Meditation Mount Modernists Rediscovered
Published in the Ojai Quarterly, Summer 2011
Ojai Quarterly Article (pdf) by Elise DePuydt
Ojai Quarterly Article (pdf) by Elise DePuydt
_Below is the full text of the article. Evelyn Ackerman's Signs of the Zodiac door panels at Meditation Mount are pictured at the left.
A few months ago I found myself amongst an excited throng of people at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles; all there to celebrate the work of a dynamic design team whose multimedia work has influenced the design world for over 50 years. The thread that led me from Ojai to this reception involves a mystery, an interesting discovery and a new-found appreciation.
I stumbled upon the mystery in 2008 while I was researching the Meditation Mount section of my book, A Photo Guide to Fountains and Sculptures of Ojai: Art, History & Architecture. Meditation Mount was built in the late 1960s by Florence Garrigue, President of Meditation Groups, Inc., for the purpose of promoting an enlightened and compassionate world through the power of meditation. Mrs. Garrigue hired Ojai architect Zelma Wilson to build the hilltop facility in Ojai’s east end. The elegant Tibetan-style buildings capture the spirit of the group’s mission with grace and simplicity. Peace and serenity pervade the 32-acre facility and gardens. I especially admired the beautiful redwood doors on the meditation hall, with each carved panel representing a sign of the zodiac. But I was unable to discover anything about them. Neither the staff nor the board members knew of their origin, nor could any records be found in the office.
I was disappointed not to find out more about these charming and unique door panels, but decided to include a small picture of them in my book anyway. I’m very glad I did. This led to my meeting a wonderful couple and being introduced to their life’s work.
Shortly after publication of my book, I received an email from Bruce Chernof, an adjunct professor of medicine at UCLA and president and CEO of The SCAN Foundation. Chernof is a newcomer to the valley, having built a house in Upper Ojai a few years ago. He had seen the picture in my book and had some news for me. He revealed that the zodiac door panels at Meditation Mount were designed by Culver City artist Evelyn Ackerman. Evelyn and her husband Jerome (known as Jerry) are considered key artists in an aesthetic called “California Mid-Century Modernism.” Chernof has known the Ackermans for about 10 years, having met them at a pottery show at the Los Angeles Arboretum where Jerry was showing his ceramics. Since then, Chernof has become a fan of their work and also a friend. The zodiac doors, he said, “are incredible and really fit the Meditation Mount architecture well.”
“At the heart of their collaboration is a love story,” said Joyce Lovelace, American Craft Magazine, June/July, 2009
Though Jerry and Evelyn went to the same Detroit area schools growing up they didn’t know each before being introduced through a mutual friend in 1948. Shortly after marrying later that same year, they formed an art design team and have worked together ever since.
Evelyn, now 87, is four years younger than Jerry. She completed her bachelor’s degree in fine arts at Wayne University in Detroit (now Wayne State University) in 1945 and continued on to complete a Master of Fine Art degree at the same school.
As for Jerry, after serving in World War II he returned to Wayne to complete an art major he had started before the war. Jerry took his first pottery class at this time and fell in love with it. Charles Harder, chairman of the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, was a guest juror at a senior art exhibition at Wayne. He was impressed with Jerry’s work and invited him to join the Alfred graduate program. Jerry accepted and in June 1952 received a Master of Fine Art degree in ceramics. Alfred is the same school that renowned Ojai potter Vivika Heino attended.
A 1949exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts called “For Modern Living” had a tremendous influence on the young art students. The exhibition showcased the work of several innovative contemporary designers including Ray and Charles Eames and George Nelson. Jerry recalls how it opened their eyes to an entirely new way of thinking and design expression. This is when the seed was planted that they too could become designers.
After moving to California and eventually settling in Los Angeles, the Ackermans met Beatrice Wood, Wood’s teachers Gertrud and Otto Natzler, and Otto and Vivika Heino. Both Wood and the Heinos eventually settled in the Ojai Valley, while the Ackerman’s thrived in the Los Angeles art and design community.
Combining their names, Jerry and Evelyn opened Jenev Design Studio in West Lost Angeles in the early 1950s, later becoming ERA Industries. Through artistic talent, ingenuity and hard work they developed, produced and marketed their designs. Their first line was ceramics designed by Jerry that eventually were marketed nationally. Their work started to appear in the Los Angeles Times Home magazine, House and Garden and other publications.
