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Robin Wethe Altman: creating heaven on earth

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

She’s the quintessential Laguna summer girl… Growing up in the 1970’s, with her long blonde hair flowing, and stitching macramé necklaces woven with seashells she dove for that morning. She’d gather her paintings and nestle with them in a booth at the Sawdust in the day, and help run a concession at the Pageant of the Masters at night.

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Artist Robin Wethe Altman

Robin Wethe Altman has seen just about every permutation of Laguna life – from sleepy little beach town where she rode her bike to the high school and her horse along the bluff top, to the burgeoning international tourist destination and art mecca, replete with soaring real estate prices.

“Laguna has changed,” she said. “Not so much visually – it is still artistic and tasteful, but back then it was sleepier. It’s more sophisticated now… fancy restaurants and a lot of flashy cars. It’s tough as an artist to live here.”

These days Robin supports herself completely by her art. She is a long-time watercolor artist who has shown at all three Laguna summer art venues, and is watching this summer unfold from her booth at Art-A-Fair.

It’s a Laguna thing

When she was just a kid Robin got to join the very first Patriot’s Day Parade: her grandmother started it. Her grandma, Grace Wethe, was a member of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. “She was maybe in her 80’s, but she wanted to bring patriotism back,” Robin tells us. 

Grandma was obviously onto something heartfelt and true, as the parade has been an important historical tradition in Laguna for 49 years now.

“I got to ride in the parade in her honor three years ago,” Robin says with pride.

Robin’s family held another long-time Laguna tradition, at the Pageant of the Masters. They ran the binocular concession, to the delight of an audience who wants to get right up close to the tableaux vivant, and maybe see the artwork move a little. 

“We never missed a single show in 46 years,” she says. “Our whole family depended on that.”

It may seem surprising in light of current standard’s paychecks, but the rental of those binoculars was a way of life for everyone involved: Robin, her brother, mom and dad. It was “a bitter pill to swallow” when the Festival took over the concession, but Robin moved forward, and learned more to appreciate everything she has, in the moment. 

Wise words to live by indicate Robin’s positive sensibility: She says, “Conditions don’t make happiness, happiness makes conditions.”

Since the binocular concession days, she has lived on her art completely.

Portrait of an artist as a young girl

“I rode my bike to Laguna Beach High along the cliffs of Heisler Park, had lunch between classes at Main Beach with my surfer boyfriend, and did my homework on the sand at Rock Pile cove,” she remembers. “On my way home I would tour by the galleries on ‘Gallery Row’ to gather inspiration for my own work. I was determined to be in a gallery there when I was older.”

And she lived according to the mindset of an artist.

“Maybe it’s because I grew up in the 70’s, with the peace movement, love and acceptance for all… The things you think of if heaven was really on earth… I like to paint those things… A more humble, slower pace of life.”

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Robin’s banner is flying high in front of the art festivals

She remembers her young girl spark-of-inspiration at Audubon art/nature shows. “I thought, ‘What is it that’s so weird about me?’ I just felt so much emotion about beauty!” 

Robin translated the beauty she saw with her mind’s eye to the canvas. Then she started selling her art at the Sawdust Festival – that place her parents wouldn’t even let her go to as a kid.

“It was a wild, wild place to be,” she laughs. “I love the spirit of the Sawdust.”

(She was there the day local photographer Doug Miller stepped off the bus in his Navy uniform. She teases him still because he asked her if she knew where the “Strawberry Festival” was.)

The Sawdust was also a fortuitous place to be for Robin’s future as an artist. The Festival of Arts Foundation scholarship program provided her full scholarship to study art at college. She graduated in 1976 with a BA in Fine Art from Principia College.

Robin Wethe Altman has now shown at ten different galleries in Laguna over the years, as well as The Festival of Arts, the Sawdust, and the Art-A-Fair festivals. She is in private and corporate collections, and even has her paintings on Hasbro’s puzzles. Her works are currently featured at Art-A-Fair and also at Laguna Watercolor Gallery, fulfilling her childhood dream of showing on “Gallery Row”.

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R. Wethe Altman’s booth at Art-a-Fair 

“Being an artist in Laguna is like nirvana to me,” she says. “I will never take the life I live for granted.” Part of that blessing is the sense of camaraderie with other artists. “The artists here are beautiful people. There are so many amazing characters, some I have known for over 30 years! When one of us sells a painting, we all celebrate.”

A balancing act

And what does Robin fill her time with while not painting? “Marketing!” she says. “It takes half my time.” But, she adds: “I’m a big believer in balance too – live life to the fullest! Contented artists live it, and it comes across in their art.”

Robin senses things coming together in a positive way especially, these days. It was a happy surprise was when she discovered that the banner she had painted for the city was flying out in the front of the Sawdust this year. Meanwhile, her mural was selected by the Arts Commission for their “Postcards from Laguna” competition, and is now displayed on the Verizon building, next to Whole Foods. And that’s not all! One of her watercolors, a view of Main Beach, is gracing the cover of the Passport to the Arts 2015 brochure. (The Passport to the Arts piece was voted on by all three art festivals.)

“It was like a gift,” she says humbly. 

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From the Arts Commission’s “Postcards from Laguna” series, 

Robin painted another painter- it’s downtown on the Verizon building

It is her gift to give back – as in helping others. For her whole life, Robin has felt that art is a way of helping people. “Maybe to help them evolve,” she says. “Like Shangri-La could be here if we decide to make it.”

Toward that end, Robin continues to spread her positive attitude, and she gives her art for good causes too, such as the My Hero Project to honor women, Transition Laguna’s poster, and cards for an interfaith group.

“Art is important,” she says. “It can be used for a lot of causes.” And she adds, for the benefit of youngsters, “Don’t take art out of schools!”

The forecast is for 100% chance of happiness

The overriding theme of Robin’s artwork is idyll. That’s no doubt in part because she grew up in an idyllic place, and sees beauty everywhere.

“It’s my always theme,” she says brightly. “It’s the idealist in me. Creating art makes me feel so happy. I put my spin on things with color and whimsy – make everything brighter. Like heaven on earth, I paint it the way it could be.”