Richard Letney may be the most remarkable, prolific, amazing Maui artist you’ve never heard of.
Arriving on the Valley Isle more than 30 years ago, English-born Letney—better known to friends as Gopal—has dedicated himself completely to capturing the island’s natural beauty. Yet, in the highly competitive Maui art world of Front Street galleries in Lahaina, Art Maui competitions and artists publicizing themselves through mass marketing or huge murals on buildings, Gopal remains an enigma.
“Nature’s ingenuity knows no bounds,” says Letney, trying to explain his devotion to art minus the trappings.
Classically trained, with a Master’s Degree from the Royal College of Art in London, Letney does hope his vast portfolio will find an audience. His wish is that through his artwork, people’s eyes may open to the wonder of life, the everyday natural splendor that surrounds us.
For years, Letney has followed a discipline of traveling and hiking to secluded locations or captivating vistas, his art gear in hand. Often he works for several days, or even a week, at a particular locale. Realistic renditions of mountainscapes, waterfalls, coastlines and passing clouds are captured in panoramic elegance, all done on location, never from photos. The result is an archive of more than 150 completed pieces, chronicling an array of areas from Haiku to ‘Iao, around West Maui and ranging up Haleakala.
Letney’s works are pastels on paper, allowing nuances of light, shadow and color that add an ethereal quality to his scrupulous style of realism. Many works are diptychs and triptychs, providing broad views of a variety of ecosystems throughout Maui, which he refers to as “a jewel with many facets.”
“If you can show people the beauty of the planet,” says Letney, “something worth saving, you appeal to them on a higher level. Not gloom and doom, but beauty—a symphony of elements, the inter-relationship of all life.”
Through a young protégé who is assisting him in archiving and marketing his artwork, Gopal contacted me to help raise awareness about his unique collection of “eco-art,” a term he says he coined years ago. “More important to me than money,” he says, “is the consciousness of the people I work with.”
Though he guards his privacy, I was invited to join Gopal and assistant Damarahara Lange at his humble Haiku home and studio. I drove in late one afternoon, as the golden rays of sunlight illuminated the gardens surrounding his abode. The area, once overgrown in cane grass, is now alive with his landscaped “3-D doodles.”
Paths meander through his “coralscapes,” meticulously stacked creations made using items found washed up on the beach, inter-planted with colorful foliage. Tucked into the extraordinary sculptures are tiny plastic African animals, dinosaurs and mermaids; another one elegantly showcases a blue Buddha statue. Besides the active meditation of beautifying his immediate surroundings, Gopal refers to the designs as “a way to bring attention to the worldwide plight of coral reefs.”
He remembers how he returned to the ocean after more than a decade to find everything dramatically different than he remembered. Having lived in the oceanside community of Kuau for his first 13 years on Maui, he was shocked to observe green algae over-growing formerly healthy reefs and a depletion of once-plentiful fish.
“It wasn’t like that before,” he laments.
Gopal acknowledges that other artists have tried to bring attention to marine life, though they often portray it in fantastic ways not seen in real life. “Some take the most opulent [ocean creatures] and cram them all into one picture,” he says. “My style is authentic to the environment, not a dreamscape. I accept nature on her own terms, with all the subtleties and delicate hues. Don’t gild the lily.”
Letney, Lange and I sat under an awning in his garden and sipped hot tea, a tangy blend of lilikoi, ginger, lemon, white tea and a pinch of cayenne. It was lightly sweetened with stevia, the one sweet thing, says Letney, that’s alkaline and not acid-forming in the human body, and thus better for our overall health.
This level of awareness is apparent in Gopal’s reverence for the natural world. “If we poison our Mother [Earth] and she becomes sick,” he says, “we can’t expect to be nourished by her.”
He understands that sometimes “in a frame with a spotlight, people will notice something more than they may see in everyday life. [Then] they may not merely respect the environment, but actually feel the sacredness of it—that which remains unaltered by any human hand. It’s all divine creation.”
I asked Gopal about his early life, his training and what brought him to Maui. Though he’s more interested in discussing his art, he shared a bit about his background.
He grew up on a farm in the English countryside, where his father raised livestock. Sent to a boarding school from age 5 to 16, he says his love of art helped keep him sane. “It provided escape from the regimentation and structure,” he says.
