Andy Behrle has a day-old hospital bracelet clipped around his wrist when I meet him for coffee. It’s evidence that the artist has collaborated on not just one, but two major acts of creation over the weekend. Undoubtedly still caught in the whirlwind of an eventful three days, Behrle is bright-eyed and effusive when he speaks.
I sit and notice him gazing toward his phone at a photo of his swaddled baby’s scrunched-up, newborn face. His second son, just over 24 hours old, and his wife are about to be released from the hospital at any time, Behrle says, touching down to the present moment from his rapturous admiration. His gaze is deep, and not unlike that which the public cast on his other, more ephemeral creation days prior when it emerged during Wailuku’s September First Friday on the side of the Iao Theater, just a few buildings over from where we sit.
This recent creation, a work of art called “lost and found,” is a digital reimagination of the stained glass windows that once adorned Saint Anthony’s Church in Wailuku, before the structure was lost to arson in 1977. In an installation that was billed as a “one-night only” event, Behrle’s work was projected onto the side of the Iao Theater for three hours for passersby to observe, transforming Kipuka Square (the area between the police substation and the theater) into a sort of open cathedral and contemplative space. Like moments of contemplation and like water, the projection ebbs and flows – literally – as steady examination reveals the panels of the resurrected stained glass to be moving, living, close-up images of water. Starting in black and white, the Gothic skeleton of the lost window fills with color before returning to the shades of grey and swelling with color once again. There are four different compositions, each with six videos of water “painting” the recreated stained glass.
Behrle took some-75 videos with three different cameras for the project, capturing moments of water in different forms, colors, shades and light, mauka to makai, up and down the Wailuku River. “These little moments, these little fractions of moments in nature, feel universal – the water runs like this, right?” Behrle says. “But every frame and every picture is unique. Always has been and always will be, even if you visit the same river, the same beach, day after day after day – there’s something new there.”
The way these videos come together to form “lost and found” is like our memory and personal stories, he explains. We’re filters of moments and information that come together to form who we are. “That’s how the artwork is born,” Behrle says, “through this formation of all these moments, all pieces together, it becomes its own thing.”
This blending of man-made and natural elements is about “making connections and building connections between traditional, contemporary, and futuristic,” Behrle tells me. Finding “these connections between how we interact with the physical world, the natural world, the digital world, how these things all come together, [and] how they interact with the spiritual world,” is an important part of “lost and found,” he says. Or at least, he adds, trying to find these connections.
“I don’t know that I have any answers to any of those questions,” Behrle explains, “but I’m more interested in putting these things out into the world and having the community respond to it and maybe bring me and them closer to answers and, in the meantime, connect people with where they are. And where we are isn’t just about the place that we’re at. It’s about the history of the place that we’re at. It’s about the time that we’re here.”
It’s a bold statement for a Boston-native who’s lived on Maui since March, but not one that Behrle shies away from. After completing college on the East Coast, Behrle spent six years in the Pacific Northwest where he met his wife. He’s worked in locations around the world, and after repeated visits to the islands, the couple decided that Hawai‘i would be a good place to settle and raise a family. Last December they moved to Kona for a few months before making the hop to Maui. Travel, to Behrle, allows him to see and learn about a place with a unique perspective.
“It’s easy to get disconnected from the reality of the place that you are. Sometimes you need an outside eye to come over and help remind you,” Behrle says. “It’s easy to lose the forest for the trees sometimes.”
While on Kona, Behrle got notice of the call for artists for Small Town Big Art’s projects in Wailuku. A pilot program of the Maui Redevelopment Agency which seeks to revitalize Wailuku Town, STBA is funded by a $75,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to commission 13 public art projects in Wailuku. Behrle’s “lost and found” is STBA’s first awardee. When he saw the call for artists to submit proposals, Behrle says he knew that he had to apply: “It all tied directly into what I’ve been doing for the last six years, in my artwork and trying to connect communities to their local histories and their natural histories through my artwork.”
Behrle’s previous projects include international works in places such as Germany and Tunisia, where he was similarly asked to respond to the issues facing the local community, especially as they relate to water. In his artist’s statement for “lost and found,” Behrle recognizes how this theme connects to Wailuku, opening with the lines, “Water is life, and life in Wailuku has always flowed through the river from mauka to makai. This is the unifying experience of everyone who has ever called this place home.”
Still, I ask Behrle how, as someone relatively new to the island participating in a program meant to strengthen the identity of Historic Wailuku, he ensures that his artwork is truly reflective of the location. This has layers in a place like Hawai‘i, where the wounds of colonization are deep, and locals can be wary of outsiders.
