I’ll never forget my first art show experience on Maui. It was 2003, and I was visiting with friends living on the island. We were at the Maui County Fair, and the art was an assortment on display inside the Baldwin High School gymnasium. As I lingered there, taking in each piece, many of which were created by artists under the age of 18, an awe-struck feeling of appreciation and reverence for life on Maui came over me.
The fact that students this young were making art this advanced said so much to me about the island and how it nurtures the creative energy inside all of us. On a gut level, it told me Maui would be a good place to live. A place that takes care of its artists must be a peaceful place, I posited.
Visiting from my artsy Los Angeles neighborhood of 10 years, I was admittedly a bit of an “art snob” at the time and did not expect to find this kind of reassurance in a high school gym. But there it was, fastened to a concrete wall next to the basketball hoop.
I moved to Maui less than a year later, in time for the following year’s County Fair.
Seven years later, its safe to say I’ve seen a lot of art on Maui. I spent several years selling art and doing public relations for galleries in Lahaina, and would spend hours walking up and down bustling Front Street on a Friday night, stopping into shops whenever an eye-catching piece drew me in. There is always so much to see there; the art saturation is so dense that it can be overwhelming.
After I’d seen all of it, though, I couldn’t help but wonder: if this place is so good to its artists, where is the rest of the art scene? Where are the artists who push boundaries? Where is the pulse of modern progressive art, the edgy stuff, the art that propels us toward our own personal freedom?
Thankfully, I found answers to those questions.
THE UNSEEN SCENE
It can take a lot of purposeful digging to find the really great progressive art on Maui amongst the more dated, “commercially-viable” work that’s marketed to tourists looking for a keepsake of their tropical vacation. That’s not to say the landscapes and whales and flowers aren’t pretty—they are, and many are done with care and skill. But the really groundbreaking art is not always in the shop-front windows of the galleries, not always visible from the street. The art I’m talking about isn’t the kind that can predictably make a gallery owner a nice chunk of change every week, but the kind of art that changes you. Maui is such a hotbed of creativity, a home to artists who have something revolutionary to say—when given the space to say it.
Considered one of the top places in the world for art sales, Maui boasts dozens of galleries from shore to shore, containing all kinds of art for sale including sculpture, a variety of painting styles, jewelry, textiles, blown glass, wood crafts and pottery.
The rich traditional handmade crafts of our host culture are also teeming with fantastic objects d’art, whether they be tiki carvings made from our abundant tropical hardwoods, ancient petroglyphs displayed in the many caves, intricate weavings, beautiful quilts that tell a story in their squares, and a colorful variety of wearable art—from tattoos to kapa cloth, feather capes and other ornaments worn by chiefs and kings.
However, the majority of people visiting Maui’s galleries will see a lot of the expected: airbrushed dolphins leaping in sync with a double moonbow; whale tails flipping in perfect alignment with a setting sun framed by two palm trees; freshly plucked plumeria flowers arranged in a still life in the sand.
“Hawaii has always had a particular style of art that people associate with the tropics and it is what many people expect to see,” explains Marcy Lynn, exhibitions coordinator for the historic Hui No‘eau Visual Arts Center, a nonprofit arts organization that has—for 80 years —served the island’s art community as both an exhibition space and a supportive center for developing artists of all ages.
Enjoying progressive art on Maui requires getting out of the house (or hotel) and hitting the roads less traveled. Some of the best art venues are also some of the most unconventional: cafes, restaurants, bars, even tattoo shops.
Despite the constant attraction of artists to the island, the progressive arts movement has meandered in and out of view. While Maui has attracted artists for decades, there has always been a struggle for those who try to make a living with their craft. Many are faced with a difficult challenge: making art that sells and can support them, while still chasing the muse into uncharted territory.
A CREATIVE TRIO
Recently, on my quest to be astonished, I found a trio of artists who are doing the kind of work I’ve longed to see. Each, in their own way, is channeling a certain “environmental Renaissance” quality we’re experiencing worldwide. Taking inspiration from the natural world—animals, organisms and botanical subjects—Jaisy Hanlon, Ghalib El-Khalidi and Cudra Clover channel an appreciation of the sciences through their art. Walking a fine line between the two disciplines, their art brings us closer to our surroundings.
When asked to comment on the trio, Marcy Lynn of the Hui No‘eau Arts Center says they all reach “beyond what is known and expected to challenge the viewer to a new way of seeing and thinking about art and nature. I find that very refreshing.”
On display at the Hui until November 12, Jaisy Hanlon’s solo exhibition, “Factual Fiction: Imagined Landscapes, Hybrids, and Other Curiosities” presents an environment the artist has intricately crafted by hand, an installation that unites her background in fine art, science illustration and metalsmithing.
Using a mixed media approach, Jaisy sculpts, precision cuts and paints a dreamscape, bringing to life a land where a surprisingly crisp, neon, hybridized collection of metal creatures (a bird with a rack of antlers, a giant beetle, a wing that seems to fly itself) float off of the softly textured canvases and backgrounds. Her attention to detail in this rich, multilayered exhibition is evident—she displays dramatically contrasted, large wall-mounted pieces along with miniature metal boxes left open to reveal tiny terrariums of objects, both natural and fabricated.
“Jaisy is incredibly thoughtful about her work. She has a unique artistic point of view,” explains Lynn. “Her love of natural history comes through in a totally new and exciting way. Her work is intelligent, whimsical and intriguing, a different take on what most associate with nature art in Hawaii.”
