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Spring/Summer 2001

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Herb Kane
Artist And Historian
by M.V. Harden     

Herb Kane

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 Treasures."

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 years.

"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 my obsession."

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 says.

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 sailing.

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 aid.

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 it."

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 that type."

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 painful failure.

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, acceptable."

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 the paintings."

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 to do.

"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.


"Readers may submit editorial comments to any of our stories by sending an email to les@lbdcoffee.com. We would be happy to attach your comments and feedback to anything we publish online. Thank you for your interest."

Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.

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