Artist And Historian
by M.V. Harden
In 1970, Herb Kawainui Kane left a successful career
as a graphic artist in Chicago to begin a new life in
the land of his ancestors. Within 14 years he was so
renowned in Hawaii he was named one of the state's "Living
He was in his forties when he made this leap of life
styles, not an easy age to begin anew. But he has cut
off the past and faced the unknown several times over
the years- when he "gets tired of one room and
steps into another room and slams the door," as
he puts it.
"I've gone through several of these in my lifetime.
The first was leaving advertising (design and artwork),
and the second was leaving my clients on the Mainland
and moving back here. The third was closing the door
on design consulting work (designing Pacific hotels
and cultural centers).
"I had to slam the door and that meant turning
down offers of work at a time when the bank account
was getting thin again.
This has always created dislocations and financial
difficulties, but it has enriched my life. Although
I'm not a wealthy man. I feel my life has been enriched
more than if I had stayed the owner of a small commercial
art studio in Chicago."
That is an understatement. In his past two decades
in Hawaii, Kane (pronounced Kah-neh) has become renowned
as a fine artist, mostly as an oil painter. His work
is seldom found in art galleries; usually every painting
has a buyer before it's completed. He keeps a computerized
data base of his work, but he's so prolific that even
he doesn't know how many paintings he's done over the
"Not all my paintings are on the data base,"
he explains, "and I've never sat down and actually
counted those that are on it."
In addition, he has created the artwork for six postage
stamps for the United States, nineteen for the Marshall
Islands, four for French Polynesia and another six for
the Federated States of Micronesia. He also sculpts,
has written three books and numerous magazine articles,
and he is a very knowledgeable, self taught historian.
Combining his love of both history and art, he paints
what he loves- Hawaii's past.
From his earliest days, Kane was drawn to draw. "I
just developed the itch," he says, "and the
more I scratched it, the more it itched." During
his childhood in the 1930s, his family lived both in
Wisconsin, the birthplace of his mother, and the Big
Island of Hawaii, the home of his father. Many of his
paintings are from his own early history- memories of
a slower time in Hawaii- his "small kid days,"
as childhood is called in Hawaii.
Kane continued to pursue his itch in college and graduated
with a master's degree from the Art Institute of Chicago.
He began working as a commercial artist in Chicago,
but after "it got to be a bore," he switched
to free-lance story illustration for magazines and books.
"There wasn't enough soul in advertising,"
Kane explains. "There's only so much you can do
with dog food or tractors or whatever comes along. The
end came when I won a Jolly Green Giant campaign, and
for a year, did drawings and paintings of that big green
fairy until I could no longer suffer it."
His dream was to be a fine arts painter, and the journey
to that end brought him deep into his own Hawaiian culture.
In the early 1970s, paralleling Hawaii's cultural rebirth.
Kane was beginning his own renaissance. While still
in Chicago, he had begun researching Polynesian canoe
designs and became so passionate about canoes that "I
found myself turning down good assignments to pursue
He was researching, of course, to pursue his other
obsession: painting. Eventually, Kane had a series of
paintings of 14 Polynesian canoes that so impressed
Hawaii's State Foundation on Culture and the Arts that
it purchased them, and, ever since, they have rotated
on the walls of different state buildings. Still today,
"various departments fight over them," he
These canoe paintings would soon evolve into the real
thing for their painter. "It was the sailing canoe
that brought me home," Kane says simply.
Settling in Honolulu, he met others who shared his
passion, and together they formed the Polynesian Voyaging
Society. Their purpose was to build a 60-foot replica
of an ancient Hawaiian canoe.