During my daytime visit to the exhibition, Lynn explained that many of Jaisy’s pieces contain elements that glow in the dark. A spider here, a lone bear there—were they displayed in my home—would be all that was left of the art when the lights went out.
When a new show at the Paia Tattoo Parlor recently opened on Maui, I heard more buzz than I had in a long time. People were talking as if some mysterious, nameless artist had suddenly descended upon Maui. Of course, I had to find out what was going on.
Turns out the artist has a name—Ghalib El-Khalidi. And while he’s been living on Maui working as a science illustrator and student for years, this was his first art show ever. So the rumors were partly true: he is brand new and his work is definitely from someplace else.
Spending time at the recently closed Paia Tattoo exhibition, “A Cabinet of Curiosities,” it was hard to believe this was a rookie attempt. Ghalib’s imagined creatures, all hand-made—first with foil, then covered with polymer—are hybrids of several lifeforms merged into one. A tusk here, a third eye there, whiskers everywhere; I vacillated between wanting to make them my pets and running away in fear. They’re all mounted to varnished wooden plaques, and each “species” is given a name, like Spider Urchin or Tusked Ginch.
Ghalib is also a skilled illustrator, and he displayed a number of drawings in his show. An entire wall was dedicated to “Assorted Arthropods,” invented insects as creatively divined as their sculpted brethren.
Ask silk artist Cudra Clover about beauty and art on Maui, and she has a lot to say. “I think no more ugliness should be allowed—it should be illegal to build any more ugly strip malls, no more parking lots, no more ugly signs, no more obnoxious hotels that have no character. It’s so dumb when we have so many artists on this island—especially ones that could use the work—to put up a hotel that looks like any other hotel on the side of a highway, or a strip mall with all the same stores and signage as somewhere in Indiana. We are Maui, we are known for our beauty here, yet we continue to destroy it, or let it be destroyed by people who value instant money over lasting beauty.”
Cudra’s Haiku art studio is filled with countless pots of colorful paint, giant sheets of silk and images of the cells of plants and underwater coral reefs, tiny creatures and strange microscopic objects. She may be depicting the same things you see in many mainstream paintings, but she is doing it very differently.
First of all, she’s painting on silk—a delicate, unforgiving medium. She’s also painting living things found in nature from a perspective that can’t be seen by the naked eye. Lastly, she is taking an age-old painting tradition (with origins in India’s 2nd Century) in a bold, modern direction.
Her most recent piece, submitted to the “Malama Wao Akua” Viewpoints exhibition, took the jury prize for two-dimensional art, beating out dozens of paintings done on traditional canvas that usually dominate the category. Her winning piece depicted the Haleakala Silversword and a native sea lettuce at the cellular level, melding two specimens on a giant “petri dish” of fine silk fabric.
“Silk painting requires an entirely different thought process than painting with acrylic or oil,” says Cudra. “Once you put something down on silk, it’s there—you must commit to it. Many silk painters completely plan out their pieces before they commit to a single stroke. But I prefer the unexpected and am inspired by the surprises that unfold. To me, silk art is an intuitive and symbiotic process. Rather than exerting complete control over the artistic process, I work with the piece. I am not the master; the art and I take turns calling the shots.”
Born: Sandpoint, Idaho
Favorite Color: Green (on Thursdays)
Started making art: “As soon as I figured out that I could escape my chore responsibilities by convincing my parents that this was a much better use of my time. They didn’t buy it.”
Influenced by: Hudson River Valley School, Hieronymus Bosch, Diego Velasquez, Darren Waterson, Ryan McGinness, Kara Walker, Annette Messager
First art show: Second grade jungle installation
Invention idea: “Phosphorescent concrete, to make night drives more interesting.”
Superpower Wanted: “Selective memory. Because there’s not enough room in the brain for the good and the bad.”
What about Maui inspires: “The trees and that weird purple-gray sky we get Upcountry after it rains.”
Where you can see her art: Her solo exhibition is up at the Hui No‘eau until March 12; www.decorativepurposesonly.com
Ghalib El -Khalidi
Favorite Color: Brown
Started making art: “Probably when I was three or four.”
Influenced by: Earnest Haekel, Kiki Smith, Renee French, Edward Gorey
First art show: “A Cabinet of Curiosities” at Paia Tattoo Parlor. Opened September 10
Invention Idea: “A pill that would make humans 100 times smarter.”
Superpower Wanted: “Being able to talk to animals, or to fly.”
What about Maui inspires: “It is mellow, peaceful, beautiful, and it allows me to live a bit like a hermit.”
Where you can see his art right now: One of his polymer clay sculptures is on display at Viewpoints Gallery’s “Malama Wao Akua” juried exhibition until October 26.
Born: Allegheny, Pennsylvania
Favorite Color: Orange
Started making art: “As a very little girl with fat crayons and a chalkboard.”
Influenced by: Gustav Klimt, her brother Michael Kavay
First art show: Live interactive art installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 2000
Invention idea: “A De-Greed-afier: Just touch anyone who is busy being really greedy and they will instantly be in tune with how much they truly need.”
Superpower Wanted: “Levitation.”
What about Maui inspires: “What doesn’t?”
Where you can see her art right now: Her winning silk painting is on display at Viewpoints Gallery’s “Malama Wao Akua” juried exhibition until October 26; www.cudraclover.com