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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Islands' last queen graces four-story Kaka'ako mural

By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The finished wall on the Nalu Lani building as it is seen today depicts Queen Lili'uokalani enveloped by a huge wave.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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The dignified face of Queen Lili'uokalani Hawai'i's last reigning monarch draws you to the four-story mural painted on the side of a Kaka'ako office building. Then one sees the giant glassy wave, the surfer, and the children staring up at the urban artwork.

The Nalu Lani building stands at 401 Kamake'e St. but the huge mural painted on its sides is best seen from Queen Street, where it's tucked just diamondhead of a busy intersection that hundreds pass daily to get to Ward Centers' theaters, shops and restaurants.

California-based artist John Pugh painted the mural over 18 months, completing it last year as a commission for building owner Dr. Richard Wasnich.

The style of painting is trompe l'oeil (pronounced "tromp loey"), which means "fools the eye" in French. And this artwork clearly qualifies, creating an illusion of depth and detail, windows, shadows, stairs and children so lifelike they prompted a near-rescue.

Wasnich said he walked around his building one day to find a fire truck parked in the middle of Queen Street and a crew of firefighters standing on the sidewalk. He panicked a little until he saw they were laughing.

They told him they'd been driving by and stopped because they "thought those kids were stranded" on a high wall. Wasnich smiles and shakes his head at the memory. "Then they realized they'd been sucked in."

Loan officer Noe Chong works in the building and enjoyed watching the mural come together. Now that it is completed, she sees the reactions from passers-by almost daily.

"I think it's really cool," Chong said. "It represents a lot of things for a lot of local people."

Wasnich who retired from his medical practice in 2006 puzzled over what to do to the side of the office building after the demolition of nearby Ward maintenance buildings exposed a big blank gray wall.

His son suggested a mural, and after seeing a trompe l'oeil mural in Quebec city on vacation, Wasnich got a better idea of what he wanted, put together a request for proposals from artists and sent it out in 2005.


Nearly a dozen artists submitted proposals and Wasnich selected Pugh after he saw the preliminary concept of the queen's face, a wave and a surfer. Wasnich had proposed the project include "various Hawaiian historical figures" but had not said which ones.

Pugh's own research convinced him that the queen whom he describes as creative and sensitive and courageous needed to be the central figure.

"I just think Queen Lili'uokalani was an amazing person," Pugh said. He felt that King Kamehameha and other historic figures were prominently depicted already. "I think she's been under-represented," he said in a telephone interview.

As a non-Hawaiian who has lived in Hawai'i for more than 35 years, Wasnich understood that a portrayal of Hawaiian history could be seen as disrespectful. So he asked for help from Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner Kauila Clark, whom he hired to work closely with Pugh.

Clark took Pugh on a journey through Hawaiian history that included a trip to the queen's tomb in the Royal Mausoleum. "I asked for permission to use her image," Pugh said.


Pugh worked on the mural for seven months before returning to California. He's been surprised by the international attention this artwork has been getting in recent weeks after a London publication wrote a story that was widely circulated on the Web.

The art style has picked up in popularity. "Everyone likes being tricked and they tend to bond with the piece after they've been tricked," Pugh said.

Pugh said the epic wave behind surfing pioneer Duke Kahanamoku is Queen Lili'uokalani herself, whose enduring legacy lives on through the children's center named for her and in other ways. To get the wave just right, he hired a glass artist to make a model of a wave he could study throughout.

He said the children shown in the mural offer gifts that pay tribute to the queen. In a window to the right side is Prince Kuhio, who served in Congress and created the Hawaiian homes act to return more Hawaiians to the land.

Pugh had visited the Islands before, working on projects on Maui and in the Koko Head area. But he said this project consumed him for a time as he worked 10 to 14 hours a day, striving to get it right. He said apprentices helped him paint the big image.

"It means more to me than any mural I've ever done in my life," Pugh said.


When the mural was dedicated with Clark and other Hawaiians looking on, some had tears in their eyes and Pugh said he felt he'd connected. "I felt that I belonged there and I transcended my haoleness," Pugh said.

Clark was struck by Wasnich's inspiration and Pugh's dedication.

"I was impressed with Dr. Wasnich to have that kind of aloha for the queen. And he was asking for nothing," Clark said.

An artist himself, Clark was impressed with Pugh's focus on getting it right "for not taking artistic license but really holding to historic truth."

Clark said the mural draws people into the history. "It's a visual lesson."

And although he's seen other attractive public art, Clark said this piece goes farther.

"We're much more than whales and dolphins in public," he said.

Wasnich named the building Nalu Lani, meaning heavenly wave, while Pugh named the mural Mana Nalu which translates to spirit of the wave.


Prior to this project, Wasnich was known mostly for his osteoporosis research, publishing such articles as: "A Comparison of Hip Fracture Incidence among native Japanese, Japanese-Americans and American Caucasians."

Wasnich declined to say how much the project cost him but he's happy with the result. "I enjoy the illusion and how people get drawn into it."

Wasnich still plans a plaque explaining more about the painting and the history. He said a small public park is now planned fronting the mural sanctuary in the middle of the concrete city.

"It really did start out as a problem," Wasnich said. "It ended up as an opportunity."