Nature Speaks : Blog
The Story Behind Painting a Canoe
For my second post on this blog, I wanted to tell you about my inspiration for painting a canoe that appears in one of the books, Meet Me at the Salish Sea. After doing many sketches and preliminary paintings, I ended up with one of my favorite illustrations in the books, above. This is the story of how I got there!
I started by doing several preliminary sketches in colored pencil to draft different compositions and get more comfortable with the subject. Then I embarked on my first actual painting of the canoe, which showed a very simple profile view of Native Americans paddling. I painted a setting sun in the background, but it inadvertently ended up sitting awkwardly right atop one of the paddlers’ heads. Since I knew I’d have to redo the sketch, I decided to do some additional research by taking a field trip to the Suquamish Museum. It was there that I noticed from their exhibits that I didn’t have the shape of the canoe quite right.
From the museum’s pictures and artifacts on display, I gained a real sense of the pride that the Suquamish tribe has, and I learned a tremendous amount about their origins and culture. I left the museum feeling a real need to properly honor this tribe.
Returning to the canoe painting, I used the same canvas for what I hoped would be the final version and restarted it by adding many layers of red, yellow, and white acrylic paint. I took out the sun but really wanted to get that pink glow right—one that brilliantly dazzles as the sun goes down. I added a splashing swell (small wave) at the prow of the canoe, which gives the feeling of movement of ocean spray and wind moving through the paddlers’ hair. Along with creating dynamism in the painting, it adds an unmistakable sense of urgency. I then thought, why such urgency? Why are they in such a hurry?
Then a visual idea popped into my head—a ghost ship in the background! Imagine going to the store and as you get in your car, a giant spaceship appears over the horizon. Startled, you’d hustle your family into the car and probably book it home! After all, the arrival of foreign explorers happened not so long ago all over the world. These indigenous people desperately needed to warn others of the impending arrival of “the Explorers” and prepare themselves!
Growing up on the very small Hawaiian island of Moloka’i, I learned the importance of maintaining native culture and identity. Instead of focusing on the typical American history from a white man’s perspective, our schools emphasized native Hawaiian history and the preservation of that culture. We learned about the birth of hula (a traditional dance form) and how native ancestors maintained the ancient, elaborate auwai irrigation system, which provided water for terraced fields called lo’i. These in turn grew kalo, or taro plant, which was made into the Hawaiian staple food called poi.
For a short time, I lived with the Naki family, who spoke only the Hawaiian language. We’d hunt, fish, and work all day. But we’d also watch Braveheart and Michael Jordan win another basketball championship while eating ice cream and laughing. But, being haole (white) was tough for me sometimes in that I always wanted to be something I wasn’t. I repeatedly sensed the social undertone of what damage those of my skin tone had caused. With that being said, however, I believe I have a close relationship with how important native cultures and traditions are in society today.
It was not so long ago that indigenous tribes of all kinds in North America (including Hawai’i and Alaska) had their worlds flipped upside-down by outside colonizers. Now they’re hanging onto every thread of their culture for dear life! My canoe painting honors the Suquamish tribe especially; the Suquamish are descended from Coast Salish aboriginal peoples who lived in what today is greater Vancouver, British Columbia. Because of their beautiful museum, I was able to access this culture, reflect on past events, and get inspired to create art that documents a small piece of their history for future generations.
Educating our youth honestly and respectfully about history and cultural sustainability is a paramount goal!
After creating nearly 50 paintings for these two books, I was told by my art mentor and designer of what we jokingly called “the twins” to find something that inspires me and work on that. After undergoing exponential growth as an artist, I decided to create a beautiful depiction of Halawa Valley, Molokai, from a photo taken by a photographer whose name I don’t know but I thank nonetheless.
I grew up partly on the continental United States (the “mainland”) and in Moloka’i. My sister Malia and “braddah” Jaia would always welcome me when I was staying in Moloka’i and teach me “skills.” These adventures always gave me kickstarts to life! I once climbed up the slopes of Halawa Valley and picked coffee beans from trees that had been originally planted for King Kamehameha, Hawai’i’s first royal leader. I even dried, peeled, and roasted these beans!
Malia and Jaia also taught me to paint and then showed me that people would actually pay for my paintings! After I set my eyes on a hundred-dollar bill that I earned through my artistic ability, it jumped-started my motivation to actually keep being an artist.
This Halawa painting is dedicated to Malia, Jaia, Kainani, Kaeo, and Aulani—thank you for always being there when I needed you the most!