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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, April 9, 2002

Academy of Arts unveils treasure trove of Island art

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

"Hanalei Valley, Kauai" by D. Howard Hitchcock is one of several pieces loaned by Samuel Cooke for the Academy of Arts exhibit.

Photo courtesy Honolulu Academy of Arts

. . .

‘Finding Paradise: Island Art in Private Collections’
• Thursday through May 26
• $7; $4 seniors, students and military; 12 and under free
• 532-8700, and

It was one of those divine confluences of dumb luck and opportunism. Watters Martin was strolling through an antique show in San Francisco 27 years ago when he came upon an old Hawaiian souvenir spoon.

"(The sellers) knew it was Kamehameha on the handle, but they didn't know that the bowl was a replica of the old coin of the Hawaiian kingdom," Martin says. "I was able to get it for a very reasonable price because spoons weren't really collectibles at the time."

As it turned out the silver and enamel spoon, still in excellent condition, dated to 1890 and exhibited shaping and coloring that would later make it an intriguing, and valuable, piece for collectors.

And like so many untold thousands of pieces of Hawai'i history, the spoon has been kept safely hidden in a private collection.

"It's strange how many types of things end up being kept out of view," Martin says. "My souvenir collection is in a safety deposit box."

That changes a bit as "Finding Paradise: Island Art in Private Collections," opens at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. The exhibit, opening Thursday, features a broad range of collectibles and antiquities drawn from private collections, including paintings, 'ukulele, Hawaiian featherwork and fiber art, jewelry from Ming's, even a decanter owned by King Kalakaua.

"In almost every case, the collectors have been more than willing to participate and work with us on this," said academy curator Jennifer Saville. "I think it's the spirit of openness we have here. The types of collectors we have here are the type who love to have art and love to share it."

That's certainly the case with Samuel Cooke, who is loaning the exhibition several items he has collected over the past 40 years, including a 1920 oil-on-canvas painting of Hanalei Valley, Kaua'i by noted Hawai'i artist D. Howard Hitchcock that had been hanging in Cooke's home.

"I have no problem showing these pieces," he says. "I'm very proud to have them out here."

The exhibit is based on a pending book by Don Severson — who with his wife, Betty Lou, runs Tahiti Imports and Hawaiian Antiquities, Inc. — and photographer Michael Horikawa.

The two started the project almost seven years ago, envisioning a wide-ranging, scholarly guide to Hawaiian collectibles. As Severson and Horikawa researched the book and tapped acquaintances for access to their private collections, word of the project quickly spread.

"We were getting contacted by people in Australia, Canada and Europe who had things they thought we could use," Severson says.

In the end, nearly all of the pieces photographed for the book came from private collectors in Hawai'i, most from O'ahu.

"A lot of old local families have a few calabashes or some koa furniture," Horikawa says. "But there are only a handful of major collections. Through our connections, Don and I were able to get in to see just about all of them."

Both Severson and Horikawa are loaning pieces for the exhibit.

Saville said the exhibit has been in the works for at least three years. Organizers said they hoped the book would be ready in time for the exhibit, but the current timeline won't have it ready for distribution until July or August.

Getting collectors to open their collections for Horikawa's camera was relatively easy — "certain collectors may be paranoid about the general public, but all of them like to share with fellow collectors," Horikawa says — and, surprisingly, so was getting them to loan precious items to the academy for two months.

A few collectors were hesitant, Severson says, but their concerns weren't anything lunch and a tour of the academy couldn't ameliorate.

"With the panache of the academy, we were able to get just about everything we wanted," Severson says.

All 17 sections of the book are represented in the exhibit.

"We were thinking in terms of the spread of the book and the range of materials it included," Saville says.

Martin says the exhibit is a rare and valuable opportunity for private collectors to share their appreciation of lesser-known forms and artists.

One of the pieces Martin is lending is a painting of a volcano by O.Y. Ito, a Japanese artist who kept a studio near Kalakaua Avenue in the early 1900s.

"Very few of his works were signed, and that might have something to do with him being Japanese in that particular time and place," Martin says. "But this one is signed, dated and titled."