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Natural Awakenings Tucson

Robin Westenhiser: Enriching Life with Color

Nov 01, 2018 05:34PM ● By Carolyn King

Star Catcher; Dance of The Kings; Hootie On My Mind; Together Forever; For Ma; Emerge; Eye See You - by Robin Westenhiser

Over the past year, the intention of these Artist Spotlight interviews has been to share the voices and stories of our neighbors who brave the sometimes choppy waters of daily life to dive down deep into their own creative practice. In these tumultuous and changing times, creative practice seems especially important. Whether to focus our hearts and minds on beauty or to express our alarm and outrage about a myriad of global and personal challenges, creative work can be an outlet of immense power for understanding and healing.

Robin Westenhiser is a local artist whose work spreads joy through imagery filled with pattern and color, whether paying homage to cultural traditions or Mother Nature’s creatures. Westenhiser and her husband live in what she describes as a “nature corridor” in the foothills area of Sunrise and Swan. Living in such direct proximity to the desert, her home and surrounding land is graced with daily visits from a host of wildlife including javelinas, roadrunners, rabbits, snakes, squirrels and others. They lounge, play and nap as she observes them from the vantage point of the “magic window” in her living room.

Robin, what brought you to the visual arts path?

Like several others you have interviewed, I come from the east coast, where I was raised by parents who were great advocates of the arts. I am originally from Connecticut. My mother loved museums so she took us regularly to New York City as kids to visit the Whitney, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Museum of Contemporary Art. Seeing works of great art influenced and affected me deeply at a young age.

Was your mom a practicing artist?

Actually, Mom served as a cartographer in World War II. She drew maps of France as part of her work. I think she would have devoted her talents to visual arts had she not chosen to have a large family. In addition to visual arts, my parents loved theater and the ballet. My siblings and I were so lucky to have been exposed to all three art forms throughout our childhood.

Were you an art kid in school?

I enjoyed art in elementary school and then had an art teacher in junior high who I dearly loved. Those were tumultuous times, not unlike today. I was in junior high during the Vietnam War and then in high school as the women’s movement, Black Panthers, the birth of the Chicano Movement and ecological awareness began to gain steam.

Once I got to high school, I had a great teacher named Barbara Pennington, who made a huge impact on me. At one point, she insisted that I go into Manhattan to see the Georgia O’Keeffe Retrospective held in 1970. I was so moved seeing O’Keeffe’s oil paintings in person. To this day, I regularly include clouds in my imagery as an ongoing homage to Georgia.

Did your high school experience lead you to attend an art school or enroll in an art program for college?

Interesting story! The high school counselor was not particularly encouraging about my prospects. I had focused mostly on studio art classes throughout high school and didn’t do especially well in academic subjects. The counselor advised me to apply to a range of schools, so I applied to Pratt Institute, a top art school, Massachusetts College of Art, a small local art school in Connecticut, and the University of Bridgeport, a state school. As it turned out, and somewhat to the counselor’s surprise, I was accepted at Pratt and rejected from the state school.

I did a year at Pratt, but found the environment to be super competitive. It just wasn’t a good fit for me. I ended up taking a year off to figure out what I wanted to do next. (It’s called a “gap year” these days, but back then wasn’t quite as common.)

How did you end up in Tucson?

In 1973, my then-boyfriend/now husband and I decided to head out to California. Like many young adults in those days, we loaded up a VW van and drove cross-country. On our way west, we stopped in Tucson and loved it here so much, we stayed. Once we got settled, I enrolled in the University of Arizona’s art department. I was so lucky to have been able to study with Bruce McGrew, beloved watercolorist, and Maurice Grossman, who founded the U of A ceramics department, among other instructors.

Did you pursue the B.F.A. at the University of Arizona?

You know, at one point I assessed my work and decided I didn’t have the strength, on several levels, to “make it” in the competitive arena of the gallery world. I chose to receive my degree in Art Education instead of Studio Arts. After graduating, I taught in local schools either as an art teacher or as a long-term sub. I worked at Amphi High School and Doolen, among other schools. After a few years of doing that work, I returned to UA and studied for a Masters of Arts degree focused on education for “gifted and talented” students.

How did the degree serve in your evolving creative life?

In 1983, we moved back east to New York City when my husband was offered a job there. I did some work with gifted and talented elementary-aged students before accepting a position in a small special education high school. The students were court-mandated to this school, which meant they came mostly from troubled backgrounds. These students were socially, emotionally and learning disabled as opposed to physically disabled.

Had your degrees prepared you for the rigors of working with these “special” kids?

Well, in reality, my students were much more responsive to an art therapy approach than the typical art education curriculum I trained in. Many, if not most, of my students lived in seedy hotels and had next to no family support. These kids lived an unimaginably hard life. I did my best to bring them the possibility of authentic expression and a small sense of meaning to their school experience.

How did you eventually make it back to Tucson and your own creative work?

We moved back to Tucson in the early ‘90s after having lived back east for eight or nine years. Once we returned, I decided I had had enough of teaching art after that super challenging work for several long years. I have always loved Mexico and folk art, so when we moved back, I started an eBay business selling Mexican arts and crafts that I collected specifically to sell.

Did you return to your own art-making at that time?

Not immediately. I did the eBay business for around eight years, until postage rates went up and the whole eBay scene kind of exploded. About 12 years ago, around 2006, we had a wonderful gallery in town called Galeria La Sirena. The gallery was founded and run by a great humanitarian, Sherry Teachnor, and primarily featured artwork by Haitian, Caribbean and Mexican folk artists. I loved the gallery and was so inspired by her collections that I started doing a series of Dia de los Muertos images in acrylic on canvas. The work was filled with rich color and patterns, along with skulls and other Dia de los Muertos symbols. Sherry invited me to share my work at La Sirena and featured the paintings on their wall for eight years or so.

Did you ever encounter push-back about the issue of cultural appropriation back then?

Actually, my work has always been created in the spirit of honoring the Dia de los Muertos traditions in my own style. I can honestly and happily say I didn’t encounter that criticism as a local artist while exhibiting at La Sirena.

How has your work evolved since Galeria la Sirena closed its doors? Where can people see your imagery these days?

I am currently painting more critters and honoring Mother Nature in my own version of still life work. I show often at Art House Centro, located downtown, and currently, I have a piece in the Tucson Loteria Show at Galeria Senita on Tucson Boulevard.

Can you talk about how your creative practice serves you as a healing tool?

Painting is definitely a therapeutic practice. I find I can step away from outer concerns as I am calmed, engaged and brought into a mindful state of awareness when I paint. The act of painting involves a lot of problem solving and I get lost in the process.

And last, how do you feel your imagery serves community?

I have been told often that my work brings happiness to viewers. I love color and hope my exaggerated sense of color points viewers in the direction of appreciating the richness and depth of color our desert home is all about.

Connect on facebook at The Art of Robin West, [email protected].

Carolyn King, M.A. in Arts & Consciousness, is a local practicing artist who has worked with communities as a teaching-artist for over 30 years, both in the U.S. and Mexico. Earlier this year, she founded Heart to Hand Studio, where she offers visual arts experiences for Tucson residents and beyond. Connect at [email protected].