills as a metal worker to assemble people or animallike forms out of all kinds of discarded metals. I have sold a few robot-like creations in our store, and am just now clearing out a space to make a proper metal workshop.”
Hallie Katz takes great enjoyment in the time in her shop, working with precision tools to craft custom designs, which stand as artistic achievements in their own right.
“I love doing unusual wedding rings for people. I can provide gems or use the customer’s own stones. It’s always gratifying to make the old look new and sparkly again in an updated setting.And most of the work I do is one-of-a-kind. Sometimes I get to do a particularly artful design for a more progressive client.”
For example, she said, “Last summer, I made a fabulous big wedding ring constructed in two parts, 18K white-and-yellow gold, joined together, with a champagne-colored diamond and three green diamonds set on top. It was one very bold design, challenging to make, and the client was elated with the outcome. When I get to design jewelry that is wearable sculpture like this, I am most happy.”
Stan said, “Her sense for good craftsmanship shows in all the work we buy for our shop, and in pretty much all the things that we do. She also is really good with people. She has, in the past, spent many hours on committees that benefit the town of Ojai, and the world of fine crafts."
Ojai has changed significantly during the past 4 decades, both Katzes said. “We are seeing more young people come through, inspired to visit Ojai from the articles and PR that has been recently generated. And that, too, has made us think about having items that will appeal to a younger crowd,” Hallie said.
“Thankfully,” Stan said, “Ojai still has the small-town village feeling. Its people have not changed so much … When we first started, we definitely had more serious collectors travel to see us from south of Los Angeles through Central California. We were one of the only fine contemporary craft galleries in Southern California. Today, collecting is not so serious. If you are traveling, and you see something you like, and you can afford to put it on one of your credit cards, you just might buy it.”
They love to travel, and hope to do more of it. But even during the busiest years they traveled to buyer shows to keep in touch with the world of fine crafts. “Stan and I attend a show that the American Craft Council hosts every winter in Baltimore,” Hallie said. “It’s a very high level exhibition of expert crafts people who go through a rigorous jury system to get in, and it’s very inspiring to see. Every year for over 35 years we’ve gone to hunt for new work, renew our relationships with many of the artists we’ve represented for a long time, and network with fellow gallery owners. We really get energized and always appreciate how amazing the world of craft can be.”
One of the things that keeps them fresh is the sense of discovery. Hallie said, “It’s very exciting when we find an artist who has created something we’ve never seen before that fits with our sense of aesthetics. We start to hyperventilate and we know we must have it! And then you just hope that it will sell. It’s not all about selling, of course – we do have a responsibility to show new and exciting work.”
Some of those discoveries have taken place in their own backyard. “We sold the work of Beatrice Wood, and Otto and Vivika Heino early on, Jim Danisch, and many other accomplished local artists. And today we represent some top-notch Ojai artists including Ted Gall, Christine Brennan, Sandra Torres, Elaine Unzicker and Andrea Haffner.
Being husband and wife, as well as business partners, presents its own challenges, but the couple has worked out a division of duties. Stan said, “On both sides, it’s a constant give and take. We joke about never seeing eye-to-eye, but the truth is some vague middle ground. We love most all of the different things that we do together, and most of all we love the business that we created together.”
Hallie said, “We’ve been passionate about what we do for all these years, and this has kept us going. We look upon visitors to HumanArts as guests in our ‘home.’”
Source: The Ojai Quarterly Magazine http://theojai.net/