Herb Kawainui Kāne, from Voyagers (1991)
From an early age my father's gifts as a storyteller infected me with his love of legends and history. Friends of a similar mind would come by in the evening, and I would fall asleep listening to the tales being woven out on the veranda. On our visits to the family home in Waipi‘o Valley, where the past has an almost tangible presence, such nocturnal talk around the kerosene lamp would eventually turn to folk tales and ghost stories, each progressively more fabulous and frightening. Later, when a call from nature demanded a response, it became a test of courage to get up, part the mosquito net, and sneak out into the dreadful darkness.
In high school, storytelling through painting became my great interest. I was inspired by the works of American regionalists Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood. After serving in the Navy, I enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago, but discovered that representational art which conveyed a mood or message was no longer labeled as real 'Art,' but as 'mere illustration.'
With the death of regionalism, art faced the new requirement of being 'universal.' Craving acceptance from my peers, like any twenty year old, I applied myself to learning formulas for what then passed as advanced theories of painting; that year it was abstract expressionism.
Every profession must have its area of experiment as well as its area of application. But while I viewed the 'new wave' painting experiments as interesting basic research, they were, for me, slender fare. The subtle and diverse challenges of realism held far more f'ascination.
Of all possible art subjects, Hono Sapiens has always held the most interest for Homo Sapiens. Artists who represent the human figure with skill and sensitivity will find larger and more interested audiences than artists who do not. There have been great painters of landscape, still life, and natural history subjects to be sure, and in this century some outstanding painters of non-representational art ; but the history of art is largely the family album of humanity. Ironically, of all subjects, it is the human figure, the one subject with which viewers are most familiar and critical, that proves the most difficult. Learning to draw this figure with authority has allowed competent figure painters to surmount this difficulty, but then competent figure painters have always been a minority.
That minority is smaller today than it has been for centuries. Learning to draw, which is learning to see clearly, requires a laborious effort in which there is no instant gratification. Drawing classes have always been unpopular with art students, which may be why they are no longer required by art schools or university art departments, where the primary concern seems to be keeping up enrollments. The assumption is that drawing is not fundamental to current art theory. As a consequence, the more thin 35,000 graduates now spawned annually have, as artists in the real world, about as much chance of survival as baby salmon.
It was my good fortune to attend art school at a time when learning to draw was still believed to be fundamental. In our compulsory drawing classes a few unreconstructed old-timers on the faculty, by virtue of their own astonishing skills, served as drawing masters and teachers of figure painting. Under their tyranny a student might be led through the basic skills, then his eyes opened to such enchanting nuances as color and tonal relationships, design, the sensitive treatment of edges, uniformity of surface, spatial relationships, mood-producing use of light and shadow – all the old stuff that got washed out by the new wave. Even at the cost ofthe good opinion of my peers, this was what really interested me. I decided to become a 'mere illustrator.'
Having vowed to earn a living by his art, a professional artist must keep the brush moving if he is to develop, and lie must find a market if he is to survive. In the past such markets lay in the need of religions to glorify their teachings, the need of ruling classes to promote their status, and the desire of'those successful in trade to enjoy their wealth. Today the need of private enterprise to innovate and advertise dominates the market for an artist's skills.
To the consternation of my parents and inlaws, I turned down two respectable teaching jobs, put my master's degree in the closet, and found a job as an apprentice in a busy commercial art studio. The partners optimistically invested a salary of $60 per week hoping that I might someday develop a level of expertise that would bring some work into the studio and give them a return. I should have been paying them.
Here, alive and well, was the ancient master-apprentice system, only superficially different from the way it had operated since the Middle Ages. Then students were taken into a studio, taught how to grind colors, make inks, prepare canvas, draw, and paint, all as quickly as possible so that they could be of some use. They would imitate the master, and eventually he might let them work on the less difficult areas of his paintings. After some disagreement an apprentice might get kicked out, and find another master, thus broadening his experience. It would not be a bad thing if this happened several times, for after successively imitating a number of masters, he might create a synthesis in his own work, his style would mature and become distinctive as his own. In time he would become sufficiently competent to paint his masterpiece, and if this solo work were approved, he could enter the guild as a master himself, This system of learning art by observation, demonstration, and practice has proven most effective, for art cannot be learned by lecture or book.
