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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 13, 2001

Our Honolulu
Marveling at Hawai'i's art heritage

By Bob Krauss
Advertiser Staff Writer

Each time the unique, evolving identity of Hawai'i comes into clearer focus, the glimpse is exciting. It's happening today at the Honolulu Academy of Arts.

For the first time, a permanent gallery is devoted entirely to "the richness of Hawai'i's art heritage." The free opening day is a kind of graduation day for Our Honolulu. You're invited.

We're finally taking ourselves as seriously as we do French and Japanese and Italian and Chinese art.

But what is Hawaiian art?

The argument goes that there isn't a Hawaiian style of architecture, rather combinations of styles that reflect Hawai'i's multicultural society in a tropical island environment. Is the same true for our art?

Take a look at the gallery today and make up your own mind. I think our art represents Hawai'i's dynamic versatility better than our architecture. But is there a Hawaiian "school" of art?

This is where it gets interesting.

On a tour of the Academy of Arts' Hawaiian gallery, my guide was Jennifer Saville, curator of Western art at the academy and project director for the new gallery.

"Often, art historians focus on one particular type of artistic expression (as a school) when there are many others," she said. "In Hawai'i there was one group of artists working at the end of the 19th century that has been called the 'volcano school.' Volcano artists socialized together."

As for other schools here, she said it has been only in the last 10 years that the academy has been able to focus on its Hawaiian collection — and analyze our artistic identity.

"We need more time, and the concept of 'schools' is too narrow," said Saville. She said a "brotherhood" of artists would be a better term than "school" to refer to artists who have a tight sense of group identity. Do Hawai'i's printmakers qualify? Photographers who hang out together? How about the art communities on Hawai'i, Maui and Kaua'i?

To me, the most interesting expression of Hawaiian art in the gallery was like the aloha shirt I wore. Saville called it "decorative" art.

"In the 1930s, '40s and '50s, artists in Hawai'i created a functional art that has come to be known as 'Hawaiian design,'" she explained. "You see it in furniture, tableware, silver, fabrics, ceramics, glass.

"It's the use of island images; flora and fauna, cultural motifs. It speaks to the place where you live, so you surround yourself with it."

"Was Alice Spaulding Bowen in on this?" I asked. Saville said she probably was, as manager of Gumps, an upscale antique shop in Waikiki. "Also George Moody and Edward Grossman. They hired the designers, manufactured and retailed the pieces to local people and tourists," said Saville.

Providing clues to the evolution of this Hawaiian art and design from elegant ancient Hawaiian featherwork, tattooing and carving is what makes the John Dominis and Patches Holt Gallery of Hawaiian Art a neat place.