‘The Aloha Spirit Is Here’ — A Hawaiian Art Tour

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Samoan native Kap Te’o-Tafiti wears many hats. Painter is just one of them.

Today,  a cure for the wintertime blues. The anti Super Bowl show, if you will, cuz in this episode, while the nation is getting ready to watch two teams knock the stuffing out of each other, we travel to that peaceful Polynesian paradise, Hawaii, land of not just natural beauty but all kinds of human-created art . In January, I was privileged to visit Oahu with two other faculty members and a group of honor students from the University of Hartford’s Hillyer College, and of course, because I’m always thinking of you listeners,  I took along my trusty portable recorder. I took it to museums, art fairs, a swap meet, and along the streets of Waikiki, and everywhere I went, there was art.

With special thanks to Hillyer College’s Dean Emeritus David H Goldenberg, who’s been organizing the honors trips for 20 some-odd years; history Prof Robert Churchill, who suggested I help shepherd the group; and the students, who give me hope about the future, what follows are some audio and photographic snapshots from the trip.

From left, Luana Lopez makes and sells leis and jewelry along busy beachfront Kalakaua Avenue, and gets some friendly competition from Renee Fernandez.

Top row from left: Joshua Chung and Chase Bailey-Schwartz arriving before dawn at the swap meet at Aloha Stadium, described as the country’s largest; fresh vegetables; Josh considers some secondhand clothes to repurpose as tote bags.

Bottom row from left: Casey who grinds and bags Kona coffee for sale; Landon making bracelets; Josh sips coconut milk as we Uber back to the hotel

Top row, from left: a monthly swap meet overlooking Waikiki Beach; Bob and Yoshia Hackney (@outofhandhawaii) sell his original tshirt designs; Christian Bendo handpaints and handcarves on local wood (christianbendoart.com and @christianbendo)

2nd row: Painter Beth Stephano (@beth_a_stephano) who works in watercolor and oil

3rd row: Amy Fung (amyHKFashion@gmail.com), whose textiles honor her late son; and Chelsea Johns (@chelseajohns) who electroforms jewelry from natural materials, such as mushrooms

4th row: Sarah Moore (@theconscioussea) makes jewelry, like this earring, made of saris, that Josh bought for $10; and Chrissy Hawk (@chrissy_hawk_aloha and @every_day_aloha)

Top row, from left: on a field trip to the Honolulu Museum of Art were, l-r, former Hillyer College Prof. Joan O’Mara and students Axl Long, Gianna Balsamo, Angelina Gargano, and Aidan Kelly; Moemoeā, sculpture made of natural found objects by Noah Harders;

2nd row: Another by Harders; the group with Émile-Antoine Bourdelle’s La Grande Penelope (1912); Gianna with a Deborah Butterfield bronze horse; Angelina before Theodore Wores’s The Lei Maker

British artist Rebecca Louise Law’s Awakening, an installation of thousands of native Hawaiian flowers and other natural materials (plus a few plastic specimens, to make a point about disrespecting Nature) was created with the help of local community groups and was a big hit with the students. Afterward, they wrote their reactions on strips of paper to roll and insert into a wall hanging.

Bottom row, at right, another work that fascinated the students was Nick Cave’s Soundsuit 8:46, which the publication Art & Object describes as “a mixed-media mannequin of vintage floral textiles and sequined appliques [that] is a response to recent police violence against people of color, in particular the tragic murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020. The work revisits Cave’s iconic series “Soundsuits,” which were first conceived after the 1991 Rodney King beating and the resulting riots in Los Angeles in 1992.”

On a visit to the Hawaii State Capitol, with its distinctive roof open to the elements — the “dome” is the sky — Rep. Ernesto “Sonny” Ganaden, a printmaker, took a break from hosting a group lunch to lead a few of us art lovers down the hall to his office to show us his work, which he says he largely learned from “retired local ladies” his mother’s age who offered expert practical advice.

The portrait shown above, a combination of lithograph, woodcut, and painting, is based on a mug shot of Kuya Joseph Kahahawai, a figure from early 20th-century Hawaiian history. He was acquitted of a rape charge but murdered — “He’s pissed for a reason ’cause he’s not guilty.”

Asked by Josh what it is about art that “makes you go,” Rep Ganaden explained that as a lawyer and politician, he talks for a living but that “sometimes you can’t say it with words.” He pursues art almost like clocking into a job: “You keep showing up and you keep making stuff” and learning.

Prof Churchill enters the Picture Gallery of the Bishop Museum where a painting, “Diamond Head from Waikiki,” ca. 1865, an oil on canvas by Enoch Wood Perry Jr (1831-1915), depicts the “volcanic tuff cone” that, below, greeted me every morning when I opened my hotel room blinds.

Making leis while the sun shines — Above, The Queen Kapiolani Hotel regularly offers free lei-making workshops in the lobby. In the photo top left, l-r, are Aidan, an unidentified guest, Sophia Mason, Angelina, Caroline Mehner, and Gianna, putting to work what they learned from instructor Lisa Konove, a medical social worker and actress, formerly of Danbury, CT, who was adamant that lei-making “is not arts and crafts,” but has deep cultural roots.

At the Black Palette tattoo parlor, Jace Y, a guest artist in residence, begins work on a design for Chase and, later, for Angelina; it was her first. To her relief, it didn’t hurt much.

One of a couple of tattoos Sophia added to her collection.

All the tattoo talk must have seeped into my brain because, too cowardly to commit to something that would last more than two weeks, I got hennaed at an art fair by Iori Casti, who’s from Micronesia and who’s worked for Henna Tattoo & Hair Braiding since 2011. “This job,” she says, is “nice to me, not hard, not bad, it’s beautiful job.”

On the same stretch of Kalakaua Avenue, I found Tilangi Folaha (@wood_carving_dave) making totems out of koa wood. This carving is for “strength and protection.”

At the Polynesian Cultural Center, I met Samoan polymath Kap ‘o-Tafiti (@kaptafiti) among whose many talents are shimmying up palm trees and painting. He explains that, growing up in Samoa, “nothing was given,” so he has always been “hungry for opportunity” to learn new things.

I brought a set of watercolors and some paper on the trip and made some small sketches. Top left is the view from my hotel balcony of Waikiki city lights the first morning, before I even knew Diamond Head was out there, Bottom left, fellow beachgoers and a still life of bits of coral, which I was surprised to discover is what washes up instead of seashells.

Mahala, Dean Goldenberg, and, back on campus, executive assistant Laurie Fasciano, for all the hard work you put into making the trip an unforgettable experience! Aloha!

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