In 1955 Evelyn began designing mosaics for tables and wall panels. Soon there was great demand for their mosaic products and they opened a mosaic workshop in Mexico. Evelyn focused on the designs and Mexican artisans produced the pieces. One of her mosaic murals, “Sea, Land, and Sky,” can be seen today in Santa Barbara at 112 E Victoria Street on a law office building designed by Santa Barbara architect and artist Louis Mazzetti.
The Ackermans’ exploration into other media continued to grow. Evelyn had an interest in weaving and woven tapestries were added to their product line. They worked with a family of skilled weavers in Mexico who executed Evelyn’s designs. Her first one, “Hot Bird”, was featured on the cover of the Los Angeles Times Home magazine in 1957. As time went on they added products made of metal and wood. Their designs made their way into major departments stores such as Bloomingdales and Macys, as well as being specified by interior designers and architects.
The Ackermans opened a showroom on Melrose Avenue and San Vicente Boulevard in 1959, and then moved to a larger showroom on Beverly Boulevard in the heart of the design trade in 1964. Their last showroom was in the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles.
They were continually adding to their product lines. Their knowledge of traditional crafts led them to utilize the skills of crafts men and women around the world including those in Greece, Kashmir, Italy, and Japan, in addition to Mexico. For example, 12 large needlepoint tapestries using Evelyn’s full-sized drawings were made in Greece for the Litton Industries corporate office in Beverly Hills.
The Ackermans’ goal was to keep the production runs small and the quality high. They adhered to the Bauhaus philosophy of combining fine art, craft and industry to produce useful, well-made things. They wanted their products to maintain a handcrafted look but to also be affordable.
The zodiac door panels designed by Evelyn were made using the furniture manufacturing technique of multiple spindle carving where the design was first roughed out of the wood and then hand finished by a carver. Evelyn’s wood panel series were marketed by Panelcarve (later called Forms+Surfaces) for architectural applications.
“The life they built for themselves, the idea of them being a team, together and sharing, and caring how they went about their craft draws people to the Ackermans.”—Gerard O’Brien, owner of Reform Gallery, Los Angeles.
In the late 1980s, Jerry and Evelyn cut back on developing and manufacturing new designs and returned to working in their home studio on individual projects. Jerry resumed throwing pots. Evelyn created a 40-piece series of cloisonne enamels, “Stories from the Bible”, which is now in the permanent collection of the Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.
The couple exhibited in all 12 California Design shows that ran from 1954 to 1976 at the now-defunct Pasadena Museum of Art. The highlights of these shows are chronicled in a book called California Design: The Legacy of West Coast Craft and Style by Chronicle Books, 2005.
In September 2008, the Museum of California Design honored Jerry and Evelyn for their contribution to American design. They received a Distinguished Alumni Award from Wayne State University in 2010. Jerry also received an Alfred University Alumni Award for Distinguished Achievement in 2010. A comprehensive retrospective of their 60-year collaborative work was presented at the Mingei International Museum in San Diego (March 2009 to January 2010.)
Then in January, 2011 the Craft and Folk Art Museum mounted a retrospective exhibit called “A Marriage of Craft and Design: The Work of Evelyn & Jerome Ackerman.”. The exhibit, curated by Jo Lauria and Dale Carolyn Gluckman, displayed the couple’s remarkable diversity of styles, techniques and materials. It was at the opening reception for the exhibit that I finally met Evelyn and Jerry−and also Bruce Chernof, the man who had alerted me to the Ackermans’ connection with the Meditation Mount doors.
That exhibit completed its run in May, but some of the Ackermans’ designs will be displayed at an upcoming exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art called, “California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way.” (It’s scheduled to run from October 1, 2011 to March 25, 2012. Watch for details at www.lacma.org and meanwhile visit the Ackermans’ website at: www.ackermanmodern.com
The Ackermans’ creative and charming work has given me a new found appreciation and interest in the modern design period. I’ve certainly enjoyed meeting them and taking this little artistic journey. Jerry and Esther, never having been to Meditation Mount, were thrilled when we contacted them last year. They are hoping to make the trip one day soon to see their beautiful handiwork in this spectacular setting.
Meditation Mount is open to the public daily from 10 a.m. to Sunset. For more information visit www.meditationmount.org.
Elise DePuydt works for the Ojai Film Society and the Ojai Valley Museum. She is the author of a guide book featuring the art and history of Ojai called: “A Photo Guide to Fountains and Sculptures of Ojai: Art, History & Architecture.” She is one of the museum docents giving Historical Walking Tours of Ojai on Saturday mornings. She can be reached at email@example.com