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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.


Donnie Crevier: Helping others overcome obstacles

By Samantha Washer

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

“I was a real stellar guy,” says Donnie Crevier.  Now, if you didn’t know Donnie Crevier, you might think he was being immodest.  After all, he is the recipient of countless philanthropic and business awards so if he wanted to describe himself as “stellar” few would argue.  However, Crevier was being deeply sarcastic when he used that word to describe himself in his younger days as a teenager growing up in Laguna Beach. Donnie Crevier may be many things, but immodest is definitely not one of them.  

Growing up too fast

He came to Laguna from Glendale when he was five years old with his mother, “…a single, divorced woman with two kids and no skills.”  Why Laguna?  “She was a romantic,” Crevier explains. “I’m very appreciative for that.”  Crevier attended grammar school and middle school in Laguna, but then came the teenage years.  

“By 14 I’m growing up too fast.  I’m hanging out with older kids so…my parents thought it might be better if I moved back to Glendale with my dad for a little more structure.  I lived with him for three years and then begged for forgiveness and was allowed to return (to Laguna).”  

This was mid-way through his junior year at LBHS.  By his senior year he was living on his own.  “I needed an adult to be my guardian. I picked a guy I surfed with.  He was about 22.  I lived with him for awhile.  I barely finished high school.  In fact, I had to take a night class to graduate,” he explains. There is no drama in his recounting of these years, but clearly they were not the easiest of times. 

Donnie Crevier 

Tired of being broke

Crevier attended college for two and a half years.  “I got tired of being broke and got a job in the car business,” he says.  He had some experience.  His father owned a used car lot in Glendale and Crevier worked there as a kid, washing cars and eventually doing some sales.  He took a job selling cars at Theodore Robins Ford in Costa Mesa.  He worked there for eight years.  

“Then my dad started a BMW dealership in 1972 with my uncle,” says Crevier.  His dad had really wanted a Volkswagen dealership, but couldn’t afford it.  Back then, BMW was not widely known in the US so it was cheaper to get BMWs than VWs. Crevier joined his father and uncle two years later, in 1974.

Success beyond their imagination

The dealership grew and grew.  “It grew beyond anything we had imagined,” says Crevier.  “We had some father/son challenges along the way, but our relationship got tighter and tighter with time.  We became mutually respectful of one another,” says Crevier.  His father has since passed away, but it is obvious that father and son shared a deep bond.  

“My dad was a golden rule philosophy kind of guy.  He believed in doing what was right, not just what was legal. And he believed in people.  It is the people in that company…there’s a uniqueness in our people.  We were lucky, but we consciously tried to find that.  It ain’t all GPA or IQ.  It’s how you relate to people.  

Do you care about people…?”  The answer to that question, in regards to Crevier himself, is a resounding yes.  

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Crevier shows off a reprinted newspaper photo from 1955 as a member of the Boys Club of Laguna Beach (now the Boys and Girls Club of Laguna Beach)

Time for cars, time for giving

Crevier sold the company he built with his father in 2011.  However, he is still in the car business.  HIs company, called Crevier Classic Cars, LLC, deals in classic cars as well as sales and leasing for all makes and models, new or used.  The space is frequently used for events, and he encourages people to come check it out.  He’s there every day.  And while the car business still occupies much of his time, his philanthropy is also a time consuming endeavor.

A laundry list of philanthropic awards

His list of honors is ridiculously long, and includes the Orange County Human Relations Award, the Good Scout Award (Orange County Council of the Boy Scouts of America) and the 2012 Citizen of the Year Award from the City of Santa Ana, to name just a few.  And he certainly didn’t bring this list with him when we met, nor did he mention anything about awards or accolades.  What he wanted to talk about was why the programs he supported were important to him. Two programs he is most dedicated to are The Boys and Girls Club of Laguna Beach and High School, Inc.

An alumni gives back

The Boys and Girls Club of Laguna Beach holds a special place in Donnie Crevier’s heart.  “It was a big part of my life.  Back then it was just The Boys Club.  From the ages of 10 to 14 it was really important to me.  I’ve always felt a sense of responsibility to that organization.  Things would have been a lot more complicated for me had it not been in my life,” explains Crevier.  

And to this day, he remains close to Pete Snetsinger, his coach at the Club.  “He was a mentor to me.  I’m having lunch with him next week, as a matter of fact.”  Crevier was presented with the President’s Volunteer Service Award in 2009 for his work with the Club.  He is currently still serving on the Board.  

“I’m not sure how things would have turned out for me without the Boys Club.  I want to try and help kids have an alternative like that so that they can feel better about themselves which leads to better choices.”

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Donnie Crevier, Board Member, in front of the Boys and Girls Club

Ambitious plans for High School, Inc.

While Crevier will always be grateful for the Boys and Girls Club, he is deeply involved in a new endeavor that, while not as personal, definitely echoes the same theme: helping kids help themselves. High School, Inc. is a program that provides high school students with real work experience through six different academies: health care, culinary arts and hospitality, automotive logistics and transportation, new media, global business and engineering, manufacturing and construction.  The program is currently at Valley High School in Santa Ana, but Crevier is looking to expand its reach. 

“We just had some wonderful news.  Our graduation rate for kids enrolled in the six academies on campus is 98.5%.  The grad rate for the rest of the kids is somewhere around 85%.  We have 1,000 kids enrolled now.  We need all the kids there to enroll. 

“We are teaching them career opportunities as well as increasing their interest in education as a whole.  We want this to go all over Santa Ana and then the country,” explains Crevier.  He is very enthusiastic about this program and what it can do.  “It’s a partnership between the school district, the business community, and the school.  This is occupying tons of my time.”  

Committed to giving in Laguna Beach 

If High School Inc. is taking most of his time these days; Crevier still has time for more local giving beyond the Boys and Girls Club.  He’s on the Board of the Laguna Beach Community Foundation and is heavily involved with the Laguna Beach High School Scholarship Foundation.  

