Life is near picture perfect for one Maui artist
By Wanda A. Adams
Assistant Features Editor
OLINDA, Maui Jan Kasprzycki swirls a glass of Robert Mondavi Opus, drops a hand down to scratch the paint-spattered coat of one of his dogs and squints into the last light of another perfect Upcountry Maui day.
"I have been very lucky," says the artist, known for his color-splashed neo-Impressionist oils. He's thinking back to the 1970s when Lahaina, where he first lived in Hawai'i, was home to just a gallery or two and, he recalls ruefully, "I couldn't sell a painting on this island."
Now he has an extensive mailing list of regular customers, a network of galleries that represent him and a new exhibition space down the hill in Makawao. In June, he had his first San Francisco show in a decade, at Durka Chang Gallery, and took delivery of the first hand-knotted carpets based on his paintings.
A recreational surfer and board sailor, he falls back on surf parlance when he discusses his life: "I am still stoked. I think it's amazing just to get up in the morning and paint every day."
The popularity of his work, and the decision reached a decade ago to license manufacturers to re-create his works in high-end domestic products, means he can spend his time at the job he loves.
The artist is sitting on the deck of the studio that is the realization of one of his dreams: a place to work that's designed just as he likes it. Tucked away in a bend of Olinda Road, far from the tourist routes, it is a vaguely Asian-looking, eggplant-colored barn with orange trim, equipped with skylights to bathe his oversized canvases in sunshine as he works, a petite kitchen and bath so that he can refresh himself during long sessions of work and office space for his wife and business manager, Kathy.
The building which despite its color scheme seems to fit the landscape doubles as a place for entertaining clients and hosting fund-raisers. It is an adjunct to the Avalene Gallery in Makawao, where Kasprzycki's work is shown along with that of his friends, sculptor Steve Smeltzer and wood-turner Victor Holmes, and his daughter, painter Lisa Kasprzycki.
While savoring the goodies, Kasprzycki retains a hard and real edge: eyes that look straight at you, a trim physique honed by daily surfing jaunts and workouts, a wardrobe of T-shirts, jeans and work boots.
After 24 years together, he is still crazy about his wife, calling her his inspiration, praising her contributions to his art and their business and relying on her for numbers and details, about which he is famously clueless.
He is a thinker, and enjoys expounding his theories, and listening to those of others. When it comes to dogs, for example, he is a firm believer in the rule of three: One older dog to act as kahu (shepherd), one middle-aged dog to do all the doggie things and a puppy to drive the other two crazy. The males are always called after artists (Picasso the dalmatian routinely displays splotches of red and green among the black-and-white spots, from hanging around the artist as he works). The females are named for flowers, which figure heavily in his work (Tulip is the senior dog). And then there is Gauguin the black cat, who stalks through his canvases now and again.
On this particular evening, the Kasprzyckis are awaiting guests for the unveiling of a poster image for Here's to the Heroes, a show benefiting the families of firefighters here and in New York. Kasprzycki, still seething about the terrorist attacks, donated the painting of a pair of blazing red ti plants titled "Patience and Faith."
Kasprzycki attributes all he has to something that many artists shudder to speak of: taking a businesslike approach to his art. He learned to respect the business side of things during his early training in graphic design at the Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles, where he received his bachelor of fine arts degree in 1964.
A Rhode Islander who moved to California in his teen years, Kasprzycki was 18 years old when he started design school. By 21, he was a partner in a design firm on Wiltshire Boulevard, putting his stamp on products from books to makeup. Before he was 30, he was one-half of a perfect career couple with the kind of home that gets written up in the Los Angeles Times.
But, he says: "I was feeling real empty. It wasn't what I was after." One day, a client rejected a cookbook design he knew was right. As he seethed, he recalled talking to older advertising guys who shared their lost dreams with him, of getting out and doing what they really wanted to do. "That was it for me. I didn't want to live that way."
He quit (and later heard that the client came back around to the original idea), leaving both the job and his first marriage behind.
In the early 1970s, a shipping magnate paid him to travel around the world making portraits of ships. That gave him a taste for travel and pampering "spoiled me for life," he says.
A waterman who hand-paints his boards, Kasprzycki moved to Hawai'i in the mid-'70s to live aboard his brother's boat, first off Kaua'i, then at Mala, near Lahaina.
In 1978, he met Kathy, 11 years his junior, then visiting the Islands. They shouldn't have met at all. Kasprzycki was on his way to Tahiti on a sailboat when the vessel hit a whale in the middle of the night and had to limp back to Hawai'i. Kathy was a friend of a crew member's brother. "I saw her and she saw me, and we were neither of us looking for anything, but two weeks later we decided we wanted to be married," he said.
"The art scene on Maui was dead at that time, but she lit a fire under me to get back to work," he said.
He and three other artists opened a tiny gallery in Makawao next to Katada Store. But a single gallery didn't offer enough opportunity for his work to be seen. Tourism on Maui was beginning to boom, and the Kasprzyckis came up with the idea of hanging his work in restaurants and other public spaces the Chart House and TS chains and later David Paul's Lahaina Grill.
He met Colin Cameron, who was then developing the Kapalua Resort, a friend who not only hung his art but included the artist in annual shows mounted in conjunction with golf tournaments. "That was my big opportunity. It was the only place of its kind on Maui, and that really started to expose my work to the world," he said. Visitors would see one of his trademark glowing florals over the bar at the Kapalua Bay Club and ask about the artist. The bartenders learned to pronounce his name. Moneyed travelers tracked him down to create pieces for their homes.
Each year he and Kathy would gather up his paintings and travel to New York, where they shared a SoHo loft with another artist. They would call on their contacts in galleries, architectural firms, interior decorating firms.
His work is often likened to that of the French Impressionists, a comparison he both resists and embraces. "I love the period. It's definitely my period in art history," he says. "But I don't like being called an Impressionist." This is because a number of contemporary artists who have taken on that title have done so by trying to "look old," he said.
"I'm not trying to do that. Realism is my anchor. I can paint a reflection in a hub cap if I want to. But that's not what I want to do, either. What I do care about is creating a powerful impression of something really beautiful. I think that's what I'm here for: bringing beauty into the world. That's my primary job."
Correction: Contact the Kasprzycki Fine Art Studio at P.O. Box 277, Makawao, HI 96768 or (808) 572-0585. Information was incorrect in a previous version of this story.