You’ve noticed them. They line the beaches of our island, most notably in Makena. They stand on the sand, tensed and focused, then suddenly break into a sprint. They throw down their boards, like surfboards but lighter and with no fins. In a smooth motion they jump on, skim over water only inches deep and, depending on the wave, their own timing and luck, slip into the crest of the wave, or collide with the wave in a stunning display of controlled power, throwing spray and completing the ride back on the sand where they started.
You might also have noticed that the guys vastly outnumber the girls on the shoreline, which might have made it easy for you to spot one girl in particular, strong and fast, racing at breakneck speed toward the waves. Lanakila Kelliher, a 33-year-old native Maui girl and professional skimboarder, has been a fixture down at Makena and in the skimboard community, locally and nationally, for years.
That would be impressive enough, but her talent doesn’t end there. She’s also a professional artist, whose murals adorn the walls at Whole Foods in Kahului. This isn’t surprising, because in many ways, art and skimboarding are alike. Both take vision, self-knowledge and discipline. Both are beautiful when executed with precision and planning, and both take a certain extraordinary mix of natural talent and hard work, all of which Lanakila has in abundance.
“The grass is greener where you water it,” she says of her success. She owns her own art company, Lanakila Creations. As a longtime skimboard competitor, she was a force in the movement to create a professional skimboard league for women. At this year’s World Championship of Skimboarding, the second year women had a professional division to compete in, she placed third. More recently, she put together a scholarship for college-bound Hawaii art students using donations from her company and artwork sold at Whole Foods.
“You have to seize the moment. Timing is everything,” Lanakila says of skimboarding. She could be just as well talking about her art. Lana was able to weave together her two main passions in subtle ways at first, painting her skimboards before a competition and doing freelance work designing competition trophies and posters. By doing private work, she was able to fund her first major skimboarding competition in Laguna beach in 2006, where she took second by half a point to the eight-time world champ.
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A child of two talented artists, she says she “was heavily into art my whole life.” Encouraged by teachers, friends and family, she raised more than $30,000 in scholarships and put herself through college, studying art at UH Manoa.
“Everyone believed in me,” she says. She worked on various projects on Oahu, including in the art department on the set of Blue Crush. After graduating, she moved back to Maui and started working in faux finishing and journeyman painting, getting a feel for the commercial end of the art business. Learning different angles, from fine art to commercial projects, gave her a foundation and background that enabled her to open her own business.
Lana started landing jobs in private residences while continuing with finish and repair work. Several years ago, she painted a wall in the public parking lot in Makawao with fellow artist Sarah Dickens. At first they worked secretly at night with headlamps, before eventually securing permission to continue on with the painting.
Their first creation was soon tagged over, but their next mural depicted a young woman with her hair flowing, a politically charged, poignant image of a protestor of the Kaho`olawe bombings. One day the head deco coordinator of Whole Foods pulled in front of it and paused. Though the painting was unsigned, he tracked down Lana and asked if she’d be interested in painting murals at the new Whole Foots Market in Kahului. She agreed, and drafted the image that eventually became the store logo. When the company asked whether she thought they should do a mural or a changing art show, “I asked, why not both?” Lana composed a vivid landscape in sepia tones to flow through the dining area of the store, which also houses a changing art show.
When this opportunity came to her, Lana saw the potential not only for her own personal gain but also a chance to share her good fortune. She brought on then-high school student Tiffany Suh, who earned credit by assisting Lana on furlough Fridays and weekends. She also put together a proposal that would divide the profit of art sold from the changing art show, giving 70 percent to the artist and the rest to a scholarship fund. She contacted the Hawaii Community Foundation, where she received her own scholarships, and created a fund for aspiring college-bound artists. Collaboratively, they are putting together a $25,000 endowment over the next five years, funded by pledged seed sponsors and art sales. So far, sponsors include the Jonathan Waxman Foundation, Maui Circulation, Maui Jim (a company Lanakila has freelanced for in the past) as well as donations from her own company.
