Artist as Kumu: ʻĀina Inspires Hawai’i’s Art Scene

James Brooks

Patrick O’Kiersey, Blue Hawaii, 2021


The Kanaka ‘Ōiwi (Native Hawaiians) knew that a core tenet of learning was in the learner’s ability to be present and attentive to the process. Similar, is the process of understanding art. Art that is transformative seems to subconsciously command our attention and trigger our own natural curiosity. Native Hawaiians, like many cultures, considered their teachers and mentors, kumu, to be very important members of the community. When it comes to learning, they believed that simple listening and observing could be just as rigorous as “book learning.”

Perchance, are Hawai’i-based artists cleverly utilizing their skills as kumu, to teach us something through the simple act of appreciating their art?

Mina Elison, curator of Donkey Mill Art Center in Holualoa, describes daily life with ʻāina (the Hawaiian name for the landform and open seas of this remote archipelago) as the major source of inspiration for many of the Big Island’s working artists. “Whether they are malihini or born here,” says Elison, “most resident artists are powerfully shaped, influenced, and informed by the land.” Perhaps, the Big Island itself is how Big Island artists “teach”? To Elison, “the ʻāina of Hawai’i remains the main catalyst of creativity for Hawai’i-based artists, and whence their main contribution to the international fine arts scene.”

Native Hawaiian cultural scholar Manulani Aluli-Meyer (University of Hawaii at Hilo) calls “knowing with land” or where and when we learn best, knowledge imbued with spirit. As the Artist as Educator author Emily Pringle explains, while artists may be skilled in creating something beautiful, they utilize this skill mainly to articulate ideas about problem-solving. Art can performatively transmit complex ideas and narratives that automatically immerse a viewer into a subject area. Art, when it grabs our attention, is often compelling a response from its viewer in return.

Patrick O’Kiersey’s (Hamakua Coast) work titled “Blue Hawai’i”, inspired by says O’Kiersey, “feelings about the many places I have seen” on the Big Island, represents the relationship between the emotional chaos of primitive ideas and coherent outcomes. The finished artwork representing “above ground and below ground, like volcanic activity” he says, “doesn’t come by some preordained idea”. Rather, it derives through discovering something, whose basis are “feelings for color and movement that feels right, and then going to work with that.”

Perhaps O’Kiersey’s work demonstrates how to learn with land. Proactively engaging in a creative investigation and a problem-solving exercise — one that culminates into a complete artwork — is often the result of something spontaneous and visceral. An initial idea is followed up by intellectual processes that shape a coherent outcome.

John Charlton, author of Classical Hawaiian Education attributes these right feelings that lead to finished results, to the fundamental importance of listening. Native Hawaiian culture did not idealize listening and observation over book learning and understood learning was limited without it. But Hawaiians prioritized being present and attentive over questioning, a distraction, in the initial stages of learning.

O’Kiersey is illustrating the process of problem-solving as a continuous, sensory interaction with the world around him. Practical, permanent knowledge, or “know how”, as differentiated by theoretical knowledge or “know what”, arrives through a silent, hands-on process, and after our senses have activated our intellect. The artist-kumu demonstrates how such a firsthand exploration of a visual problem is the mainstay of any strategy to create artwork.

This, where land says Meyer, is always asking us how we feel — deeply aware, troubled, in a hurry — in the moment. It constitutes the primary experience of assimilating knowledge; a working- through process of understanding to create an artwork. But the artist also engages the viewer in this and must reflect on it to make art for public consumption. In this reflection process the artist, says Perkins, is not terribly interested in conveying a specific interpretation of their art but is more a facilitator of knowledge, encouraging the viewer’s own visual and intellectual interpretive processes.

In this sense, we learn from art much like how the immersive nature of land wafts through our senses. Learning with these feelings is the same as learning with land, which are according to Meyer, imprinting information more firmly in the memory as a more rigorous exercise of our thinking capacity. Intellectual processes happening by way of an intense emotional quotient.

Waimea artist Margo Ray’s “Area Closed”, first conceived at Crater Rim Drive in Volcanoes National Park, encourages viewers to comprehend a knotty existence amidst the stereotype of a tropical paradise, but not as some infallible expert. In a democratic, and more exhaustive sense, the artwork can immerse viewers deeply Ray infers, in an “impermanent”, “continually shifting landscape”.