“The reason for the Community Foundation’s existence,” explains Crevier, “is because Laguna is a unique community.  Lots of residents support outside issues but are not aware of the needs in this community.  We are trying to bring awareness to Laguna causes.” 

Adding to his seemingly endless list of awards, Crevier was presented with the Donor Honoree at this year’s LBHS convocation ceremony. He started giving scholarships, now called the April and Daphne Crevier Memorial Scholarships in honor of his mother and sister.  This year eight graduates were awarded these scholarships for doing “the right thing for the right reason.” Additionally, Crevier has his own family foundation that he started seven years ago.  “My kids and grand kids are all a part of it,” he says with pride. 

Really, truly a stellar guy

Donnie Crevier uses words like “luck” to describe his success.  He likes to give credit to others.  And, if I think about it, he really didn’t talk much about himself (except to talk about his wayward youth), preferring to discuss the charities he cares about. He is a man who overcame adversity and became successful beyond his own imagination. 

He spends a lot of time and a lot of money helping others so that they, too, can overcome the obstacles life has placed in front of them.  He would probably not like me to say so, but that, to me, is the epitome of a “stellar guy” (hold the sarcasm).


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.”


Ryen Caenn: A “mud engineer” living in Laguna

Written by: Samantha Washer

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

Ryen Caenn is such a fan of living in Laguna Beach he knows the month he and his wife moved here from Irvine – exactly 18 years ago this month.  “When our kids went off to do their own thing we decided to come to Laguna.  We’ve been here since then,” he says. They were anxious to jump into their new community, even if Caenn didn’t get to spend a lot of time here due to his work in the petroleum industry. 

“We joined Village Laguna when we got here.  My wife was president.  She was also the chairperson of the Charm House Tour.  I was the support person,” he says with a grin.  Caenn’s career has kept him on the road – a lot – especially as southern California isn’t exactly the heart of the oil industry.  

His travels have sent him all over the world, but his favorite place to be is home.

Ryen Caenn at home 

From the oil fields of Houston to southern California

His jobs within the oil industry have changed as the industry itself has changed, not surprising in such a boom or bust field. Starting as a drilling fluid technologist (or “mud engineer,” as it is more commonly referred to) in Houston, Caenn spent two weeks a month on drilling rigs.  At the time, he had young children and the schedule wasn’t conducive to family life so he moved to a working in a lab.  He then got a job in San Diego with a company that made a chemical used for fluid in the drilling rigs.  From then on, southern California became home, despite the fact that it was not a hub of the oil business.  Caenn settled in Irvine with his current wife who was a teacher there.  “When you’re a teacher you can’t really change schools so we stayed in Irvine,” he explains.

Changing with the times means changing careers

 In 1981, Caenn says he decided to become a consultant.  

“It was bad timing,” he admits. It was the beginning of an oil bust cycle.  In 1981 there were 4,000 oilrigs - by 1987 there were 600.  There just wasn’t enough volume for him to continue his consulting business and make money.  

So he reinvented himself again, becoming a technical writer.  He commuted to El Segundo every day and wrote user and maintenance manuals.  After many years of this, Caenn, tired of commuting, decided to utilize his now well-honed writing skills and start a magazine.  It was called  “Drilling and Completion Fluids.”  

“It had a subscription of about 350 people,” says Caenn with a shrug.  After that, Caenn started commuting – again – this time to Houston, two weeks out of the month.  He did this for ten years.  “That gets kind of old,” says Caenn in his understated way.  

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Ryen with a photo of himself on the job in the 1960’s

Helping “The Indy” get off the ground

In the early 2000’s Caenn met Stu Saffer.  “In 2001 the petroleum industry collapsed again. I had some time on my hands. I met Stu at Heidelberg Café. We started spending time together.  He was looking for some help to get a new local paper off the ground.  I told Stu I’d like to help.  I used the same software for my magazine that he wanted to use for his paper,” explains Caenn.  

That paper was “The Laguna Beach Independent” (or the “Indy).  

“The very first issue didn’t go well,” according to Caenn.  “Stu wanted it to be around 14-16 pages.  I ended up with ten.  We had a hard deadline.  I sent the file to the printer and they called and said there was no file.  So I put the file on a CD and my wife drove it over to them.  They still couldn’t read it.  I remember it was raining, and I drove over there and ended up staying until around 1 a.m.  I remember seeing my wife asleep on a desk.  Finally, it got printed.  Stu picked it up and took it out for delivery.  The paper was so light it would blow back when they’d try and deliver it,” remembers Caenn.  

After that first edition, things got easier, but Caenn says, “I didn’t realize how hard it was to put that together…It’s like a jigsaw puzzle.  I wasn’t very good at it, but I eventually got better.”

After a few months, Caenn’s job with the paper evolved.  “I mostly worked on the Laguna Home Companion section. I did that for years. I had a camera so I took pictures; miscellaneous things like that,” he says.  Then, in 2007, Caenn got a call that changed his career path, yet again.

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Ryen Caenn and his wife, Anne, with their 15-month-old puppy

Kazakhstan calls with a proposition

“I got a call asking me if I wanted to teach in Kazakhstan.  My first question was ‘Where’s Kazakhstan?’” recalls Caen with a laugh.  “I wasn’t sure, but my wife said, ‘Why don’t you do that?’  I went back five times and decided I really enjoyed teaching.  Now, that’s what I do, primarily in Houston,” he says.  

Caenn teaches newbies about the petroleum industry.  “Sometimes it’s marketing and sales people, sometimes it’s people who are just interested in the business.  I do not teach people who are experienced in the business,” he says.  “In the last four to five years I’ve been gone more than I’ve been home.  I’ve been everywhere in the world there’s a petroleum industry.”  Now, however, Caenn says his business is slowing down. 

And this time, he welcomes it.  

“I’m getting tired.  My wife doesn’t want me traveling to places where people are getting shot,” he says appreciatively.  But he’s still writing.  He co-authored a textbook titled “Composition and Properties of Drilling Completion Fluids” that is used in universities.  There is a definite theme to Caenn’s work, but apparently you have to be in the oil business to have any idea what it actually means!

