Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect clarifications regarding the leadership of the murals project and more specific details about individual murals.
WAILUKU, Maui — Driving or walking through old Wailuku town is a different experience these days, after a host of artists, mostly local, used unadorned building walls as their canvas to paint murals aimed at capturing what it was to grow up in this plantation town.
In a little over a year, this blossoming of public art brought together 20 artists, including two international artists, to paint culturally responsive murals on outdoor walls within the county seat, culminating last December in “Small Town*Big Art” public art program, a collaboration of Maui Redevelopment Agency and Hale Hoikeike at the Bailey House/Maui Historical Society, starting with the help of a $75,000 “Our Towns” grant from National Endowment of the Arts.
Prior to the boom, another work of public art was catching the public’s eye when driving or walking down South High Street in front of Wailuku Elementary School. A large mural on a formerly drab classroom building wall depicted children reaching for knowledge.
Among those wielding brushes was Noble Richardson, a part-time art teacher at Wailuku Elementary, along with local artists Kirk Kurokawa and Elmer Bio Jr.
It was painted without public or private funding, just the enthusiastic support of then-principal Beverly Stanich, students’ suggestions, and Richardson’s eagerness to make it happen.
“There is something about that mural that just lights up the day of everyone who sees it,” Stanich said.
The mural, and another painted in the hallway of the main office building, “are both treasures that reflect the legacy, culture and future of the school,” she added.
Kelly McHugh of Hui Noeau Visual Arts Center in Makawao and MRA’s Erin Wade wrote grants that funded Nā Wai ʻEhā, the Hawaiian sunrise mural installation by Eric Okdeh of the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, on a Requests Music wall at the intersection of Main and Market in 2012. It was to be the harbinger of murals to come.
Other murals started popping up about town. A collaboration of SBTA and Sea Walls: Artists for Oceans, via PangeaSeed, put Richardson, Kurokawa and Amanda Bowers on a large mural depicting the mauka to makai (mountain to ocean) with a hina’i, or basket fish trap, he’e, or octopus, and the ‘alala, or the Hawaiian crow on Main Street promenade.
Antonio Segura Donat (“the Dulk”) from Spain created the whale accompanied by a colorful array of marine creatures on a Texaco gas station wall just up the street.
Adjacent is a Hawaiian gourd against a marine backdrop by Cory Kamehanaokala Holt Taum, an Oahu artist. Another on the gas station walls features palm trees and a pattern by Kekaulike High graduate Gregg Kaplan.
Hui Noeau Visual Arts Center in Makawao funded the Hawaiian Sunrise mural installation by Erik Okdeh on a Requests Music wall at Main and Market streets.
On Vineyard Street just off Market is a pink and blue goddess arising from the ocean painted on a pawn shop wall by Canadian Lauren Brevner. Across the street on Maui Land Brokers’ wall “High Tides/Low Tides” by Big Island artist Kai’ili Kaulukukui. The swimmer is freeing the honu, or sea turtle, from lines and plastic debris littering the sea.
On a wall at 1975 Vineyard is a marine scene threatened by ocean pollution by Alexandra Underwood, a 2013 Baldwin High graduate, joined by Northern California artist Joey Rose.
On a Lower Main body shop wall is a Hawaiian treehouse by Wooden Wave artists Matthew and Roxanne Ortiz from Oahu. At 1774 Lower Main is a “Navigating our Future” by New Zealand artist Poihakena Ngawati. Seattle’s Mary Iverson painted a constellation and compass on a restaurant wall down the road.
More public artworks at Iao Intermediate and Baldwin High were forthcoming as well from Richardson and friends.
Richardson said he is driven to paint Maui as he remembers it growing up in Happy Valley, at the north end of town. His wish to help preserve what make his life special culminated in assembling the “Endemic Hawai’i Artists” collective. Richardson said, “We have a story to tell and I believe we tell it best.”
This wave of public art culminated in Wailuku Murals Ho’olu last December, with many of the artists in the collective descending upon Wailuku to help revive its colorful past.
Small Town, Big Art sponsored the mural festival as a “creative placemaking pilot project to help position Wailuku as a public arts district that is focused on its distinctive sense of place, history and culture.”
This wave of public art culminated in last December, with many of the artists in the collective descending upon Wailuku to help revive its colorful past.
STBA called it a “creative placemaking pilot project to help position Wailuku as a public arts district that is focused on its distinctive sense of place, history and culture.”
Matthew Agcolicol coordinated STBA, spending two years involved in the logistics of creating it. Besides locating funding and sponsorships, there were the tasks of seeking business cooperation for walls to be painted, arranging air travel for visiting artists, procuring supplies and equipment, and feeding the artists, most of whom were donating their time.
As coordinator, Agcolicol chose local artists to do the bulk of the work. Himself an artist, he said he chose not to paint, preferring instead to provide fellow local artists a platform that some had not had before, and help them “see the big picture,” excuse the pun. They were afforded the opportunity to work with successful international and American artists from elsewhere as well, he noted, with the visiting artists sharing their techniques.
Public art provides opportunities to view art outside of a show or gallery, Agcolicol noted. “What better way to give art to the people?”
Agcolicol will be painting for a new project in neighboring Kahului, starting in March. Residents near Lihikai Elementary School are being surveyed to see what kind of subject matter they prefer to see in whatever Agcolicol designs. The survey, on Maui Metropolitan Planning Organization’s website, will close Oct. 30.
“The goal is community engagement,” Agcolicol said.
PangeaSeed Foundation is an international nonprofit that has created 300 murals in 14 countries with a roster of more than 250 professional artists.
These panels painted by Noble Richardson, Kirk Kurokawa and Elmer Bio Jr. depict a stonecutter, child climbing a boulder in Iao Valley and basket weaving. They are on an old Wailuku Pool wall on Wells Street. That’s Noble Richardson in the photo.
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