In these days when people think capturing the human likeness is the province of cellphones and digital cameras and instant downloads to Facebook, it's a treat to view the art of portraiture on display at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. Not only on display, but full of talent, and well-represented in Maui subjects rendered by Maui artists.
The event is the Schaefer Portrait Challenge 2012, a collection of 59 works by 57 artists from the four major islands, in media that include oil, acrylic, pastel, watercolor, graphite, wood, stone, clay, wire mesh and quilting.
(Also, steel: Patrick Daniel Sarsfield's unsettling portrait of his Molokai-born wife as a 115-foot high abstract cubist sculpture. And applewood cubes: Ken Kennell and Bob Getzen's ode to musician Keola Beamer and his lineage in oil on boxes.)
Human beings have been making portraits as far back as 2500 B.C. when the Egyptians cast mummies in hot wax on wood panels, but there is a vast difference between replica and portrait. One is technology, the other a look into the soul.
As Duane Preble, one of the show's five jurors, told me, "Art is not replica. We can visit Madame Toussaud's Wax Museum in Paris but we'd rather go to the Louvre."
There's a spirit in some of the works on display at the Schaefer Gallery through March 11 that makes me want to know the people involved.
In fact, before boarding a flight to Honolulu recently, I asked every security guard I could find at Kahului Airport if they knew Hoaka Delos Reyes, who works as a janitor there. I wanted to compliment him on his sculpture, a pohaku so powerful Hawaiians spontaneously broke into chant over it at the opening, and Sally French, another juror, told me how honored they were to have it in the show.
Delos Reyes was a master wall builder until he hurt his back and took up Hawaiian carving using traditional tools. The lava carving, called "Ka 'Ulu," honors Kyle Nakanelua, captain of the airport's crash rescue department.
A noble face breaks out of the raw stone, epitomizing to Delos Reyes what it is to be a Hawaiian kane, a male both strong and nurturing like the breadfruit carved on the side of the stone which gives its name to the work.
Creators of the portrait challenge worked hard to reach out to the Hawaiian community, which provided other showstoppers from Maui County such as Stephen Garnin's oil and acrylic of "Parez Punaluu Kahikina, Kalaupapa Native Son."
Kahikina's parents, diagnosed with Hansen's disease, were sent to the settlement on Molokai, leaving their son to be raised with relatives "topside." He looks like a Vietnam veteran, wearing a green T-shirt, camouflage pants and heavy shades.
He kneels beside the grave of his father, a cigarette and a can of beer in his hands. The scene is beautiful, lonely, redemptive, as the poignant foreground merges into the light on the fields beyond. A sad irony: Kahikina perished in an accident a few days after the portrait was begun.
Another favorite is Wilton Leauanae's compassionate oil of the Maui icon, Thelma Kahili Long Cummings, kumu hula and master weaver. Now in her '90s, "Auntie Kahili" is related to highly respected kumu hula. She's the aunt of Maui's Hokulani Holt Padilla, sister of Oahu's Mae Loebenstein and Leiana Woodside. Her eyes are dimming, but her love is strong. Lucky are those who have known her.
There were portraits of several Maui folks I have met: Roger B. Stephens' acrylics of Mana'o Radio stalwart Bill Best and artist Tom Sewell; Daniel Bilmes' look at landscape designer Hunton Conrad; and Kathleen Kastles' delightful rendering of fabric artist Elaine Gima in painted quilt.
I wish I knew Kirk Kurokawa, who realistically portrays himself sitting on a couch gazing fondly at his wife, who is smiling at her new baby while the family dogs look on.
The same goes for Maui's Jonathan Yukio Clark, who won the $15,000 Jurors' Choice Award (thank you, Carolyn Schaefer Gray!) for the mixed media tour de force capturing the life journey of his Manoa grandmother, Catherine Yamada. There's so much exquisite detail in the work of this young star, so much time and effort expended, that Preble concludes the motivating force for this, and many other works in the show, could only have been love.
"That kind of work is way too rare."
* Laurel Murphy is a former staff writer for The Maui News whose "Keiki o ka 'Aina" column appears each Tuesday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.