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Last week was former Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s 77th birthday and the longtime Hawaii politician was supposed to be celebrating it in part with the long-awaited unveiling of his official state portrait.
Instead, Abercrombie’s space in the gallery of ex-governors that line the walls in the current governor’s office is still empty.
Abercrombie has yet to choose an artist to paint him. And the Hawaii State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, which is overseeing the project, has struggled to connect with the former governor, who has been busy traveling and starting a consulting company in Chinatown.
The delays began last year, when Abercrombie suffered a surprising election loss in the Aug. 9 primary.
Not since William Quinn, the first governor elected after statehood in 1959, has a Hawaii governor not won a second term.
Following now-Gov. David Ige’s upset victory over Abercrombie, the foundation started working on Abercrombie’s portrait last fall. The foundation’s board approved a $45,000 budget and nine-month project timeline Sept. 17, less than three months before Ige was sworn in.
Gubernatorial paintings in recent history have been unveiled just prior to the next governor taking office in December. They are hung inside the Capitol alongside those of past Hawaii governors dating to Sanford Dole more than 100 years ago.
The foundation’s executive director, Jonathan Johnson, said Tuesday that he met with Abercrombie about the portrait for the first time June 22.
“We’ve been ready for quite some time,” Johnson said. “I’m glad to be moving forward.”
Abercrombie said the foundation has been very patient, thorough and professional and he is excited to get going on the portrait.
The foundation put out a call for artists last October, and 46 from across the country applied.
Abercrombie and his wife, former First Lady Nancie Caraway, were supposed to have picked an artist by Dec. 31 under the initial timetable.
Last week, Abercrombie narrowed the list to seven. There are plans to meet again with a committee advising him on the portrait.
That committee includes Caraway; Barbara Saromines-Ganne, who chaired the foundation’s board until her term ended Tuesday; and Deidre Tegarden, protocol officer under Abercrombie.
But choosing an artist will be challenging, Abercrombie said.
“The number of people that were interested, each and every one, were superb,” Abercrombie said. “Each had a certain compelling element in their style and in their approach that warrants some serious reflection and contemplation.”
Here’s a look at Hawaii’s other gubernatorial portraits (story resumes below):
Johnson described his first meeting with Abercrombie as an “orientation.” They went over the process and the collection of past portraits, discussing the individual attributes to consider.
For instance, John Burns, governor from 1962 to 1974, was painted inside the Capitol, reflecting the importance of the building’s construction during his reign.
Ben Cayetano, governor from 1994 to 2002, had his portrait show him outside Washington Place, the governor’s residence. The mansion became a significant part of his legacy because he decided to build a new home nearby for the next governor to live in so Washington Place could become a museum and meeting place.
Lingle, a two-term governor after Cayetano, was the first governor since John Burns, who left office in 1974, to choose a local artist. She picked Christy Fujii to paint her official portrait. Lingle was also the first to be depicted wearing a flower lei.
Abercrombie said he has some ideas of how he’d like to be represented in the portrait, but declined to divulge any details.
“He hasn’t articulated the look and legacy and feel of his yet although I bet you can rule out the yellow cab and the ponytail,” Johnson said.
Abercrombie drove a yellow Checker Taxi with his name on it to campaign on the cheap early in his career. He brought it back last year in a TV ad during his failed re-election bid.
For decades, Abercrombie was well known for his big beard and ponytail, signs of his rejection of the establishment at the time. He became more clean-cut over the past 20 years, cutting off his ponytail in 1997 and keeping his beard trim.
“I’ve lost so much of my hair I guess the ponytail was a futile attempt at some type of retention,” Abercrombie said with a laugh.
The board plans to discuss the portrait at its next meeting July 15, said James Gonser, a spokesman for the foundation.
Given the project’s initial timetable allowing for nearly six months between the time the governor chooses an artist and when the painting would be installed at the Capitol, it will be at least January before the portrait is installed, although it’s expected to take much longer.
“In this case, we’re not rushing to get it done by the end of his term,” Johnson said. “We’re just trying to get it done as efficiently as possible. This time next year we should be done.”
Abercrombie said he’s ready for the work.
“I never was one to lack for making decisions,” he said, referring to the selection of the artist. “I assure you that I’ll do that and in good time.”
Ige will decide where the portrait will go once it’s done.
Portraits of the most recent governors are hung on the walls in the ceremonial room in the governor’s office on the fifth floor of the Capitol. But without some rearranging, that would mean sticking Abercrombie in a corner partially concealed by office furniture.
Ige’s communications director, Cindy McMillan, said staff members are aware of the logistical challenge and have been discussing where the portrait will go.
No decisions have been made yet.