Museums aspire to provide tangible links to the past, through displays of artifacts, fineries, and curiosities from past decades, centuries, and millennia.
Art seeks to capture essences of the natural world, spiced with human imagination, to evoke and inspire emotion.
Combining the two may provide a unique and special vehicle, a time machine of sorts, for delivering historical significance to the present-day viewer.
Such alchemy may be found at the Na Aloha `Aina exhibit at the Bailey House Museum in Wailuku. On display is a profoundly powerful collection of 27 paintings of Hawaiian ali`i and cultural icons, a three-year labor of love by local artist Guillem “Avi Molinas” Bort.
There, at the Maui Historical Society’s Hale Ho`ike`ike, just a two minute walk up Main Street above the doctors, lawyers, and government offices of Maui’s white collar hub, one may discover the tangible link to Hawai`i’s rich cultural past. Less visible than the towering Ka`ahumanu Church and the stylish C.W. Dickey architectural design of the Wailuku Library, the former home of 19th-century missionary-artist Edward Bailey was dedicated as a museum in 1957.
As the former site of the Wailuku Female Seminary, opened in 1837, the Bailey House offers displays and artifacts of missionary influence in the 19th century. Outside under a hale is the impressive 33-foot outrigger canoe “Honaunau,” hewed from a single koa log. Once a fishing canoe in West Hawai`i, it migrated to Waikiki where beach boys took tourists out on rides before being shipped to Maui. Around the corner, there is the Na Aloha `Aina portrait exhibit…
Within the white-washed walls of a single-room stone house, gracefully adorned with a hip roof, reside kings and queens, kupuna, and ali`i, richly colored within their scrolled, elaborate frames. Many of the subjects are immediately recognizable, as Molinas brings images from black-and-white photos often found in Hawaiian history books to life: Kalaukaua, Lili`uokalani, Kamehameha I. Other faces are lesser known, but each has been crafted with elaborate detail in the brush strokes, conveying their dignity and indeed, their mana, or spiritual power.
The artist himself recognizes the importance of the iconic portraits he has helped create. “I don’t choose [the subjects]; they choose me,” Molinas remarked with humility and clarity. “They need to give me the permit to paint them.” A friend suggested that Molinas portray Kapiolani, who married Kalakaua before he took the throne in 1874. “I tried maybe 10 times,” said Molinas, “but her I cannot paint.”
He hopes that his work will inspire viewers to seek knowledge about their place in Hawaiian history and culture, to inquire about their stories, as he has done.
The Artist’s Path: Barcelona to Maliko
A native of Barcelona in the Catalonia region of Spain, Molinas immersed himself in art as a teenager. Largely self-taught, his foundational art education occurred through hours spent in the “soccer field-sized,” basement of the Sala Gaspar Gallery, filled with lithographs, prints, posters, and books. His paintings were displayed in Sala Gaspar, alongside those of renowned Catalan artists Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, and Antoni Tapies.
With the closure of the renowned Barcelona gallery in the late 1990s, Molinas took his trade to New York City, where his work was featured in a Manhattan gallery until the collapse of the World Trade Center twin towers forced its shuttering in 2001.
Soon after, he retreated from the big city art world bustle, to the small town of Salardu in the quiet of the Pyrenees Mountains. For several years he worked on sculptures and found other employment. A large, whimsical bronze figure of a wild pig was commissioned to stand in the town plaza, commemorating their annual festival. Another of his sculptures was presented to Spain’s Juan Carlos I, father of current King Felipe VI.
Molinas had lived on a boat for four years in Barcelona, and after living in the mountains he missed the ocean. When a friend said he was moving to Hawai`i to learn English, it caught his attention. He travelled to Maui in 2006 on a three-month visa, took classes at Maui Community College (now UHMC), entered Art Maui, and was accepted for the annual show.
Captivated by the beauty and lifestyle in Hawai`i, he returned on a six-month visa. Molinas fell in love, married, and moved to his wife’s family’s kuleana land at the mouth of Maliko Gulch. There, he continues creating artwork while helping to raise two daughters, both of whom are in a Hawaiian language immersion program.
Through his dedication to the meticulous oil portraits, Molinas is engaged in a Hawaiian immersion of his own design. He recalled how, as a schoolboy, he once saw an image in a history book of Ka`iana, a chief and contemporary of Kamehameha I.
“Now they don’t have history books, just Google,” he exclaimed. “Even the Bishop Museum doesn’t have a portrait collection, only a few. They have artifacts, but not something that provides a connection with the human element.
“With the portrait, you can have a strong connection,” he added.
Molinas can’t explain where the portraits come from, as many of his previous paintings were abstracts. In fact, he never painted with oils before. He works with natural pigments, adding latex, and mixes his own paints and colors.
“I’m a sensitive person,” he stated when speaking of the attention and detail he applies to his artwork. Living in New York City, with a limited English vocabulary, he learned to “look into people’s eyes. I feel the person.” This quality is conveyed through his paintings in a mesmerizing fashion.
Cherish Maui’s History: E Pulama Maui Ia Maui
Naomi “Sissy” Lake Farm has been the executive director of the Maui Historical Society’s Hale Ho`ike`ike since January 2014. She lovingly refers to it as the “little gem of Wailuku,” and notes that “it is the place of my kupuna.”
Her father, the revered kumu hula, educator, and historian John Keola Lake was born in Lahaina and graduated from St Anthony’s High School in Wailuku. He taught for more than 30 years at Saint Louis School on O`ahu, where she was born.
