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From an artistic point of view: Kirsten Whalen

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

When Kirsten Whalen met a young man at Berkeley, she had no idea the life they would create together in Laguna Beach. But they did just that – in a big way. She, a native Californian and he, from small town, Massachusetts, figured Southern California was the place they ought to be, so they loaded up the truck and they moved to – no, not Beverly…

Since that fortuitous move, Kirsten and her husband, Bob, have made an indelible mark on the fabric of our lives. Bob Whalen is, of course, Hizzoner, the leader of our fair city, Mayor of Laguna Beach. Kirsten, meanwhile, represents the artistic side of Laguna’s persona. While happy to support Bob who is obviously motivated by governance and community organization, Kirsten Whalen is rather the alternative, quietly expressive side of the Laguna pair. She is an artist, art activist, and art educator. Her new show of watercolors will open at the Festival of Arts this week. 

Kirsten Whalen

She’d be the first one to say, “What, you’re interested in me?” Yes, usually the press comes a-callin’ about Matters Of The City; addressing civic issues, serving charities, attending functions and the like. But, no, we wanted a heart to heart chat about the ways in which Laguna has shaped the person Kirsten Whalen, and vice versa.

“I’m always more comfortable as a behind-the-scenes gal,” she says, spoken like the person creating the canvas. “I’m always assuming people are interested in the community side of my life.”

When the road leads to Laguna

Kirsten studied art and design, earning a Bachelor of Science in Design from UC Davis. She worked as a graphic designer, designing books and business communications tools. When it was time to move from the Bay area for Bob’s law practice, the pair drew a circle on a map around his office location. That’s how they chose Laguna Beach. It was 1980, and affording Laguna was a long shot.

“We thought it was economic insanity,” Kirsten said.

But move they did. They started a life here, and both became involved in arts organizations and also in the organizations important to their kids: Erika, Andy, and Elliot. 

Bob became president of Laguna Beach Little League, the Boys and Girls Club and SchoolPower, and served on the School Board for ten years before moving on to City Council. Kirsten was also involved in the arts at the schools, and started the Performing Arts Booster Club at the high school.

While their daughter was graduating college, and one son was graduating high school, Kirsten answered the siren call inside her head, and went back to school herself. Where else, but Laguna College of Art and Design? It was a homecoming for her love of education and also her desire to do “more personal” artwork.

“I loved it,” she says. “It was so much fun to go back to school!”

Back in college again, Kirsten experimented with technique and ways to merge traditional watercolor and oil painting to develop her own artistic style. In 2005 she received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from LCAD.

The medium and the message

“As a painter, I am drawn to still life because I am fascinated by objects and the power they have to tell stories,” Kirsten says as her Artist’s Statement. “I have always been interested in the human stories we have deduced from the artifacts of previous cultures. Paintings, pottery, sculptures, folktales – all reflect the lives of the people and time in which they were created… but they are also a product of the same universal human urge to create beauty and make sense of the world.”

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There are entire bodies of study into the symbolism within art, especially those works not exactly realist. While Kirsten Whalen’s work is representational, it’s also something not. There is an ironic quality, and a sense of whimsy.

“They are absolutely expressions of myself,” she says.

The scenes and images Kirsten portrays make us notice the world in a whole different way. “My work is narrative,” she says. “I like telling stories with my artwork.”

Trying to describe her work is a personal journey; every audience arrives with their own interpretation. On one of her paintings there are beautifully executed folds on a map, so dimensional you want to reach out and touch it, and then there’s a funny little cowboy toy riding through the western section. Then there’s the globe she painted, in casts of shadow with a miniature aviator dangling from somewhere north of the North Pole… 

“I call them my avatars,” she laughs.

You can’t help but wonder, smile – and maybe start planning a trip.

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As inspiration, Kristen cites artist Wayne Thiebaud, known for his colorful depictions of commonplace objects like cakes, pastries and toys, and Laguna Beach artist Scott Moore, whose works highlight toys and miniatures with surrealist irony.

Trying to sum up her works is even a challenge for the artist to verbalize, “They are… I don’t know? Come see them!”

This is Kirsten’s eighth year as a Festival of Arts exhibitor. Her piece, “Hanging Around” was selected for the Festival’s 2012 souvenir poster. Additionally, her work has won awards in the in the Western Federation of Watercolor Societies Annual exhibit (WFWS 37, Honorable Mention), and the annual City of Laguna Beach Juried Fine Art Exhibitions held by the Laguna Beach Arts Commission. She was a participating artist in the 2012 Laguna Beach Music Festival and with OC Can You Play in 2011.

Whalen’s “Hanging Around”, the Festival souvenir poster of 2012

One of the special things about showing at Festival of Arts is the sense of community with fellow artists. “My work is solitary, so it’s nice to be out and about and talking to people,” Kirsten says. “I love visiting with artists.”

Arts educator

Kirsten is also a big proponent of arts education. In 2008 she started “Art Talks: A Lecture Series” at the Festival, and she’s still spearheading it. 

Every Thursday at noon during the Festival season, artists talk about their inspiration, history, and careers in art. “Listening to the artists present their work is not only interesting and inspiring, but gives attendees a deeper understanding of painting, sculpture, jewelry, ceramics and other art on the grounds.”

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Besides being busy with the many arts organizations in Laguna Beach, Kirsten serves on the board of the Laguna Outreach for Community Arts (LOCA), the nonprofit committed to arts education for people of all ages. 

“Our organization provides workshops to Laguna Beach schools, the Boys and Girls Club, Youth Shelter, Glennwood House, Pacific Marine Mammal Center, and the Laguna Beach Senior Center.”

Thinking about it, “There are 22-24 arts organizations in town,” she remarked. “Now I know where my weekends have gone!”

If time was free

Kirsten’s family hails from Sacramento, and her dad built a cabin at Lake Tahoe in the 1950’s. Whenever Kirsten, Bob, and their kids get a bit of free time, they like to get up to the blue lake and enjoy a little kayaking. Maybe there will be time for that after the summer, but for now it’s full steam ahead for the Whalens as they navigate the busy summer season with arts and community matters filling the calendar.

Say hello to Kirsten at her booth “on the main drag” of the Festival this summer.