Thursday, July 29, 2010

Interviewing Herb Kawainui Kane

I'm back!

I've had a bit of a hula hiatus. In fact, I bid adieu to my halau at the first of the year. Since then I've just been struggling with more immediate things, like trying to make a living. Hula and all things Hawaiian got put on the back burner.

But about two weeks ago I got a response to a story proposal I had sent to a magazine nearly a year ago. My idea was to profile the great Hawaiian artist Herb Kane for the University of Chicago magazine. I had read that he got his M.A. there in 1953, back when the UC gave degrees to graduates of the Art Institute of Chicago. My clever plan was that I'd get the assignment from the alumni magazine and then work some freelance-writer magic to finagle a free trip to the Big Island.

It didn't work out that way. As so often happens when editors give assignments, she wanted the story wikiwiki. (See? My Hawaiian is coming back to me already!)

Months earlier I had emailed Herb to ask if I could do a story, assuming I'd get an assignment. Now I had to email him and ask him to sit on the phone with me for an hour or so. I got the answer right back: "Let's do it tonight!"

When I called I first expressed my disappointment that I couldn't interview him in person. No worries. He said I'll always be welcome to stop by, sit with him on his lanai and consume some "adult beverages." I wished I were there right then, especially when he described his view -- 1200 feet above Kealakekua Bay. He said he had just done some pruning to keep his view clear, "in case Captain Cook comes back."

I learned some surprising things about a man who is considered a father of the Hawaiian Renaissance. For starters, his mother is Danish and he spent most of his childhood in Wisconsin. But his dad was from a family of taro farmers from the Waipi'o Valley and young Herb spent enough time there to be intrigued by family stories about kings and goddesses and Polynesian voyagers who crossed the ocean before settling the Hawaiian Islands.

After he got out of the Navy and returned to the Midwest, Herb entered the School of the Chicago Art Institute on the GI Bill. Herb spent his free time researching ancient canoes in the libraries of the University of Chicago and at the Field Museum. When he wasn't poring over books he was on the water, trying to imagine what Polynesian sailors experienced on the Pacific Ocean by sailing his racing catamaran along the choppy waves of Lake Michigan.

You might say, then, that the Hawaiian Renaissance was born in Chicago, on Lake Michigan. After the director of the Hawaii State Foundation on Culture and the Arts flew to Chicago to buy from Herb his series of canoe paintings, Herb decided he needed to continue his research in Hawaii. In 1970 he left Chicago and moved to Honolulu, where he and two friends founded the Polynesian Voyaging Society. Herb designed and helped build a replica of one of the large voyaging canoes with which the Polynesians explored the Pacific. The name came to him in a dream. He called it Hokule'a.

The pride Hawaiians felt when they were able to take the Hokule'a on long ocean voyages without navigational instruments, just as their ancestors did, helped the Hawaiian Renaissance take root in a land that was thirsty for self-knowledge. Herb's historically accurate paintings depicting people and places from Hawaii's past helped build interest and pride. The native language was rescued from the brink of extinction. People who now have the opportunity to learn Hawaii's language, its folk arts, music and history owe Herb Kawainui Kane their great thanks. Check out his paintings at his Online Retrospective, here.