My masters were well-respected illustrators and graphic designers. I did production art (preparing graphics for photo-reproduction and printing) to make myself useful. I practiced illustration on my own time, and after my 'samples' began to show some competence, I was handed those cheaper jobs which did not interest the highly paid illustrators. There were opportunities to get their criticism, to observe them at work, and to absorb their discipline and professionalism. After several years I moved on to another studio which offered better assignments. Two years later I formed a studio with another artist and a salesman, and after another two years, tiring of advertising work, I disbanded the studio and began freclancing.
Advertising art paid well, but it was not the kind of storytelling I wanted to do. I could not look back on having created anything of lasting value. The end came when I won a Green Giant campaign, and for a year did drawings and paintings of that big green fairy until I could no longer suffer it. My agent threw a fit when I told him it was all over, but it was time to move on to something else.
Story illustration for magazine and book publishers paid less but was much more fun. A fascination with history led to assignments to create illustrations for historical stories, At the same time, requests from architects for renderings led me to explore architectural design.
HOW THE CANOE BROUGHT ME HOME
After I had spent too many years in Chicago, my father admitted that my survival as an artist had not been as improbable as he had feared. He suggested that if I now wanted to make any worthwhile contribution beyond raising his grandchildren, I should consider returning to Hawai'i. The idea began to take root, and visits to the islands became more frequent.
I had been attracted to Chicago by the School of the Art Institute and the University of Chicago, and I was held there by the city's vigor and the professional opportunities which both the Chicago and New York marketplaces off'ered. But I knew I could never belong there.
A United Airlines jet may have transported me to Hawai'i, but it was really the sailing canoe that brought me home. I had sailed on Hawaiian fishing canoes in the days before outboard engines. In Chicago, heedless of mentors whose advice to young illustrators included the avoidance of such diversions as alcohol, loose women, and sailboats, I bought a catamaran as soon as I could afford it, Time which might have been better devoted to artistic self-development was spent beating about that treacherous inland sea, Lake Michigan. (notes 1)
My interests in art, architecture, Polynesian traditions, and sailing found a common focus in the Polynesian voyaging canoe. Early Europeans in the Pacific had made sketches of canoes, most of them ineptly rendered and tantalzingly incomplete. Inaccuracies, obvious to any sailor, piqued my curiosity.
I set out to uncover everything I could about the actual dimensions and seaworthiness of the canoes, beginning with the most comprehensive work on the subject, Canoes of Oceania (notes 2). I gathered additional photographs and measurements of Polynesian canoes and canoe fragments in museum collections, and searched for other bits of information on canoes and voyaging that were not found in published works. With help from anthropologists Terence Barrow and Kenneth Emory in Honolulu, doors now opened to collections and archives worldwide. Assembling the bits of information made it possible to reconstruct some of the canoes in architectural drawings. Then I did paintings based on the architectural drawings, depictions of how these vessels must have appeared when manned and under sail on the open sea.
I was hooked. Despite having a family to feed and a bank balance that looked more appalling each month, I found myself turning down good assignments to pursue my obsession with the canoes of Polynesia.
Fortunately friends in Hawai'i came to the rescue. Dillingham Corporation purchased the right to reproduce the paintings in their 1972 and 1973 promotional tide calendars. At Kenneth Emory's suggestion, Robert Van Sorpe introduced the fourteen paintings to the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts. Chairman "Pundy" Yokouchi brought the matter to the board, and Director Alfred Preis purchased the lot. Lieutenant Governor George Ariyoshi hosted an exhibit at the State Capitol. Robert Goodman offered to publish a portfolio ofprints of the work, and introduced me to National Geographic Editor Bill Garrett, who commissioned a series of seven paintings and an illustrated map insert about Polynesian voyaging traditions that was published in December, 1974. Graphic designers Tom Lee and Momi Cazimero offered me studio space. At Bob Van Dorpe's suggestion, John Kay offered me a design consultancy on C. Brewer, Ltd. resort projects. The canoes of another time had brought me back to Hawai'i.