Slowing down and getting to enjoy life at home

Finally, Caenn is spending more time at his beloved home in Laguna Beach.  “I get up in the morning, have a cup of coffee on the deck and watch the birds.  Right now we have a family of orioles. I sit there and watch the birds, and watch the ocean while I wake up,” says Caenn.  

After traveling for almost all of his adult life, when he talks of these simple pleasures it’s clear he savors them.  But he does more than lounge around and stare at the horizon. There is his pond that needs cleaning; the 15-month-old puppy that needs walking; an exercise class at the Susi Q that needs attending – and he just took up lawn bowling.  “I play for an hour and have a beer,” he says with a smile.  

But he’s not retired yet. “I still enjoy work and I have no plans of retiring,” he says. 

However, he’s is trying to make it so that he can do more of his work online to cut down on the travel.  

When you’ve been everywhere, there really is no place like home.

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Caenn surveys his backyard pond


Ryan Heimbach: a Festival exhibitor’s perspective

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Scott Brashier

Ryan Heimbach strikes me as a young person with an old soul. Unlike many young people, he knows what he doesn’t know, and seeks to learn the answers. He’s the first person I’ve talked with in a long time who actually calls himself an apprentice.

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Ryan Heimbach

The apprentice has enormous respect for his mentor, Festival artist and award-winning sculptor, Andrew Myers. “I didn’t think of art until I worked with Andrew,” Ryan says. Myers taught Ryan technique and logistics and the ins and outs of the art world, while Ryan developed his own artistic voice. Since 2008 Ryan has worked on many of Meyers’ big projects, finding inspiration along the way. 

“I did whatever he was a part of. He inspires me,” says Ryan. 

In “old soul” fashion, Ryan thoroughly appreciates his mentor’s finished works. “Even though my name’s not on it, I’m not that kind of guy,” he says. 

An artist breaks out

Apprentice he may be, but Ryan is accomplished enough to have found his artistic passion, with talent to match. He’s one of the youngest artists ever selected to show at the Festival of Arts, garnering accolades and art patrons along the way.

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His piece this year, titled Breaking Through, is a cast bronze, plaster, and stainless steel sculpture of hands emerging from the wall. A narrative piece in three parts, the first hand is clenched around an egg, moving on to the next hand with the egg cracking, while the third hand presents a fist emerging from within the egg it holds. It’s provocative sculpture, and draws queries and dialog with the patrons at the Festival.

“I think it’s my mental mindset,” said Ryan. “I want to take things further and break through.” 

Art emerges

He grew up in Laguna Canyon, the son of a single mom, Diane DeBilzan, who had a gallery in Laguna for many years. His uncle is the artist William DeBilzan. Ryan was surrounded and nurtured by art before he realized he, too, was one of their kind. 

“I grew up doing cartoons, and copying things. I just enjoyed it,” he says. “I tried to be precise to what it was. I saw something and I could recreate it. When Andrew showed me techniques, I started to look at every little detail, every shape.”

Any figurative sculptor will tell you certain body parts require more attention to detail than others. “Sculpting hands and faces are the hardest thing.” Ryan laughs. And that’s what I do!”

Plus there is a story to tell with the hands. “There are so many emotions you can create with the hand – the fist shows power, or pushing through with strength.”

This year’s Festival piece, Breaking Through, represents just that emotion. The hand holds an egg that at first is solid like a stone, then it starts to crack, and then it’s polished and gleaming in its final incarnation, a new fist emerging as if to say, Yes, I can! 

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“It’s like when you think you’ve broken through,” explains Ryan. “But you can still do more. Breaking through can be positive, like finding a cure for something, or mentally battling with something and then emotionally breaking through.

“I left it a little open so it would be universal.”

There’s something mathematical to his sculptural precision: an understanding of proportions and dimensions. Ryan seems to have a left brain/right brain thing going on. Not surprisingly, while at Laguna Beach High School he won awards for accounting and pottery.

Personal breakthroughs

“I wanted to do something I could relate to,” Ryan says about his Festival exhibit.

He was remembering his own challenges. One was when he thought it would be a good idea to go live with his dad in Florida. He gave it a try – taking the only job he could find there: working the graveyard shift at Lowe’s. 

Working at night, sleeping in the day. “It was not my thing,” he says, simply.

He pushed through and worked his way back to Laguna, knowing it was his true home and knowing he would have to work hard to stay.

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“I like being in ‘clutch moments’,” he said. “I can handle problem solving like that. I don’t want charity. Nothing is owed to me. I always want to feel I’ve earned something.” Old soul.

Ryan’s first year at the Festival was 2011, and he was the youngest exhibitor. As one might imagine a young artist would do, he was still emerging his style and decided to change things up for the following year. He experimented with a different sculptural style, but it was not received well. Ryan was juried out. 

“The one year out made me think, and I pushed myself even harder,” he said. “I didn’t hide away or stop doing art. The experience showed me that this isn’t the end; it’s a stepping stone.” Breakthrough.

Pushing on

The greatest sense of satisfaction is when an artist feels “on”. For Ryan, that joy and artistic focus is often born out of frustration or a struggle, but the process of creation pushes past any negativity.

“I like to focus my passion into my art, and not speed through it. I like testing my patience…I push through and get into the rhythm.”

Ryan believes that artists should be proactive and keep pushing themselves. 

“And not worry about what people are thinking,” he says. “Artists have ideas but no money. That struggle is one of the biggest things artists have to face. But you just have to go for it. It’s like going to the gym!”

Now in his fourth year as a Festival exhibitor, Ryan is feeling good about the response Breaking Through has had. 

“I hope this show will inspire thought even more,” he says. 

And he smiles. “A lot of people are totally ‘getting it’. Less talking for me!”