HOKULE'A The canoe has
been welcomed everywhere as a symbol of mutuality
among all Polynesians, truly the "spaceship of our
ancestors." It's now based in Honolulu, and is still
As the canoe's designer, Kane was given the task of
naming it, and, in the tradition of the ancients, he
dreamed the name one night after seeing the star Hokulea
in the heavens. "In my dream it grew brighter and
brighter and it woke me up," he says. In English,
Hokulea is Arcturus, the zenith star over Hawaii, a
star used by the Polynesians as a crucial navigational
Though the canoe was initially built to prove a scientific
point (that the early Polynesians were capable navigators),
Kane became more interested in the cultural impact of
the canoe on Hawaii.
"What intrigued me was to see, if by building
this canoe and putting it to active use and taking it
out on a cruise throughout the Hawaiian islands, introducing
it to the Hawaiian people, training Hawaiians to sail
it, if this would not stimulate shock waves or ripple
effect throughout the culture- in music and dance and
the crafts. And we know it did.
"The canoe I perceived as lying at the heart of
the old culture- it was the central object at the heart
of the web of the culture. Almost everything in the
culture could be related to the canoe in some way. Certainly
Polynesians would not have come into existence without
Kane began to understand that quite literally. After
years of research, a light bulb flashed in his head
one day- that the canoe not only shaped the culture,
but also shaped its people.
"It came to me all in a rush," he says. "I
staggered across my studio to my typewriter."
In an article he later wrote for the National Geographic
magazine, Kane explained his idea- his theory about
why Polynesians are bigger, with more muscle and fat
than other tropical peoples: "When a chief began
a voyage of exploration to find new land for his people,
he would choose as companions men with powerful muscles,
stamina and ample fat to sustain them in times of hunger
and to insulate them against the energy-sapping and
eventually deadly exposure to wind and spray. He would
bring women who seemed capable of bearing children of
In a 1991 documentary about Kane, called Children of
the Long Canoes, he adds: "So the canoes could
have had a shaping influence on those who shaped them,
making us truly the children of the long canoes."
Sleds moved on a slippery surface of layers of grass
or broad leaves of ti and banana, but within living
memory no one had actually tested this... I decided
to make the test myself."
ESCAPE FROM PELE When
a proud chief was challenged to a holua race by
a strange woman, his refusal was less than polite.
Literally inflamed by her wrath, she pursued him
riding a flow of lava. Only his skill saved him.
At the seashore he sailed for Maui.
Kane found the remnants of a huge holua slide, constructed
a wooden sled after one he'd seen in the Bishop Museum
in Honolulu, walked 3,000 feet up the great rock slide,
padded it with grass and leaves, then threw himself
down on the sled. The sled ground to a quick halt, while
his body continued to crash forward in hilarious, but
Next try, he decided to pad a section of the lava slide
with woven lau hala mats, something that would be plentiful
in ancient times.
"Terminal velocity!" he writes of his next
ride. "But in that same instant I saw that I really
hadn't prepared for the experiment being such a success.
It was a thrilling ride so long as the mats held out,
but then I shot over the last strip of matting. The
bare rocks gripped the sled, I was briefly airborne,
then on the rocks myself- lava rocks with lots of sharp
edges. Later, while applying peroxide and Band-Aids,
I was consoled by the thought that data derived from
experiment was, in the absence of historical knowledge,
Philosophical about his various methods of research,
he maintains: "If you take the trouble to turn
over every stone, you may find things that change your
whole attitude about what you had originally set out
to do, and change the visual appearance of it. That's
interesting and exciting and it's fun: to turn that
last corner and find something that no one has ever
found before. You feel like you're breaking new ground."
He finds this type of accuracy critical because: "My
paintings are going to go on speaking to people long
after I'm gone, so I feel a certain obligation to make
sure that what I say is truthful as I can find it to
be. If my work contributes to our comprehension of Hawaii's
past, that will ultimately become the greatest reward.
"Every culture romanticizes about its past. Hawaiians
are no exceptions. You have Hawaiians who talk about
the old days as some kind of utopia. What I try to do
is avoid that kind of thing, because by stripping away
those layers of fancy that obscure the past, when you
get down to what really happened, what people were really
thinking about, it's always more interesting, and always
much more rewarding because you know you're getting
close to the kernel of truth that lies in the center
of every legend."
