Message of life
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Michael Tsai
As a young, aspiring artist, George Sumner was not without influences. He loved the vivid colors of Disney's "Fantasia," the crisp, creative expression of cartooning and sci-fi illustration, and, later, the restraint and simplicity of Asian art. But more than anything, he wanted to be original.
That meant appreciating, but not studying — and certainly never copying — the great Western masters.
"I felt a duty not to study the masters," said Sumner, 66. "I didn't want to be influenced by instructors or great painters. I didn't want to lean on a crutch. I fought against that."
Sumner, who splits his time between Sausalito, Calif., and Hanalei Bay on Kaua'i, will be back in the Islands for a fundraising appearance Oct. 28 at the Kaua'i Children's Discovery Museum, where he will work — play? — with kids on an environmental art project. Sumner and Ship Store Galleries in the Coconut MarketPlace will also donate a portion of the proceeds from the sale of Sumner's work to the museum, part of the Sumner-Kaua'i Environmental Outreach Celebration.
In 1961, still fresh from the Navy, Sumner entered the San Francisco Art Institute and, by his own proud admission, "learned nothing."
Still, the four years he spent at the institute were hardly a waste: From 10 a.m. to 3 a.m. each day, Sumner practiced drawing and painting in the school's studio, slowly developing a style that he could say was uniquely his own.
Sumner, a staunch environmental activist, would earn international acclaim for his vivid and accessible marine paintings, works that have found their way into the collections of Muhammad Ali, Ted Turner and Mikhail Gorbachev, as well as poster versions lining the bedroom walls of countless nature-loving American youth.
Best known for his pioneering efforts in marine art, Sumner has also been called on to lend his style to a number of high-profile projects. He was the official fine-arts painter for both the Statue of Liberty renovations and the 50th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge. He was also commissioned by the mayor of San Francisco to produce a painting in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the signing of the United Nations charter in San Francisco.
"To me, the absolute most difficult accomplishment (for) any artist to achieve is the ability to develop of an original style of work unique and easily distinguishable from all other artists," said Sumner. "This then becomes the artist's true hallmark. Of the millions of fine artists around the world, only a tiny handful are able to achieve this elusive goal."
DEALING WITH CRITICS
Like other marine artists, Sumner has heard the criticism from those who see his work as simplistic and commercial. It doesn't faze him.
"So-called 'snobs' are endemic in the art world," he said. "Instead of wishing fellow artists good will, they throw rocks. I'll never begrudge success if it's based on ethics. I bless God that I'm able to create art that has a message every day of my life."
While Sumner largely developed his style independent of outside influence, he has nonetheless taught or mentored hundreds of young artists, some of whom have elaborated on his principles and found commercial success.
That's usually a good thing. Sumner says it gratifies him that his interests and artistic concerns might lead other people to discover what is meaningful to them, as was the case with his son Sean, who took a cue from his father's fascination with sea life and earned a doctorate in marine biology and now teaches at California State University Channel Islands.
But even Sumner's generosity has its limits. When this newspaper suggested Sumner's work was derivative of another Hawai'i marine artist, Wyland, Sumner was dismayed, and he politely set the record straight.
Sumner said he and Wyland first met in 1982 when Wyland visited him at the Los Angeles County Fair.
"I mentored him for a couple of years, as I've done for hundreds of artists," Sumner said. "I gave him my palette for intense color, which he still uses."
Sumner said he doesn't hold Wyland's success against him, as long as the artist makes good on his publicized commitment to supporting environmental causes.
What Sumner tried to communicate to Wyland, and to others he has helped, was the distillation of his years of artistic exploration: "The simplicity of art is the cleanliness of art."
INSPIRED BY WHALES
Sumner's involvement with then newly organized Greenpeace provided an opportunity to express his artistic and environmental beliefs, and he produced scores of memorable paintings depicting the great whales in their natural environment. It was a case of art channeling a life yet unseen.
Later, when Sumner observed whale behavior firsthand in Hawaiian waters, he was stunned at how familiar the scenes were.
During a tour of waters off Lana'i, Sumner witnessed a mother whale nudging her newborn calf to the surface of the ocean, a scene he had painted in a piece called "First Breath."
"They performed in front of me what I had imagined in my painting," he said, still awed by the experience. "I had tears in my eyes under my dive mask."
Sumner has since gone "eyeball to eyeball" with migrating whales and other sea life numerous times, further enlightening what had been an inspired artistic process.
HAWAI'I LOVE AFFAIR
Sumner's first visit to Hawai'i came in 1959, while he was still in the Navy. Enchanted by Lanikai and Bellows beaches, and later by the Ko'olau mountains, Sumner began a 47-year spiritual love affair with the Islands, a relationship that burns brightest on Kaua'i.
"My soul is somewhere planted in Kaua'i," he said.
Sumner's heart is likewise bonded to Hawai'i through his wife, Donnalei, whose family has lived on the island for generations, and whose mother once danced for the Kodak Hula Show.
George and Donnalei first met in 1977 when Donnalei was working as a flight attendant. Their relationship began a few years later.
Donnalei says one of her most rewarding moments came when she and George visited Bishop Museum for a Smithsonian exhibition that featured some of George's work.
"Growing up (in Hawai'i), you go to the Bishop Museum in the fourth or fifth grade," she said. "I remember how wonderful and cool it was learning about Hawai'i that way.
"When we came back in 1998, it was wonderful knowing that kids could see something that my husband had created. It was like coming full circle."
In Donnalei, Sumner has a polished public voice (she once worked in radio) and a business partner whose commitment to environmental education equals his own. "I was active (with the environment) in 1969 and 1970, but it wasn't until I met George that I got really involved," she said. "He told me that the things you love have to be kept safe and protected, so they can survive and prosper."
Over the years, Donnalei and her husband have donated money, art and time to environmental causes and other charitable endeavors.
Buses decorated with Sum-ner's whales and dolphins (painted using clean, recycled diapers) have logged hundreds of thousands of miles while helping public school children in San Francisco discover the beauty of the ocean. In 1982, Sumner painted a whale piece live on-stage at the Hawai'i Easter Seal Telethon; it raised $5,600 at auction. Over the last six years, the Sumners' donations have made it possible to buy 800 wheelchairs for needy people around the world via the Wheelchair Foundation. In December, the couple will also participate in a sea exploration with marine biologist Bryan Doo, who works for Kaua'i's Pahio Resorts, to help protect Hawai'i's reefs.
"He truly is one of the pioneers in the marine-life awareness and preservation movement," said Fred von Wiegen of Ship Store Galleries, "spurring others to follow his path and educating the public through his magnificent work."
For the Sumners, it's not charity that drives, but responsibility — particularly when it comes to Hawai'i. "We have a genuine absolute love for Hawai'i and its people," George Sumner said. "It's ingrained in our souls."
Reach Michael Tsai at firstname.lastname@example.org.