Barbara McMurray: Making it all look much too easy

Written by: SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

Balance.  It’s the word I kept thinking as I sat with Barbara McMurray eating lunch on her glorious deck. McMurray seems to have effortlessly achieved what many of us find so elusive: the ability to balance family, work, community and personal passions.  Of course, just because it appears effortless, doesn’t mean it comes without effort.  But whatever internal struggles she may engage in, to the outside observer, at least, she has them well tamed.

Coming to Laguna Beach

McMurray came to Laguna Beach in 1991. Originally from New York where she grew up on a dairy farm, McMurray came to San Diego for a visit and was so “captivated” by the scenery she was living there six weeks later.  She worked at an advertising agency for the ABC affiliate there in the promotions department.  Then, at a New Year’s Eve party in Mira Mesa, she met her husband-to-be, Ken.  “It was fated,” she says of their meeting. 

But he lived in Laguna Beach so there was a lot of back and forth on the 405 until McMurray decided to move north.  They were married a year later.  “He is my moral compass.  I became a better person when I married Ken,” says McMurray.  

His calibration must be impeccable because McMurray’s willingness to give back to her community is almost legendary.

Barbara McMurray of McMurray Marketing and Communications

CLC, training wheels and a snowball

McMurray pinpoints her daughter’s attendance at CLC (Community Learning Center) as what started her community involvement.  CLC is an alternative school run through the Laguna Beach Unified School District at Top of the World Elementary for 1st-4th graders. 

“When Anna was in CLC the tide turned for me,” explains McMurray.  “We were teaching the kids to be positive, to be involved so I figured I have to try and model these things myself.  I taught yoga.” (Parents are expected to volunteer six hours per month at CLC.). “And it was so fulfilling to make that your goal - to be the things that they were teaching the kids to do.  I love that program.  They helped me be a better parent.  So I got involved in the CLC PTA - my training wheels.  It (volunteering) just kind of snowballed from there,” says McMurray.

The Friendship Shelter calls

One of the places the “snowball” landed was the Friendship Shelter.  McMurray says she was introduced to the Friendship Shelter “the way most people are…through one of their dinners.”  But there was also a CLC connection.  “CLC did a Christmas thing for the Shelter where they would have the kids put essential items, like socks and toiletries and pocket calendars, in bags for residents of the Shelter.  They would make these hand towels into elephants and give them away.  They still do that,” she says with a laugh.  “The kids were so open to it.”  

McMurray was asked to be on the Friendship Shelter Board “a couple of years ago,” she says.  Her ultimate goal for the shelter? Nothing less than solving the problem of homelessness in Laguna Beach.  She feels very optimistic.  

After we met she sent me the following in an email: “In 2009, the city of New Orleans - a major U.S. city - had nearly 4,600 chronically homeless people living on its streets. They initiated a supportive housing program to house and provide services to these folks - and that number is now around 400. That’s a big city - they did it. The state of Utah - an entire STATE - provided housing to homeless residents and their homeless numbers went from 1,932 to 178. So many public resources can be saved using this model. We’re a little city with about 45 chronically homeless people. We can do this.” 

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McMurray working in her home office

Helping Chhahari change lives in Nepal

The other Board she sits on is Chhahari, which runs a home for orphans and at-risk children in Kathmandu, Nepal.  It was founded by Laguna Beach resident, Christine Casey.  “I have so much admiration for her.  I do their Facebook page.  The images, especially since the earthquake…pretty dramatic stuff,” says McMurray.  In case you’re thinking of asking McMurray to join your favorite organization’s Board (And trust me, you want her), “Two Boards is my limit,” says McMurray.  But that doesn’t mean she isn’t active in other organizations, as well.  In fact, it seems that whatever charity you attend you’ll see, McMurray there lending a hand.  

“For me, it gives life heft and meaning - gravitas,” she says.  “Plus there are so many interesting people who do these things!”

While she is definitely a do-er, McMurray is particularly adept at is bringing people together. “I like to be a connector. I want to draw people in.  That’s what being a community is all about.  A lot of the time people want to help but don’t know how.  

“The trick is not asking them to do something they don’t want to do. Then they realize they enjoy it.”

The McMurray’s rescue dog, Milo

Going full steam ahead with McMurray Marketing 

Amidst her volunteer work, McMurray also runs McMurray Marketing and Communications.  Prior to that she worked for the now defunct Opera Pacific.  “It was really fun.  Fantastic people.  But after a few years I couldn’t take the long nights.  But I did learn how to handle a certain donor crowd,” she says with a knowing smile.  “One week after starting McMurray Marketing I discovered I was pregnant with Anna.  She just turned 20.”  When asked if she considered putting her fledgling business on hold after finding out the big news she says, “I just went full steam ahead.  I scaled back when Anna was a toddler, but I’m so glad I kept going.  I don’t know if I would have had the motivation to start something after.”

Clients and causes 

Many of McMurray’s clients reflect her interests.  The Laguna Food Pantry is a client.  “We just had a happy hour taco bar at the Marine Room, which was our debut on the fundraising scene. [The event]…had a low threshold of entry.  It’s good when you give people something easy to say yes to.” She is working to elevate the Food Pantry’s profile so they can better achieve their mission. “It’s a myth that it’s just for the homeless shelter.  It’s for working people who need some help.  It would be great if we could get it to be open on weekends,” she says.

Another client is the Laguna Dance Festival.  “We have two really, really good troupes coming.” says McMurray.  There is Malpaso Dance Company from Cuba and Alonzo King LINES Ballet.  “Alonzo King is featuring ‘Biophany.’  Bernie Krause is a soundscape artist who has collected animal sounds for the last 40 years.  They worked together to come up with this score for the dancers.  This would be a great show for kids if they’re interested in nature, oceanography…”

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A photo taken by McMurray’s son, Owen, next to one of her own prints

Making time for herself

McMurray, despite working, taking care of her family and volunteering, does not neglect herself.  “I do print making on Friday.  And every morning I try to meditate, even if it’s for only five to ten minutes,” she says.  She was introduced to meditation by Dr. Arlene Dorius.  “She had a group made up of really powerful, spiritual women.  I took it and ran with it…It’s very, very handy.”  