Her uncle, Kahauanu Lake, was one of the most acclaimed ‘ukulele players of the 20th century, and recorded six albums with the Kahauanu Lake Trio. He subsequently founded the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame and Museum and was thereafter honored as a living inductee.
“I was so fortunate,” the museum director said with a sparkle in her eyes, “to grow up with an affinity and love of music and hula.”
She graduated from Chaminade University with a double major in fine arts/interior design and English. She had a “wonderful” career in interior design in Honolulu, but eventually “tired of the rat race.” When a friend said she was looking to open a Lahaina branch of her Ward Warehouse shop Na Mea Hawai`i, Sissy jumped at the opportunity to manage the store. On Maui she met her husband, and has raised three children, all of whom came through the Punana Leo O Maui Hawaiian language program.
Having learned fundraising and grant writing through that organization, she was encouraged to apply for the directorship of Hale Ho`ike`ike. Now some five years into the role, she declared, “it’s not just a job, it’s my kuleana, and pilina – connection to the area.”
Her hanai brother, cultural practitioner and kumu hula Kapono`ai Molitau is the owner of Native Intelligence, just a short way down Main Street from the Bailey House. He describes their store, filled with Hawaiian fineries of all sorts, as “a cultural resource center disguised as a retail store.”
A few blocks apart, sister and brother are following familial and cultural tradition in preserving and enhancing Hawaiian heritage, history, and practice.
An Exhibit for, and of, the Ages
Sissy said that Molinas came to her a couple years ago and told her he had been working on a collection of paintings of iconic Hawaiian figures. “We knew each other from our kids being in the Hawaiian immersion program,” she recalled. “He asked whether I would consider putting his work in the museum gift shop.
“I asked him to bring them in so I could see them. He set them up in my office: Lunalilo, Kamehameha, Lili`uokalani. I started to cry,” she confessed.
“I brought my staff in,” she continued. “They were stunned. I told Avi, these don’t belong in the gift shop, that they gotta be an exhibit.” So, early in 2018 he committed to open the show in January 2019.
The art opening was held on January 18, the day after the UHMC campus held a re-enactment of the January 17, 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy by businessmen who formed a Provisional Government. “We brought the re-enactment up from the college for the opening of the show,” said Sissy.
“The feedback on the exhibit has been total chicken skin,” she marveled. “Kupuna cry. No one has ever seen so many ali`i in one place.”
School groups have come, visitors from all over the globe have marveled, and all the while Molinas continues to paint, often on-site in the stone-walled gallery where his work is housed.
He is presently working on a piece titled Hui Aloha `Aina, a group of 19 men also known as the Hawaiian Patriotic League. “The group formed after the overthrow of Lili`uokalani,” Molinas related, “to protest annexation attempts of Sanford B. Dole and the US government. The Hui petitioned Congress, opposing the annexation treaty and collected signatures of Native Hawaiians opposing annexation. This is known today as the Ku`e Petitions.”
Molinas concedes that he can’t bring himself to paint “dolphins, turtles, and waterfalls.” He made a brief foray into colorful sculptures of repurposed resin and paint blocks, chipped from the drippings in the workshops of surfboard glassers and painters. But the Wailea gallery that showed them didn’t market them well, and they were short-lived on display.
The dedication of his portraiture is to bring a sense of grandeur of his subjects, who are “renown for their aptitude, innovation, and commitment to the welfare of their people.”
There is a bittersweet reverence to be felt, not unlike that evoked by the soulful strains of “Bruddah” Israel Kamakawiwo`ole’s rendition of Mickey Ioane’s anthem, “Hawai`i ‘78:”
If just for a day our king and queen
Would visit all these islands and saw everything
How would they feel about the changes of our land
Could you just imagine if they were around
And saw highways on their sacred grounds
How would they feel about this modern city life…
How would they feel, could their smiles be content, then cry
Ua mau ke ea o ka `aina ia ka pono O Hawai`i
Ua mau ke ea o ka `aina ia ka pono O Hawai`i
Maui Historical Society has drafted a letter asking supporters to consider a donation that would allow the Na Aloha `Aina exhibit to be permanently housed at the Bailey House site. The executive director believes the portraits are where they belong, and feels that showcasing them at a Wailea resort, for instance, would be out of place.
Likewise, Molinas has chosen not to sell individual paintings from the collection, nor does he wish to make giclees or copies. “Each one is unique, one of a kind,” he proclaimed. “I pay respect, I don’t take advantage of them.”
The exhibit is on display at Hale Ho`ike`ike of the Bailey House Museum, by popular demand, until July 20. The gift store and museum are open Monday-Saturday from 10am-4pm. Contact them by visiting Mauimuseum.org, emailing [email protected], or calling 808-244-3326.
Hale Ho`ike`ike at the Bailey House’s mission statement is “To collect, preserve, study, interpret and share the history and heritage of Maui. As caretakers of the land, artifacts, photographs, and documents entrusted to our care, it is our responsibility to ensure that the cultural roots and history that define our community will continue to be there for future generations.”
Upcoming events include Moonlight Mele on July 13, 2019 from 5-8pm, featuring UHMC Institute of Hawaiian Music, Neal Yamamura, and Uncle George Kahumoku, Jr. $5 admission.
[Editor’s note: MauiTime tries its best to reproduce Hawaiian diacritic marks, but not all our fonts support the kahako. We are working on a solution.]
Cover design by Darris Hurst
Cover photo, photo 1, and photo 2 by Rob Parsons
Photos 3-7 courtesy Avi Molinas