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An inspired artist

Childhood tragedy led Ben Kikuyama to follow his dreams

December 26, 2011
By ILIMA LOOMIS - Staff Writer ( , The Maui News

A tragedy in his early life left Ben Kikuyama shaken and scarred, but it also became the wake-up call that set him on a path to a lifelong career as an artist.

Kikuyama was a teenager just out of Lahainaluna High School, taking a joy ride with friends early one morning to see the sunrise over Haleakala, when the car he was riding in lost control, plunging over a cliff. He regained consciousness hours later and climbed to get help, but two friends in the front seat were killed, and Kikuyama lost 90 percent of the vision in his left eye.

The 49-year-old Kula resident, who said his loss of vision hasn't affected his work, said he had always been interested in art, but never had focus until the crash.

Article Photos

Artist Ben Kikuyama stands in front of his “inspiration board” in his Kula studio. Kikuyama said surviving a tragic car crash as a teenager was a wake-up call that made him decide to pursue his dream of becoming an artist.
Photo provided by Ben Kikuyama

"It kind of woke me up and changed my perspective on life," he said. "I probably had a lot of guilt, and I started thinking about life and what it was all about. The one thing I had was art. After the accident I started thinking, 'This is the reason I'm here.' "

Kikuyama used a scholarship from the Lahaina Arts Society to attend Chapman College, where he studied charcoal and paint, creating "very traditional representational work." But while he felt it was important to build a foundation of strong technical skills, Kikuyama said he was drawn to create art that didn't just represent reality but created an emotional reaction or experience for people.

"Art isn't the object you see," he said. "The object you see is sort of the trigger. It's the experience between the viewer and the object - that experience is what brings it up to the level of art."

Kikuyama, whose works have been displayed at venues including the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, Hui No'eau and The Contemporary Museum in Honolulu, and who has won awards including the Hawaii State Foundation on Culture and the Arts' Acquisition Award, says his ideas come from "everywhere." He can be inspired by the work of other artists, a fashion designer's use of texture and materials, or by stories or films.

But the deeper source of an artist's inspiration remains a mystery.

"These little triggers will happen, and I don't know where that comes from. It just sort of happens," he said. "I just think there's this stuff out there in the universe, whatever it is, and somehow we tap into it once in a while."

One recent source of ideas was a trip to Europe, when he visited Siena, Italy, and found himself "mesmerized" by the textures of the city's architecture, "buildings that were hundreds of years old, cracked and layered with history."

"I started thinking of the foundation of my pieces, and how we always take the canvas or the board for granted," he said. "I was interested in the idea, 'What if the foundation had cracks in it?' "

The experience inspired one of his latest projects, "Cracked." The series of paintings features images on torn canvases that have been patched or sewn back together.

Kikuyama said he was drawn to the textures of a cracked surface but also felt that the cracks evoked a deeper meaning.

"We get cracks in our lives, and we deal with them. Over the years, as we deal with these cracks and repair them or move on from them, those are the things that really add character to us," he said. "Those things that are trials, that we have to overcome, they strengthen us and define who we are as human beings."

* Ilima Loomis can be reached at



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