There are places we can pass by every day and still not know exist. A modest wall, on the side of the quaint one-story Omura Building and bordering the defunct Old Wailuku Pool, is one such place. It’s like many in Wailuku Town: discreet, timeworn and forgotten, shadowed by surrounding change, and cut from the tunnel vision of busy daily life. This is a relic, covered in a weather-seasoned off-white coat of paint and forgotten.
At least, that’s how it was.
This is also the wall that artist Noble Richardson chose to paint with his collective, Endemic Hawai‘i Artists, as part of the Small Town Big Art public art program. EHA, which includes other locally based artists Elmer Bio, Amanda Joy Bowers, and Kirk Kurokawa, unveiled their mural on Dec. 6.
Now it’s a landmark. In the shadow of the towering Kalana O Maui (County) Building, in the heart of a town facing a wave of change, and amid the bustling of Wailuku, the wall has gone from unremarkable to unignorable.
From the bottom of the Wells Street hill which slopes into Mauna Kahalawai, the mural’s flash of red, deep like the hue of a low sun half sunken into the horizon, catches the eye. Anchoring the mural is stone, and the portrait of a man, Hoaka Delos Reyes, who has dedicated his life to listening to, understanding, and crafting this hard and mysterious fundamental substance. Here, a scene from his craft, he sets tools to rock, which takes the form of a mo‘o (lizard) – a reference to one of the master stone carver’s favorite subjects and also his given title: Mo‘o Ka‘ala, “the stone-biting lizard.” Kuka‘emoku (the ‘Iao Needle), an echo from the valley nestling this town, stands like a pillar on the street side of the mural, pointing to the home of sacred stones, the Wailuku River.
While Hoaka carves in the mural’s corner, a larger, more immovable boulder sits to the left. It’s a different scene but also anchored by stone, and here, children play. Like Hoaka applying his hands to rock, so do the keiki, who are scrambling up the boulder from the river. One, up top, helps another climb.
From this panel, hands stretch to grasp and weave lei, which comes onto the mural from the wall’s edge like the unknown darkness being pulled into order. Away from the street, a branch of kukui nut tree holds down the far end of the mural.
All Small Town Big Art projects are guided by an ‘olelo no‘eau (wise saying) chosen by the artists from a selection curated by Sissy Lake-Farm, the executive director of Hale Ho‘ike‘ike. EHA chose the proverb ‘a‘ohe hana nui ke alu ‘ia – “no task is too big when done together by all.” It’s a reflection of laulima, the Hawaiian value of cooperation, literally meaning “many hands.”
Many themes run through my mind as I attempt to read the artwork and the story its panels tell. Like memories lost or unnoticed, this was a place buried and faded in consciousness, kept only by a few. It is like Hoaka’s art form, and many aspects of traditional culture, left behind by modernity and “progress,” yet carried forward like a guiding torch by select masters. Laulima, and the many hands on display, illuminate the ‘olelo no‘eau – hands, many hands, make all tasks possible, even if that work is as large as transmitting one’s culture, or helping a historic town find its identity while at a crossroads of change. Meaning and guidance can be drawn from some outside unknown, and heard from the inside of inscrutable stone. Kukui, the plant of the candlenut, shines the light of insight and knowledge, intentionally carried and passed down from the earliest settlers who kept it on their voyaging canoes.
But here’s a disclaimer: That’s what I see, my interpretation at this point in time. Take it as a conversation starter. Where my job is to package things, like murals, into words, Richardson the artist resists being put into a “box.”
Art is bigger than any box you try to put it in, he explains early into our conversation after warning me about his tendency to give “long-winded” answers. Preconceived notions and the often-accompanying closed mindedness can alter – even limit – the experience.
Richardson’s thoughts are wide ranging, and touch on his life, culture, art theory, community leaders, music, history, and growing up in Happy Valley. Listening, one thing becomes clear: His belief that as artists from this place, “We do have a story to tell, and I believe that we tell it the best.”
“That’s the whole point of ‘Endemic Hawai‘i Artists.’ An endemic creature is found nowhere else in the world, and that’s what makes it special,” says Richardson, who was born and raised on Maui, left for college, and returned home to “represent here.”