“And rightfully so!” Behrle exclaims. “I get it,” he adds, but the key to him is “just showing up over and over again, and then trying to meet people in person… it all started with single connections to people.”
While welcoming artists worldwide, Small Town Big Art recognizes the importance of weaving Hawaiian culture into the artworks, and part of the selected artists’ process includes choosing a guiding ‘olelo no‘eau, or wise saying, from a list of proverbs selected by Hale Ho‘ike‘ike executive director Sissy Lake-Farm. Behrle was immediately drawn to one which says “Ma ka hana ka ‘ike” – “in working, one learns.”
And indeed, as Behrle worked on his project, he learned.
“My interpretation [of Wailuku’s identity] has changed dramatically through the project, because I really got to dive into various aspects of the area that I didn’t know much about,” he says. Starting with a Google search, library readings into local history and mythology, and cruising Wailuku Town, the concept of “lost and found” slowly came into focus.
“‘How can I make the story of the river and the story of the contemporary place, come together?’” Behrle pondered, before realizing that “it was stained glass.”
“Just driving around and seeing all the old churches in Wailuku Town, it’s amazing,” he says. “It’s amazing: amazing heritage and amazing history, and to bring something new to that, I thought I would just maybe recreate one of the windows that is right up the street.”
With this direction, Behrle searched for inspiration with the help of the librarians and staff at Wailuku Public Library. Sifting through the documents, he found his muse: a large, gothic cathedral in Wailuku. “How have I not wandered by that yet?” he asked.
The answer: because it was 42 years gone, lost to an arsonist’s fire in 1977.
“That’s when it became a no-brainer to me that that had to be the subject matter,” Behrle says. From there, the art and narrative began to take shape. “There’s this history lost to the current generation, connecting the people of today’s Wailuku to just a generation ago’s Wailuku. Then, using the water, which has history infinite, to help make these connections and see how the water’s still flowing. These places come and go, these generations come and go, but the water still flows.”
However, even with a concept in mind, Behrle didn’t have a picture of the outside of the building, or a picture of the windows. The closest image he had was a black-and-white photo of the back of the church, looking toward the altar with part of the windows in the background. Behrle tells me he figured it’d just take a few hours of digging to fill in the missing design, but soon discovered he was wrong. “It was so hard,” he says.
The work to find images of the missing windows of Saint Anthony (who happens to be the patron saint of lost things), began. It became a community effort involving dozens of individuals and volunteers, and more than 30 hours of digging through files and photos. Behrle and STBA put out public calls for images, the Maui Historical Society was involved, and state libraries reached out to the parish and the diocese.
Still, Behrle “kept digging and digging and couldn’t find anything.” Then, he got a break. Mayor Michael Victorino was married in the church before the fire, and had photos from the wedding. He sent over about eight pictures, Behrle says, that included little details of the windows in the background of the ceremony. With these fading photos, an image of the outside of the church from around the 1930s, a Maui News photo of the burnt out window space, and his experience with Gothic art, Behrle was able to piece together the archway and stained glass design.
The experience illuminated the saying, “Ma ka hana ka ‘ike.” In working to find the material to base his installation off of, Behrle learned more about the community through the contacts he made.
“It was an effort of a lot of people to find the pictures, and I’m so thankful,” says Behrle. “That helped connect the community to the project before it even happened… That search for pictures was a really big part of getting early community buy-in. All these connections between everybody that ended up being a part of the project happened because I had to search for pictures.”
And like a wave, those connections birthed by “lost and found” ripple through the community. While fire destroyed the church decades ago, water, in the form of Behrle’s moving images, is bringing new life into the memory and history of a place.
“What I was really blown away by on Friday night was how many people walked up to me and said, ‘That’s St. Anthony’s window! That’s my parish. That’s where I was baptized, where I went to school,’” Behrle says. “Then, how it opened up the stories, and how something so simple as just seeing the window again, without me telling them that it was the window, they knew what it was and came right up to me and just wanted to talk story.”
Will the impact of “lost and found” end here, I ask Behrle, aware that his artwork’s three-hour premiere is pau, and the piece exists now as a data file in storage somewhere. “That interaction with people on Friday made me feel like a success,” he responds. “And it’s easy to say, ‘Oh that’s the night of the event’ and ‘OK, now I’m done.’”
“This one doesn’t feel like that. It feels like, ‘OK, how do we get more people involved? How do we bring it back to people and make sure that more people get to experience it?’ I feel honored to have been able to connect to Wailuku through this work, this way, and have a much better understanding of where I live.”
Learn more about Small Town Big Art at Smalltownbig.org
Cover design by Albert Cortez. Art by Andy Behrle.