With handcrafted chocolates and inspired tableware, the Mama of Dada is back in the spotlight at the Porch Gallery
By Misty Hall
Part of the allure of Ojai’s Porch Gallery is its juxtaposition of contemporary art housed in a historic Victorian building. An expansive porch wraps around the exterior, creating a welcoming space dotted with pink lounge chairs. This is not a cold and formal “look reverently and leave” type of gallery. It is inviting — intentionally so. Come on in, it seems to say. Stay awhile.
Art disguised as road signs in the parking lot and out front provide unexpected levity (and, somehow, gravity) as you approach. “All we have is now,” reads one. “Attention,” reads another in bold red and white. “Take note of what it feels like to be alive right now.” Important reminders that set the tone for the art you’re about to experience.
Upon entering the gallery, it becomes clear that owners Heather Stobo and Lisa Casoni want to honor the building’s architecture and character, while simultaneously creating open space for the art to shine. Although the gallery hosts rotating exhibits of contemporary art throughout the year, this fall the front room features the work of one prolific artist. To the right, a large display of pink, brown, and white boxes sits on a table; in the corner, shelves are lined with chocolate bars. The mantle over the old fireplace prominently displays a photo of a woman, Beatrice Wood, whose easy smile suggests an otherworldly understanding of the world, and of herself. Just above her portrait, her nickname is emblazoned on the wall: Beato. The left side of the gallery features several of her drawings, which surround a dinner table set with handmade dishes. The settings are undeniably intriguing. Chunky goblets, plates on low pedestals, curved-rim bowls, all feature Beato’s legendary luster glazes.
The Porch Gallery’s front room has become a shrine to this woman, who defied every convention of her time (and, in some ways, our own time). Beatrice Wood was a rebel with a wicked sense of humor who explored drawing, painting, ceramics, writing, culture, spirituality, sensuality, and more. Her life was her art. “Beatrice Wood was well aware there should be no separation between life and art, from the creation of functional ceramics to sculptural works that shared the humor she found in human folly,” said Kevin Wallace, Director of the Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts.
Beato lived to be 105 years old, creating art right up to the end in her Upper Ojai studio. Asked once about her longevity, she gave an answer only “The Mama of Dada” could: “I owe it all to artbooks, chocolate, and young men.”
Of chocolate (and young men)
Thanks to a partnership with the Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts, Beato Chocolates were “anti-established” at the Porch Gallery in 2018. These fair trade certified, locally handmade treats, source ingredients locally whenever possible. “They are all little works of art,” Heather said. And even though Beato herself was constantly eating chocolate — “She didn’t care if it was good chocolate or bad chocolate, she just loved eating it!” Heather said — the folks at Porch Gallery and the Beatrice Wood Center knew their chocolates had to be top-shelf. “There was no way we were going to put out something that was half-assed,” Lisa said.
The pink boxes include either the Moon Face or Horse chocolate sculptures, made in molds inspired by those Beato once used in her artwork. The bars of chocolate, meanwhile, are wrapped in Beato’s etchings, which in turn inspire the flavor profiles of each variety.
Like the artist — whose autobiography is titled I Shock Myself — some of the chocolate bar’s names are, well … unorthodox. But delightfully so. Pinching Spaniards has 72 percent dark chocolate with roasted Marcona almonds and smoked paprika. Bored at a Cocktail Party has, appropriately, pretzels in it. And The Pussy Between Us (the label for which features a man, a woman, and a yellow cat) is, uh, milk chocolate.
In creating each new flavor with chocolatier Fran Gealer, Heather explained, “We would say, ‘What would Beato think of this?’ The Pussy Between Us — I mean, it’s one of the titles of her artwork! Fran said, ‘This should be the milk chocolate bar,’ … and we started laughing, because it’s funny! Then it was like, wait a minute, we need to do that! … I can’t tell you how many bars started with, ‘Oh, we CAN’T do that!’”
Other flavors pay homage to places Beato held close to her heart. Peppermint Retreat honors the Pepper Tree Retreat, the East End property where famed philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti resided when in Ojai. The Happy Valley bar — featuring locally-sourced orange oil and Ojai Pixie tangerine dust — tips its hat to the Upper Ojai location of Beato’s studio, now the Beatrice Wood Center.
A new bar coming out soon will highlight rose and sea salt, in a nod to a little-known piece of late ‘90s trivia. Beato, as it turns out, was the inspiration behind the character Rose in the movie Titanic. “Bill Paxton gave James Cameron Beato’s autobiography,” said Heather. A lightbulb went off: it was just the type of woman he wanted for his main character. “So, he would come up and interview her. She was his inspiration for Rose.”
“There’s a photo of those two together!” Lisa recalled. “She made him a piece, a sculpture. She was such a flirt, too.”
Chocolate and young men, indeed.
Year of the Dinner Party
While the chocolate is now well (anti) established at Porch Gallery, the tableware in the front gallery is new. It’s part of “The Year of the Dinner Party,” the gallery’s latest exhibit. “One of the things we’ve always loved about Beato was her energy,” said Heather. “She loved having dinner parties, and introducing people to her work through dinner parties. We’ve taken her energy, her love for life and put it into our chocolates. And now we’re taking her love of entertaining and doing these dinner sets.”
While the pieces are not Beato originals, they have been painstakingly recreated from Beato’s works, and they use her original clay and glaze recipes provided by the Beatrice Wood Center. “These are exact specifications, as close to her original pieces as possible,” Heather said. But finding the right artists to recreate these works — who could not only produce at scale but who could also be trusted to treat these precious recipes with the proper reverence — took some doing.
Enter Rich Mudge and Joanne Horton, of Creative Fire Studios. As the four discussed the idea, they discovered a surprising connection. “When Joanne graduated, her parents took her up to meet Beato,” Heather said. “There were all these things that made it just right.”
Soon, the dinner sets will be used at several intimate dinner parties at the gallery. “We’re not trying to do an ‘Outstanding in the Field’ thing,” Lisa said of the popular pop-up dining experience. “This will be 20 or less people. So everyone’s eating off this dinnerware, and understanding what that’s all about, and why it’s special.”
Kevin Wallace, Director of the Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts, put it this way: “Experiencing life as art is the ultimate luxury and BeatoWare is designed for those who believe in elevating the experience of entertaining or an intimate meal at home to that of interactive art or theatre. Those who were fortunate to be invited to dine with Beatrice Wood at her home recall drinking from her goblets, eating from her tableware, and the conversations that would take place — from the seriousness of world affairs to naughty stories that would leave her giggling like a schoolgirl.”
The Porch Gallery is located at 310 E. Matilija St., Ojai. For more, visit porchgalleryojai.com