“Philanthropy is contagious,” Lanakila says, explaining that many of the donors are friends or clients. Lanakila named it the Janet Y. Sato Na Lima Paheona Scholarship Fund, designated for college-bound Hawaii seniors who will pursue an education in the arts. The scholarship was named for Lana’s former teacher at Baldwin High School, who was instrumental in helping Lana and many other students create and achieve their goals.
Having received a lot of her own college funding from the Hawaii Community Foundation, Lana believes in the organization and knows it is a solid resource with an smooth application process. “Giving a scholarship was almost more rewarding than receiving one,” she says. Suh, her student assistant, also received funds from the Hawaii Community Foundation and now attends art school in Chicago.
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The Whole Foods gig led to further opportunity at mainland branches of the store. While in Laguna Beach for the World Championship of Skimboarding, Lanakila collaborated with the 2009 skimming world champ Brandon Rothe and local artist Miles Brogman to create art for the Whole Foods there. The artists painted scenes on skimboards to tell the history of the sport, using different board shapes, methods and images to show the history of skimboarding. Some of the boards play homage to the classic rippers and others depict the emerging talent in the sport.
The boards hang as aisle markers; over the frozen food section hangs a Maui Skimmers board, “to bring a little warmth to the area,” Lana says. Since this project went on during the contest, many of the other competitors helped out, and Lana used some of the revenue to sponsor other competitors with airfare and a stocked fridge. “It was very grassroots,” she says. “Everyone brought something to the table, for the greater good and the fun of it all.”
Like art, watersports are a dynamic mix of individual mastery and social interaction. Suggestions, approval, feedback and energy from peers feeds the progression, whether in the waves or at the canvas. Collaboration is key to everything Lanakila does. Her style of collaboration seems uniquely encompassing, even feminine in its inclusive spirit.
A prime example of this is Photographe Skimtastique, a project involving photographer Monique Feil that aims to raise awareness of women in skimboarding, as well as raise revenue and seek sponsorship for a professional tour. Ten of the 13 competitors participated in a body painting and photography session, resulting in powerful images of talented and beautiful athletes with subtle and positive messages. The images are for sale, and the women hope to create a calendar.
“Some are more risqué than others, but it all depended on their own personal style and comfort level,” Lanakila says. “The cool thing about body painting, for me as an artist, is that a lot of yourself comes out in an image when you’re painting. But when you’re creating on a person who’s alive and breathing, a lot of that person comes into it as well, and the whole project becomes a collaboration. Like skimming, you don’t know what the wave will bring you, and how you will respond to it.”
According to Lana, the “skim chicks” are very supportive of each other, a trait many skimboarders tend to share. “The thing I really love about skimboarding, is that there’s this unique thing that happens when someone catches a really amazing wave, everyone hits their board and acknowledges that, and I feel like that’s something I really love about skimboarding is that is has that really amazing, encouraging energy.”
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This year, 14-year-old Catherine Squillante took the women’s skimboard title. “She killed it,” Lana said enthusiastically. “I was so humbled and honored to be schooled by such a young ripper. It gives me hope for the future of the sport.”
Eventually, through sponsoring each other and creating revenue through projects like Photographe Skimtastique, Lanakila and the other skim chicks envision putting together a world tour, organizing work trips, camps and using art and skimboarding to raise awareness of natural resources and promote a healthy athletic lifestyle.
Lanakila finds other ways of staying current and connected with the Maui community. Her work can be seen all over Maui. She painted the shark on the wall of the old Kuau Mart, who sponsored her back in her grom days. More recently, she’s been working on the First Friday Mural in Wailuku as part of an ongoing live arts performance piece, an evolving collaborative space that includes culturally sensitive depictions of kalo fields, constellations and the Hokulea.
Everything Lana does seems to feed and support all of her passions and projects. For her finish and repair work, she needs to be physically fit to work from scaffolding and hold long hours. As an athlete and artist, she is supported by her community and in turn pays it forward.
“The attitude of skimming is very unique,” she says. “With surfing, you’re always with the flow. But when I’m skimming, I’m looking at this wave coming at me, and I’m running head-on into it, and then finding a way to flow with it, and return to shore. It’s like taking life full on with speed, agility and skill, connecting with it and flowing back to shore in a full circle. It’s mostly a pretty short ride, and timing is everything, and such is life.”