By the time he completed his undergraduate art degree at Kent, he was quite accomplished in portraiture and even ventured into elaborate works of what he terms “transcendental art,” derived from classical Tibetan and Hindu works he researched at the Royal College’s library and museum.
Letney left England in 1976, spending six months on the Mainland U.S. His main mode of transport was hitchhiking; to this day, he has never owned a car. Eventually reaching California, he spent a month at Twenty Nine Palms, where he met John Hilton, who had a house there.
Hilton also owned a home on Maui and was the founder of the Lahaina Art Society. Appreciative of the young Englishman’s talents, Hilton bought Letney a ticket to Maui.
One poster image of his early years on Maui exists: a dreamy moonscape of a topless Hawaiian girl surrounded by night-blooming cereus and palms that some have referred to as the “Hawaiian Mona Lisa.” Eight-hundred posters were produced and sold, though Gopal still has the re-worked original.
For seven years, Letney immersed himself in the art of scrimshaw, etching elaborate images of endangered species into fossilized walrus ivory. He describes the process as “working in the negative,” with the end result not apparent until ink is rubbed into the scratches.
Eventually, after producing some 150 pieces, he felt he had learned all he could about the scrimshaw craft and moved on. Gopal says he realized that efforts to bring awareness to the plight of endangered species alone would be insufficient without also imparting a deep appreciation for nature.
“It’s a language everyone innately understands,” he says. “It’s not cloaked in politics, judgment or religion.”
He says he uses the same schooled discipline in a landscape that he would in a portrait. Making sure he doesn’t take shortcuts or get sloppy is part of his active meditation. While claiming his style is “no style,” he is nevertheless true to nature in a manner that doesn’t allow for interpretations or deviations from the original scene.
The end result is ultimately a work Gopal calls “a glimpse in nature’s kingdom.” And he works diligently until the piece is just right.
“I’m a non-stop artist,” he says with a smile.
But like many with an artistic or musical gift, finding the time or inclination for self-promotion is not high on his list of skills or priorities. Letney understands that his originals are “not the end product” and that “they belong to Maui and the planet.” Yet he would like to see them housed in a permanent collection, as an archival resource, available to the public as a tool for environmental education.
Since moving on to his realistic landscapes, no originals have been sold. Because of the extreme depth and detail of the original art, they lend themselves to reproductions in a giclee, fine-art printing format that utilizes digital ink-jet replication technology.
A limited number of pieces have been captured in digital format and even fewer giclee prints, with long-lasting fade-resistant inks, have been produced. Gopal rolled out one stupendous panoramic giclee print, over 12 feet in length and encompassing a 360 degree view from a lofty viewpoint in Iao Valley. I found myself immersed in the detail of the work for several minutes.
Gopal’s determination to produce his eco-art has taken hold of his life to the extent where his surroundings have often been austere. In a very real sense, he has proven that fine art can be created without the trappings of this highly consumptive culture, which values the economic ladder of achievement over and above spiritual growth.
“Cities block us with walls of concrete, depriving us of the open countryside where our minds can take wing and soar, where our souls can breathe deeply and our senses be refreshed,” says Gopal.
“Although there is nothing to compare to actually being in the midst of nature,” he continues, “artwork depicting nature does act in its way to give us a glimpse through a window to the grandeur.”
Letney becomes animated when explaining the new unfolding chapter of his art and the potential it has to transform and educate. Besides archiving his work, he envisions a compilation book or books, with additional place data, environmental prose and perhaps “something to speak to kids.”
He also expresses interest in creating a “temple of art” with a blue roof and green walls and carpet to reflect the natural world. As his artwork represents accurate historical portrayals of many pristine Maui landscapes, he speculates that state grant funding might help preserve his work for the benefit of future generations.
Whatever may come of his quest to preserve and share his life’s work, Letney is at peace with himself and with the impermanence that he recognizes as part of life. “In nature, there’s creation, preservation and dissolution, all happening simultaneously,” he says. “Nature accepts all of that, and there’s beauty in each of the aspects.”
Gopal’s assistant Lange regards sharing his mentor’s artwork with the greater community as a “historic mission.” But the artist’s goal is not to achieve notoriety himself. His idea of success is that his work to be well known while he maintains his privacy.
Still, he recognizes his part in the equation. “I don’t think Mother Nature would have commissioned me to do this without some greater plan.” MTW