She calls herself a “Baby budding Buddhist.”  “I grew up in the Lutheran church.  This (Tibetan Buddhism) feels true to me…very true.  You have to answer to yourself.  It’s very forgiving, non-punitive in nature.”  But graduating to a full-fledged Buddhist may have to wait until she has more time to dedicate to its study.  “There is a lot to it, much to learn,” she says.

The same can be said of McMurray herself. She would be the first to say she doesn’t have all the answers.  Nevertheless, spending even a brief afternoon with her, hearing how she makes it all work, it’s easy to wonder how much more evolved she can hope to be. Maybe it’s the meditation; maybe it’s her husband.  

“I drink coffee,” she says with a laugh.  Most likely it’s all of these things – plus many, many more.  (I mean, I drink coffee…)  

“I remember my mother telling me I had ‘too many irons in the fire’ when I was younger.  I guess I just have a lot of interests,” she says with a shrug.  

Somehow she has managed to master those many irons, forging them into a very complete, well-balanced life.


The Return of September – McGee that is!

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

“I love being back with my peeps!” exclaimed September McGee. And we love that she’s back. After a brief one and a half year stint on the east coast, September confirms what she knows, “I know it isn’t my energy over there!”

The long time Sawdust artist is happy to be back in the ‘Dust. 

“Artists are such nice people. They’ve been so wonderful,” September says. “It’s healing for me to be here.” Sage words considering her trip to the east coast was for medical care. The art venue is like a friendly, welcoming embrace upon returning home in good health.

Add to the warm and fuzzy feeling a few new art awards, and September has the makings of a very good summer.

Artist, September McGee

The award-winning artist does not quietly paint away in her studio. She projects her soul into her artwork and the expression gives her voice. She delights in sharing with others, as is evident anytime you happen by her booth where she is usually engaged in animated conversation with her many visitors. 

“I love being at the Sawdust because it’s not lonely, and you get feedback. The customers here rock!” she said. “We have to educate the public – like, explain what is a ghost print, or the use of different papers. I want them to go home happy.”

Art makes a difference

She is an artist changing the world in her own way, by educating and giving back through her medium.

“Art is probably the first language – you know, painting the deer on the cave. I want to use my art to promote non-violence. I would like to see artists come together to promote peace.”

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After 9/11 September was stirred into action and asked herself: “What can you do to promote tolerance?” The answer began with a painting of five children (all from Top of the World School), of different ethnicities holding hands in front of the flag. The painting went to a charity event for Patch Adams, a humanitarian luncheon attended by the Vice President’s wife, Lynn Cheney, and then on to fundraisers for Child Help USA, Children Uniting Nations, and the Hunger Project. September was happy to meet people through this journey, and see her painting as a catalyst. 

“One idea went and did a lot of good!”

Getting notice

Expressing herself through artwork has been something September McGee was good at since about her first art award in the third grade. That one was for a drawing in crayons of a symphony conductor. “I was a realist – staying inside the lines,” said September. “Then I moved on with what-else-can-you-do!” Onto impressionism, training in figurative work and portraiture. 

Submitted photo

Maestro II, McGee’s painting recently juried in to an exhibition in New York

The awards have continued since that third grade win, including numerous juried competitions and elected membership in excusive international artists groups. She was recently notified that one of her paintings has been accepted into the Allied Artists of America Juried Exhibition at the Salmagundi Club, New York – that’s a big deal. But there’s more… It’s a painting of a symphony conductor! Just like her third grade self, September is excited, humbled, and amused by the irony that two paintings with the same subject should be honored.

“It’s a big coup and the interesting news is it is a painting of Carl St. Clair who is celebrating his 25th Anniversary with the Pacific Symphony and as you know he lives in Laguna Beach,” said September.

Breaking through

September has shown at the Sawdust since 1993. For two years she participated in the Festival of Arts as well. That was hard, going back and forth between festivals, she admits. “I didn’t know who I was!” But she has been an artist her whole life despite the challenges. Sometimes it’s the difficult obstacles that open new horizons. 

September McGee’s booth at the Sawdust Art Festival

“It’s not easy. It has its tortuous moments – you want to create but don’t always know the way.

“When you have a piece that doesn’t work, it’s torture. You have to have confidence and believe you can do it when you walk up to the easel,” she said. And just when you’re about to lose confidence or feel defeated, September has the solution: “Just hum! Then you can’t criticize yourself!”

Such words of wisdom float around in her brain and are just calling out to be heard. So, she wrote a book. And then another one.

In her words

September has put her passion and inspiration into two books. The first evolved from her children’s art classes around town. Written and illustrated by September, the book focuses on a child’s wonder at the beach. Let’s Sail Away is an educational and fun story about preserving our tidepools. 

Her latest book has just been published. Love is my Favorite Color features her own words of inspiration with her paintings as illustration. “I think I wrote it for myself,” September says. “It’s what I’ve learned about how to be a better human being.”

September’s passion and inspiration are a joy both in print and on canvas.

“This energy is a gift that comes through me for which I am forever grateful,” September says in her Artist’s Statement. “Each painting is my gift back.”


Morris Skenderian: 40 years of improving Laguna

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

If you have lived in Laguna Beach for any length of time it is very likely you’ve heard the name Morris Skenderian. Skenderian, one of Laguna’s most well-known and respected architects first came to Laguna Beach in 1968 when he was a 26 year-old architectural neophyte. The renowned architect, William F. Cody, saw something in the young Skenderian and brought him along to work on St. Theresa’s Catholic Church in Palm Springs. This is how Skenderian was introduced to what eventually would become his hometown. 

“We were using stained glass that was made by a Laguna Beach stained-glass artist, Joseph Maes,” Skenderian said. “I knew nothing about stained glass and asked if I could help him work on the panels. I spent two weeks here. That was my introduction to Laguna Beach.” 