“That’s how I see artists who grow up here, whether in music or dance or whatever – we possess something that is special.”
What is that quality, and why does it matter to your art? I ask the collective when we meet up at a Wailuku Pool park table in the twilight following the mural’s blessing. After all, the artwork is funded and supported Small Town Big Art, which is managed by the Maui Redevelopment Agency. The MRA operates with a mandate to reduce “slum and blight” from Wailuku, and STBA supports that mission with art projects like this one, with a mission for “creative placemaking.” How might local artists – endemic artists – have unique hands for such a task?
The quality is hard to grasp, but “just shows up,” says Richardson. “It’s almost like an accent in music – it shows something that’s deep in our blood that will just come out… almost like a style, like a brush stroke.”
Bowers agrees that it’s a special you-know-it-when-you-see-it quality that influences the artistic process and can’t be faked. It’s not that they know everything because they’re from here, she says, but that the group truly sees their art as intimately part of the conversations tied to this place. They are not artists paid to drop in for a couple of weeks, put up a piece, then fly out – they have an ongoing stake in their home community, and are deeply engaged participants in its history.
“We’re open to allowing the community to come in and share what they know,” Bowers says. “This is just a conversation starter, this is just a spark. People say it’s a story – it is a story, but it’s also, What do you think of when you see this?”
“It’s a different story to everybody,” Bio finishes. “They’re going to make their own little story and they’re going to be happy about it, sad about it, or confused or worried or critical about it. It’s all those things that this mural is going to spark for the people going past it. That’s the reason we do it, I think, and the reason why we’re open to so many people.”
Yes, there’s the ineffable quality of a place which is absorbed through the roots and nestles deep in the bones and consciousness and fuses with art, and there is deep meaning in being a living part of conversations tied to a home place – then there is also the less abstract: the integration of familiar symbols, stories, and people that speak to the community.
Take Bio’s panel, of the keiki climbing up the boulder. It was adapted from a real photo from Richardson’s family, but is recognizable to anyone who grew up around Wailuku hopping ponds. I have a photo like it on my phone, of my kids in ‘Iao Valley.
“I try to be true to myself, where I came from and that imagery,” says Kurokawa. “I like to paint the people that are around me, the real life stuff, the everyday moments. If it’s flowers or plants or birds, it’s usually Native Hawaiian. I just want to represent where we’re from.”
Kurokawa delves into his subjects, and his painting of the kukui tree branch comes from a photo he took himself. “You end up having this kind of emotional connection to it because you put all your energy into this thing,” he says. “It makes for a better piece.”
And now, the piece is done. Or – depending how you look at it – just begun. As the mural breathes new life to a part of town and the images call forth memories and scenes buried in consciousness, I ask, Why? What do you hope the community will gain from this?
By this point in the conversation, the stars are shining and Bio’s left with his family, but not before he can say that people may or may not take something significant or lasting from the mural. Regardless, that doesn’t change his kuleana as an artist: “We’re extensions of the ether, making things. Consciousness will be played out if you’re in tune. If something needs to be said, the ones with the talent and the will and the love, who are able and willing, will make it come to life.”
“Hopefully they can gain some positivity out of it,” Kurokawa says, speaking less metaphysically. “I was going for something that was inclusive and community minded. I’m hoping people can look at it and not just see that it’s a nicely painted mural or is beautiful, but actually go and look up the kukui nut and read about it… that was my hope, that it would take them a little farther than just looking at the painting but actually going to learn more about what’s happening.”
“Slow. Down,” answers Richardson. “What I noticed here was how many people are like clockwork, taking their kids to MAPA or getting off of work – from that moment of 7am it’s hustle and bustle until night time when it’s a ghost town. Watching everybody go to and fro, what I want this mural to do and what I would want any mural to do, is just slow people down.”
“Honestly, this is something for kids walking home from school. It adds something, instead of it just being desolate. Now something is there,” says Bowers.
“Even just seeing a figure or other kids or color, adds a little something. And if it adds just a little something, that’s all we care about: Here’s just a little dose, just another human touch, something to think about it. We’re just trying to plant seeds.”
Perhaps, like the seeds of the kukui tree, these too will help light the way.
Cover design by Albert Cortez. Cover photo courtesy Linn Nishikawa