Ray says:

“I think the artist serves a role in society and in communities, much like a political activist. Instead of saying something political, they are using their art to do this on the scale of someone’s own unique experience. A viewer can experience my rejection of ‘tourist art’; art that never speaks to the real issues of decay, feelings of belonging, and disenfranchisement that are also part of living in Hawai’i. I can introduce these complexities with imagery that sort of forces people to grapple with it themselves.”

Margo Ray, Area Closed, 2020


“Area Closed” may seize our attention because it triggers an inherent desire and capacity to weigh-in on these impressionistic subject areas. We know the art with land which, says Meyer, is always and already influencing all that we do and what we offer to the world. Ray’s work, itself heavily influenced by ʻāina is in turn, invoking this same knowing in the viewer. For an audience to know Margo’s work, is to draw from the place they come from and how that impacts their learning.
Which is to say that Ray is invoking a collective knowing about these subjects as a pointed political act. The artwork in the public realm depends on a collective contribution. “Area Closed” exposing viewers’ experiences with global and personal upheaval and colonialism in aggregate, also points to the opportunities — and political challenges — that exist for regrowth.

Ceramic artist Kainoa Makua, raised in Puna, and inspired by the “‘ohi’a, hala, the rugged ocean cliffs, and the numerous eruptions of tutu [grandparent] pele”, instills lessons from and about, the injustices of ongoing Hawaiian cultural erasure. But his art also demonstrates how Hawaiian culture continues to influence the present day:
“I hope my art helps people experience the impermanent nature of the traditional Hawaiian practice of lauhala [the intricate weaving of hala tree leaves into baskets, mats, and hats]. But also, as a present appreciation of my Native Hawaiian culture. Some of my ceramic pieces are a way to connect people more permanently to lauhala, and to help people see Hawaiian culture as perpetuating itself into to the future, by honoring the past.”

Kainoa Makua, Leiomano, 2018


Seeing Hawaiian culture perpetuating itself through art makes art as noted by Pringle, not informal, but formal, education requiring a designated setting and sustained attention. A beautiful artifact she continues, is already teaching us through doing and practice, which is inherently complex and context specific. Perhaps the best way to wholistically transmute Hawaiian culture is for a viewer to witness this through the actions of a working artist. Makua’s object is obliging the viewer to simultaneously field the iniquity of European colonization, but also extant Hawaiian culture on their “land”.

ʻĀina — where we come from, says Meyer — has always been a cornerstone to our ways of rethinking and finding out more about ourselves. Makua is teaching the redoubtable actions of resistance and cultural reclamation as a synchronous event through art. Perhaps the viewer’s curiosity about how the artist represents these dual phenomena, is from where an individual can start to understand them.

To respond to and then to know these artifacts, are the spirited actions of developing new knowledge and articulating other ideas. Land is giving us the attitudes or intentions with which we can undertake or regard our own learning process. It may be that art can conjure the authentic process of learning, which is discovering joy in our innate desire to acquire knowledge. The purpose of which says Meyer, is how these ideas affect your actions as part of the consciousness this world needs now.

2 comments to “Artist as Kumu: ʻĀina Inspires Hawai’i’s Art Scene”
  1. I guess the words here made a point that art to be appreciated must be felt and though words are often descriptive art supposes your imagination.. The fence sharing keep out is a challenge not a stop sign.

  2. Thought-provoking article. I live with Patrick O’Kiersey on a kipuka of native and non-native flora and fauna: a microcosm of the processes unfolding in the islands. Every day I go out, with Patrick’s help, to add native and “canoe” plants (those brought by the first people to inhabit the islands), to what once was climax ohia forest. Every now and then a “malahini” plant slips in.
    Patrick frequently goes into this forest to draw. We live on the slopes of Mauna Kea. He paints at night, when “it is quiet.” The other day he removed some indigenous uluhe that was overtaking our gate and a native bat flew out to the sanctuary of his studio ceiling. We are both inspired by the spirit of this place. I often say that I could not live without art… that my eyes “get hungry” for the energy that flows from the artist to the viewer. Thanks to all who contributed to this article for articulating the nourishment that comes to us from the land through art.

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