Morris Skenderian  

Skenderian liked Laguna Beach enough that when his Pasadena firm wanted to open an Orange County office, he raised his hand to move south and get the office started.  “Now I’m 30…  I moved to Laguna because it was the least expensive place I could find,” he remembers. “I found a house in Arch Beach Heights for $29,000. Then the economy went bad and they decided not to open the office. They said, ‘Come back.’ But I told them, ‘No, I don’t want to come back. I’m going to start my own office.’” 

And he did, finding a 300 square foot cottage where he worked on mostly kitchen and bath remodels.  

AYSO helps launch a career

They say talent always rises to the top.  This is undoubtedly true in Skenderian’s case. However, he credits his big break to a very surprising source: The American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO). 

“By now my son is six, my daughter is five. They’re in the Laguna Beach school system. My son plays AYSO soccer so I volunteer as a coach. (Being around these people) becomes a resource. They ask me to take a look at their houses. I got all these references through AYSO!” explained Skenderian. “It sounds kind of weird when I say it, but it’s true.”

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Skenderian at work on site at The Ranch at Laguna Beach  

And this highlights another important contributor to his success: Skenderian’s ability to forge and maintain great relationships with his clients.  “One of the things that attracts me to this business is I love the relationships. 90% of my friends are former clients,” he says with satisfaction. After 40 years of working in the same town, suffice it to say, he’s never short on dinner invitations.

“Solution-oriented” design

While some architects have a very consistent aesthetic, Skenderian says he likes to look at design as more “solution-oriented.”  That may be why, after the devastating fire in 1993, Skenderian’s firm designed 25 of the 75 houses built to replace ones that had burned.  

“My office went from three to 13 people.  I gave seminars about how to navigate the insurance claims, how to work with architects,” he said. “My intent was to help people.  The side benefit was that it kept business going.  Once that was over I pared it back down to seven or eight people, which is what I have today.”

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Skenderian’s design work includes the recent remodel of The Ranch pool area 

Skenderian takes a community-minded approach to his design.  Of course, his clients’ needs are of the utmost importance, but he does not work in a client-only vacuum.  “I have a duty to my clients without sacrificing the quality of life for others around it,” he says.  Right now he has about 30 projects going “in one stage or another.” 

While he says he likes doing both commercial and residential work, talking about his involvement with the Athens Group when they were designing and building Montage Laguna Beach back in 1995 brings a heightened level of enthusiasm to the conversation. 

“They came to me and said, ‘What would you do?’  I said, ‘Wow. That’s a lot of responsibility for me to tell you what to do, but I think if you go with a Greene and Greene, craftsman-style and keep a low profile, people will embrace it,’” he said. “They said, ‘Great! Let’s do it!’  With the way it turned out…that feels really good.”

Very close to his grandkids

However, the thing that seems to give him even more pleasure than bringing spaces to life is spending time with his six grandkids, who live in either Laguna Beach or Newport Beach.  “They’re here (at his office) all the time,” says Skenderian.  He proudly describes the projects two of his grandsons worked on recently.  “When you’re this close you get to be a mentor to your grandkids,” he says. Whether the mentoring fosters more architects in the family seems to be beside the point. He just enjoys spending time with them, teaching them different skills, exposing them to new interests.

Unknowingly forging a career path

Looking back, Skenderian says he had some interests that lent themselves to his future career. He liked to build models, for example. “They had these contests and I won three or four of those and that was encouraging. Then I built a car for a soapbox derby when I was 12 or 13.  I was proud of that. And then in high school I wasn’t a good writer, but I was a good printer so I took a drafting class.”

The pieces were falling into place for Skenderian’s future as an architect, but he still wasn’t sure that’s what he wanted.   “I didn’t really know what architects did,” he says.  But then he met a friend who told him he should go to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, “He told me, ‘You’ll love it!  It’s farm country, a small town’…so I took my portfolio, talked to the Dean and got myself invited.  I started in 1958 and graduated in 1962, which was unheard of. My dad said, ‘You have four years’ so I went through kind of scared,” he says wryly.  

After graduating from Cal Poly, Skenderian secured a job working for an architect.  And, minus the year he spent in Memphis with the Navy (he got drafted), and the few years he spent learning how to build things with the Huntington Harbor Company, Skenderian has been an architect ever since.  And while he may not have planned it, he seems very content with the way things turned out – kind of like living in Laguna.

Committed to improving Laguna

“What brought me here was the sheer physical beauty, the village character and the people.  Back then the freeways weren’t all connected.  My clients were not of wealth. I liked what I saw as I became part of the fabric of the town. I wanted to improve it, and also prevent people from ruining it,” he says.  

And while there are a lot more freeways and a lot more people of wealth than when he arrived, he’s still committed to improving Laguna, one project at a time.


Music, fishing, surfing – it’s more than 

common sense for Nick Hernandez

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

I caught up with our local rock star at his “office”, aka the patio beside Sapphire. Nick Hernandez makes regular stops there to fuel up on coffee, and just about everyone stops by to chat him up.

Nick Hernandez

Having spent many years on the road touring with his band, Common Sense, it feels good having a home base. Really, he’s happy making music anywhere. “I love waking up in a new place every day, touring on the road. And I love it here at home,” says Nick. “If you’re me, it’s awesome!” No doubt.

Musical sense

Common Sense is the first of Nick’s bands to go really big. It’s still going strong, but in its most prolific years the band sold more than 50,000 albums, with “Psychedelic Surf Groove”, and 10,000 with “State of the Nation, Now and Then”. A couple of his songs have made it to Hollywood. “Never Give Up” is a big song that made it into the movie, Speed Two, and “In Your Eyes” was in the Kingpin movie, which Nick says has got a cult following.

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 Photo from Facebook

Recently Nick recorded music with Wyland as a benefit following the Gulf oil spill disaster, a trio of albums called Blues Planet I-III. And this past winter he played with noted Hawaiian musician, Willie K in his Maui music festival along with the likes of Steven Tyler, Mick Fleetwood, and Taj Mahal.

