Rare painting by 'Hawaiian Ben Franklin'
By Wanda A. Adams
Assistant Features Editor
By Wanda A. Adams
Kamehameha Schools' charitable foundation, Ke Ali'i Pauahi, has received a historic painting as an extraordinary endowment — and the givers feel as though they have received an equal gift.
"Painting of Hilo Bay" by Joseph Ho'oluhi Nawahiokalaniopu'u is the only western-style painting by a Native Hawaiian of the 19th century.
Nawahi (pronounced Na-vah-HEE) is believed to have been the first Native Hawaiian to have painted in the western representational manner. Informally valued at $100,000 to $150,000 during an August visit to Honolulu of the TV program "Antiques Roadshow," "Painting of Hilo Bay" has now been professionally appraised at more than $450,000.
But for donors Bruce and Jackie Erickson of Pearl City, the painting — as historically important and as aesthetically appealing as it is — is merely a conduit to a man whom Bruce Erickson calls the Ben Franklin of Hawaiian history.
"Aside from the monarchy, I think he is the most important figure of the 19th century in Hawai'i," said Erickson.
For Erickson, a scientific and technical photographer who is also a historian, stumbling across the painting in an antique shop in 1984 was the beginning of a 20-year-plus odyssey with Nawahi.
Back then, he and his wife, an attorney and 1958 Kamehameha Schools graduate, were collectors in a modest way. In December 1984, they were visiting friends in Volcano, on the Big Island. On their way into Hilo, to pick up a catalog from a Lyman Museum exhibit, they stopped by the now-gone Tinny Fisher gallery in Volcano to see if there were any interesting old photographs for sale.
Behind the reception desk was the painting. They asked to see it but, he recalled, "It was kind of dark in the shop and we couldn't make out much of the painting except that it was a panorama and we saw '— ahi' on the signature." The gallery wanted $395, and that was then a lot of money to the Ericksons. They kept driving to Hilo.
There, in the catalog, they saw a small black-and-white drawing of Volcano House and an entry, by art historian David Forbes, that told of Hawai'i's first western-style artist, Joseph Nawahi. "I told my wife, 'Look! That must be the name on the painting!' " They immediately found a phone, called the gallery and put the painting on hold, even though, as he recalls ruefully, "We didn't know how we were going to pay for it." Recently, he found that old, canceled check: Dec. 15, 1984.
A STUNNING DISCOVERY
Back home, Erickson went to the state archives and found a large file on Nawahi, a file that stunned him.
This artist, with his naive, untutored oil-painting style, was so much more: a teacher at Hilo Boarding School, where he had been a student; a self-taught attorney; a legislator for 20 years; the trusted adviser of Lili'uokalani; believed to have been the principal author of the constitution she introduced in an attempt to regain the monarchy after she was deposed; publisher of a Hawaiian-language newspaper, Ke Aloha 'Aina, that supported the monarchy.
In the archive is a petition that Nawahi helped circulate among Hawaiians favoring restoration of the monarchy.
"We have run into so many people now who have looked over that list and said, 'Oh, I found my grandparents' names,' " said Erickson.
Learning all this, Erickson had the same reaction as Hawaiian- language scholar Puakea Nogelmeier would have years later, after Nogelmeier translated a biography of Nawahi written by Kahikina Sheldon in 1906: "How can people not know about this man?" (The English-language translation is available from the Hawaiian Historical Society.)
Nogelmeier said Nawahi comes across as an exceptionally self-motivated man. He recalled an incident in 1892 when Nawahi, who was in his district of Puna for an election, actually hopped into a whale boat (not a ship but a large rowboat) to cross the notoriously rough 'Alenuihaha Channel in order to pick up a Maui steamer that could get him back to Honolulu in time for a key vote in the Legislature. "He was a very, very dedicated man, and very much a nationalist, and a visionary as a legislator," said Nogelmeier.
Once, in the Legislature, Nawahi gave an impassioned speech against a plan of King David Kalakaua to take on a million-dollar debt. Prophetically, Nawahi said such an act would be the first step toward loss of sovereignty, putting a poor nation at the mercy of its debtors.
For this man, art was only an aside, a gentlemanly pursuit — only five of his paintings, and some sketches in the Volcano House guest books, are known to survive. "We don't think of him as an artist. We think of him as a Hawaiian political hero, but the art is a symbol of who he was, our only tangible connection to him," said Erickson.
For the Ericksons, every tidbit of information about Nawahi — culminating in the shocking news of the painting's present value — led to one conclusion: "We can't keep this any more. This is bigger than our owning it. It's got to be made more widely available," said Erickson.
GIFT TO HAWAIIANS
They decided that they wanted the painting to be freely available to the public, and that they wanted the gift to somehow benefit Native Hawaiians.
Since the Ericksons already were donors to Ke Ali'i Pauahi, Kamehameha Schools seemed a logical choice.
In return for the gift, Kamehameha will endow a scholarship in Nawahi's name.
This satisfied the Ericksons' "bottom line": for Joseph Nawahi to become known to — and a role model for — young Hawaiians.
The painting, which will be on view at Kamehameha Schools this week, will get a temporary home at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, where it will also be on display, said Ke Ali'i Pauahi Foundation executive director Lynn Maunakea.
In 2009, Ka'iwakiloumoku, Kamehameha's new Hawaiian cultural center, will be completed on the Kapalama campus, and the painting will find a permanent home there. Maunakea said the six-year-old foundation is deeply grateful for the gift, which will help draw attention to its mission of aiding Kamehameha Schools and endowing scholarships for Hawaiian students.
Nogelmeier recently stumbled across a prophetic quote in a Hawaiian-language newspaper, Nupepa Kuokoa, from October 1868. The writer describes his admiration of a painting by Nawahi, then hanging in the pharmacy of Gerrit P. Judd in Honolulu.
Wrote the reporter: "The young man was not extensively trained in prestigious schools of art, but ... he practiced in the field, drawing and painting, and only now has his talent in that unfamiliar, foreign pastime become apparent. His name shall become famous in the field."
Reach Wanda A. Adams at email@example.com.