The rewards for expressing truth are sometimes sweet
and simple. For instance, once, after Kane created a
painting of a great war temple, such a reward came from
a young Hawaiian man.
"He had always looked at heiau as piles of rocks,
but when he saw the painting and saw how I reconstructed
the heiau with the rock work as it once was, with structures
on the platform with people in a ceremony, he said he
could never look at it as a pile of rocks again. So
I changed his vision. I feel good about that."
Kane had, of course, painted that heiau rock by rock
only after detailed study of it. In his book, he explains:
"I studied the site with archaeologists from all
angles and from the air. Then I took a sleeping bag
and spent two days and nights, studying the path of
the sun, the cloud shadow, the moon light, and only
then did I receive the answers to my questions, only
then was I able to pick up a pencil and begin to design
Kane adheres to an elementary rule he learned as a
young Navy man from a Chinese painter in Shanghai. "He
told me, in order to paint a tiger you have to be a
tiger: in order to paint a flower you have to be a flower.
"As an artist, in order to paint people of another
time, one must develop an empathy with them. (Historian)
Barbara Tuchman once said the difficulty of empathy
is the major obstacle for the historian. Her point is,
that without empathy, it's not possible to really approach
the essence of the historic period."
Studying ancient Hawaiian culture, he found it "similar
to so many primal cultures, yet so different world view
than my own."
For example: "The European attitude had conceived
of a supernatural sphere separate and apart from and
hierarchically above the natural sphere, and man had
a role halfway in between, below the gods and angels,
but above the beasts.
"Polynesians did not share the European vision.
To them, all spirits were a part of nature and ancestral
to nature. So, if you can grasp a world view with no
concept of the supernatural, then you're beginning to
grasp the Polynesians.
"The major spirits were their natural ancestors,
as well as the progenitors of everything in the universe;
hence humankind was related by ancestry to everything
else. Religious thought was so inseparable from life
that no separate word for religion was needed.
"Polynesians saw themselves as the living edge
of a much greater multitude of ancestors who, as ancestral
spirits, linked the living to a continuum going back
to the first humans, to the major spirits and thence
to the ultimate male and female spirits that created
the universe. The living and the spirits shared a universe
in which there was no supernatural because all was natural."
His study of cultures leads Kane to believe that neither
the modern not the primal world is better or higher
than the other, just different. He does know, however,
that once a primal culture comes into contact with the
modern, there is no going back- except, perhaps, in
his own paintings.
By putting paint on canvas, Kane goes back to at time
that he not only loves, but feels a duty to cultivate.
Combining his creative imagination and his historical
knowledge, he has become a keeper of his own "primary"
culture. That, he has come to realize, is an essential
reason for his work.
"I'm trying to divine the original world of the
Hawaiians. In that way I'm different than artists today
who want to express their personalities. I want to express
the personality of the subject. It's more like method
acting- allowing oneself to be completely subjugated
by the role and let the role take over the personality
of the actor.
"I'm in opposition to the mainstream of art today
as it's taught in the universities, which is that art
should be a highly personal thing- highly distinctive
to the personality and expressive of the inner self.
If the artist is concerned about his personality being
expressed, there is no way he is ever going to be able
to express the essence of the subject.
"The matter of style and technique is something
that an artist should not worry about. Artists worry
about that an awful lot- that their style is consonant
with what is hot in New York last week. That's a needless
worry because no two hands set the paint down with the
brush the same way."
Since his school days at the Art Institute of Chicago,
he has been told that the type of art he prefers is
not real "art," it is mere illustration. Yet
realism, or representational art, is all he ever wanted
"Representational art goes way back," he
says. "Much of what we know of the past we get
from artists who have documented their time and place,
their people, their culture."
Just as he is doing.
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