Altogether with his bands Common Sense, Nick-I, and The 133 Band, he’s made 12 albums. “I like it, but I don’t do enough recording,” Nick said. “I’m mostly a live artist.”

There’s always a crowd on Fridays at Mozambique catching Nick live with his band, Nick-I & A.D.D., and other live gigs at places such as the Coach House, the Belly Up, and the OC Fair as well as special events and corporate gigs.

“You always have a dream as an artist,” he muses. “Now my dream is that The 133 Band will do the film festival circuit.”

Sound like a lot of balls to juggle in the air? Toss in Nick’s co-passion for surfing, and add to that his participation in Surfers Healing and you’ve got one busy dude.

Social sense

Surfers Healing is an outreach program designed to foster joy and promote surf culture in the lives of autistic youth. Nick has served on the board of directors for 17 years. The idea is to get the kids out on the waves with the assistance of able surfers.

“We want to give them one nice beautiful day at the beach, and just feel normal,” says Nick. 

Surfers Healing was founded by the Paskowitz family because their son, Isaiah, struggled with “meltdowns and sensory overload”. Riding the waves with his father calmed him like nothing else. Now Surfers Healing provides wave rides for more than 4,500 participants in their surf camps every year. Their motto is, “One child. One family. One day at the beach.”

“Now we’ve got enough sponsorship, we’re not sleeping on the floor – we all get our own beds now!” said Nick. “It started out, ‘I’m gonna do this ‘cause it’s the right thing to do’, and then I loved it. We’re helping these kids and it feels really good.”

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 Photo from Facebook

Kids enjoy the surf with Nick Hernandez (right) and Surfers Healing

Nick’s just back from a Surfers Healing trip to Australia, where he really hit it off with one of the surf stars who happens to be on the autism spectrum himself; Clay Marzo. “[Surf champion] Kelly Slater said Clay is the best surfer in the world,” Nick said. “But he’s intimidated by people.” 

Nick can relate. “I understand him, ‘cause I’m a little out-there too,” he said. “Things bug me, like loud noises.” Playing music with a loud band is not bothersome, however, it’s more the sound of people “yammering” and dogs barking. “I’ve just always been kind of special,” he admits.

Joining forces with Surfers Healing changed Nick’s life. At the time he was busy and on the road with his band, but something had to give. “I told my band, I’m gonna do this now,” he said. “I took time off to make Surfers Healing a top priority.”

That fulfilled one aspect of life according to Nick. “I do whatever I want, no matter what,” he says. “I don’t need money so much. If I had a lot of money my dreams wouldn’t be the same. I wouldn’t be as creative.” A dream come true? “I’d want to surf and fish and write songs.”

Cultural sense

Nick grew up in Laguna Beach, and learned to love music at the footsteps of his dad, Nick Sr. His dad was in a blues band, and put his son in classes for classical guitar and violin. 

“I hated it,” Nick remembers. “I didn’t like the style. You want to play what’s on the radio! But, if you can play classical or jazz or blues, you can play any pop.”

In those days, the roots of inspiration came thanks to reggae music. “Our heroes were the Rebel Rockers, and Eric Morton, pioneer of surf reggae,” Nick said. “My band, Common Sense, Sublime, and Slightly Stupid spawned a culture of surf reggae, and that influenced fashion too. Laguna Beach is the center of the fashion of surf culture.” 

And just as surf fashion brands began by sponsoring competitive surfers, Nick brought them along to music. For example, there was a two-page spread in Rolling Stone for his music that O’Neill surfwear brand paid for. There is a natural tie-in between the fashion, philosophy, and music of the surf culture.

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T-shirt, trunks, and the backward trucker hat are de rigueur for the lifestyle of Nick-I. The rest of the world seems to have caught on. Nick likes it, “You can wear T-shirts and trunks anywhere now!”

Future sense

There is still something Nick needs to check off his list. “It’s the eight unit monkey sitting on my back!” he says. 

When he was a rising rock star he had to make the ultimate choice: grow the band and take it on the road, or finish school at UC Santa Barbara. Tough choice, as he had only eight units left to finish his degree. “No one believes my story,” he bemoans. “But I’ve got to get it done.” 

It’s been weighing on his mind, so he went ahead and straightened years worth of records out with the registrar, and he found out he could take the required classes at Saddleback, and get that monkey off his back. “They wouldn’t just give me the credits for all the albums I’ve put out,” he laughs. “I’m going to take some ethno-musicology, or history of some type.”

Getting the eight units accomplished and giving his vocal chords a couple months of much-needed rest are in the near future. And the 25-foot wave he caught in Mexico last year is calling him. 

“Maybe I’ll go to Cabo to rest up,” he says. “I could brush up on my Spanish too. And go surfing. And fish a lot.”

After 20-plus years of rocking out multiple nights every week, maybe he deserves a little vacation. But then get back here and light up the stage!


Sande St. John: A legacy of loving Laguna

By: SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

Sande St. John loves Laguna.  “I love, love, love living in Laguna,” she says with her trademark enthusiasm that belies her 30 year residency here.  “I love how you can agree or disagree with people and still be friends.  I love how everybody works together for a good cause…” and her list went on.  

St. John knows a lot about good causes as she seems to specialize in them.  Not just a few pet projects (though she has those), but many, many causes.  So many causes, in fact, that to list them would make for an article much too long to print.  Suffice it to say, St. John has developed a well-deserved reputation as someone who can get things done, hence the nicknames like the “Uber-volunteer”, ’the ultimate do-er” and “Laguna’s Super Angel”. 

Woman of the Year, among other things

This determination to make things happen, coupled with an apparent aversion to the word “no,” has earned her a myriad of civic awards from being the first recipient of the Laguna Beach Outstanding Woman of the Year in 1996 to the Laguna Beach Seniors Legacy Award in 2013, with many others in between.  Children, seniors, veterans, the homeless and the arts have all received St. John’s attention – over and over again.

The incomparable Sande St. John, volunteer extraordinaire

The tradition of the Firefighters’ Labor Day Pancake Breakfast

Right now, she’s focusing her legendary energy on two events: the Firefighters’ Pancake Breakfast at Heisler Park on Labor Day and a celebration of Jon Coutchie, the Laguna Beach motorcycle officer who was killed in a traffic accident while on duty two years ago.  It’s easy to think things like the Pancake Breakfast run themselves because they have been around for so long and are such a community tradition.  I’m sure St. John wishes that was true.  

However, someone needs get it all planned and nailed down and that someone is St. John.  And still, after all these years, she’s enthusiastic.  

“I just love that the Fire Chief (Jeff LaTendresse) comes year after year and sits there stirring the batter.  He stirs the batter the whole time!  The Fire Chief!  He has been doing it forever,” says St. John.

Honoring a mother’s love for her son, Jon Coutchie

If the Pancake Breakfast is a tradition that needs overseeing, the celebration of Officer Jon Coutchie is a brand new endeavor.  “Jon’s mom, Luciana, wanted to do something for her son.  He loved kids so much.  He loved Halloween. So we decided to make it a Halloween-themed celebration of John and make it a family affair,” says St. John.  St. John got involved because, as she says, “I like Luciana.  I love her. I feel her spirit.”  So she got to work.

A fun family event on September 20th

“We have really good sponsors.  It will be at Tivoli Too.  We will have a lot of games for kids, a lot of community organizers, the Girl Scouts, the Boy Scouts, the police and fire will be there.  Blue Water Music is doing the music.  We have food from all these different restaurants:  Tivoli will be offering a complete dinner, and Mare, k’ya, Mozambique and Sapphire will be offering small plates.  We’re working on a haunted house because John used to build one for his god children every year,” explains St. John.  She tells me this and then adds, “We’re going to have a silent auction and the funds raised will go to the CSP Laguna Beach Shelter.”  That’s how St. John puts on an event.  

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The American Legion Hall, home to No Square Theater

Opening up the floodgates

Many people put on an event like the ones St. John specializes in once.  St. John has been doing things like this for almost 30 years.  “I first got involved in Human Options because my son, Derek, was the Executive Director of the Laguna Beach Club for Kids, now the Boys and Girls Club.  He was familiar with them so I called and offered to help.”  After that, the floodgates of altruistic endeavors were opened.  “Once you start something,” says St. John, “it’s hard to walk away from it.”  

At least it is for her.

The dynamic duo of “The Sandies”

St. John’s initial volunteering may have been instigated by her son, but it was fostered by her friend, Sandy Thornton. The two women served as co-Directors of the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce for years, legendarily putting together a wedding at the Hotel Laguna for two victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, among other things.  The two were, and still are, known as “The Sandies,” even though Sandy Thornton moved to Palm Springs.  “People still can’t tell us apart.  Now, when Sandy comes by they’ll start talking to her, ‘Thank you for this or that’ and she just says ‘You’re so welcome’ even though she has no idea what they’re talking about!” says St. John laughing.

It was the “other Sandy” that got St. John involved with the seniors when they were still using Legion Hall as their home base.  That’s where St. John and I met, as she graciously squeezed me in despite an incredibly hectic schedule made more so by the fact that her daughter-in-law just had a baby and the family, who was moving, needed to be out of their house in days.  The fact that she agreed to meet and be interviewed despite her very impacted schedule speaks both to her generous nature and to that problem she has of saying “no.”  “I love working with the seniors.  They are so happy to be out.  They’re so nice and grateful,” she says fondly.

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Sande St. John shows off the newly spruced up entrance at the Legion Hall

No Square Theater

  “I love this building,” says St. John of the Legion Hall.  It was in a rather chaotic state when we met, but she seemed unfazed.  It was just another project to tackle.  Now, the building is home to No Square Theater, of which St. John is a founding member (of course!).  “My goal in life is to keep the theater alive,” she says with passion.  But she won’t be aiding that cause by performing on stage.  

“When I was at the Chamber, Bree (Rosen, founder of No Square Theater) insisted I be in the show.  I did it for five or six years.  But I was also doing events and I really like doing those more.  Plus I don’t have any talent.  I don’t want to be a tree or a stone or a rock.  It takes too much time to just be a tree or a stone or a rock!” she says adamantly.  “I still provide dinner at the theater every night,” she adds as if someone might be questioning her commitment to the cause.  “I love all my people at No Square Theater!  I will leave them everything -- which isn’t anything -- but I love them!”  

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Sande St. John shows off some props at No Square Theater

If only the Easter Bunny could speak!

One of the other things St. John loves (and she loves a lot of things!) is her direct connection to both the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus.  “I own the real ones!’ she states emphatically.  Then she tells me a hilarious story about when she had to dress up as the Easter Bunny and, because the Easter Bunny “can’t talk”, she took to “beating” a volunteer who was not going to give a kid an Easter basket because their name wasn’t on the list.  “Since I couldn’t talk I just started beating on them to please give this kid an Easter basket. I’m sure it was much worse watching the Easter Bunny whacking this volunteer…I should definitely not be the Easter Bunny,” she says shaking her head.

Trying to pass the torch

She may not feel well suited as the Easter Bunny, but she certainly makes a great stand in for the Energizer Bunny. But even that long-lasting, hard-charging critter has to slow down at some point.  

“I would love to get younger people in these organizations.  Every single group needs people.  They need people with passion and vision.  It’s hard to get them.  So much has been done and there are so many groups out there.  

“Way back when there was just the Laguna Beach Service Council.  Once a month we got together and sat around and just talked about the things the city needed.  So many of them have been done or there are really great organizations working on them,” she says with a mixture of pride at how much has been done and a little melancholy for simpler times.  But if that sounds at all like a complaint, it isn’t.  

“I love and feel so blessed just to live in this incredible place.  It’s paradise.  If you live in Laguna you’re lucky enough,” says St. John emphatically.  

Because of people like Sande St. John, I couldn’t agree more.

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