Images by John Hook, Chris Rohrer & courtesy of the Jean Charlot Estate LLC
In his modernist Kāhala dwelling, the ever-present artist Jean Charlot’s presence cannot be ignored.
Remnants of the artist Jean Charlot still haunt the home. Past a series of cantilevered steps within what was once his studio are pinprick indentations along a curved cork wall, which Charlot made when he pinned up drafts of his famed murals. Ambling through the historic property, I stumble upon petroglyph tiles handpainted by Charlot, inlaid in the floors, walls, and beams like Easter eggs of artwork hidden throughout the structure.
Then there is the home’s pièce de résistance: Above a set of sliding glass doors that lead to the lānai is a fresco spanning the length of the living room. Native flora and tropical plants painted in the Aubusson style, a burst of thick foliage in verdant shades of green, fill the scene.
It was completed by Charlot with the assistance of renowned Hawaiʻi artist Juliette May Fraser, making it the first artwork to decorate the home—and the last. In the years since the home’s vacancy, when most of the art and books and personal memorabilia have been emptied out, this is among the final to remain. From its completion in 1958 to Charlot’s death in 1979 this home was where the celebrated artist lived, played, and worked.
Charlot first came to Hawaiʻi in 1949, commissioned by the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa to paint a fresco. The project subsequently turned into a full-time teaching position in the university’s art department. But by 1957, the faculty housing where the Charlots stayed began to feel too cramped for their family of six.
They bought a plot in what was then the yet to be developed neighborhood of Kāhala. Noted Hawaiʻi architect George J. “Pete” Wimberly was contracted to design the home. Blueprints drafted in Charlot’s sketchbooks, however, show how involved he was in the design process.
The split-level ranch style home is a blend of Charlot’s French and Mexican backgrounds. Its vertical emphasis evokes the French rural architecture of his childhood. The brick floors and spacious back courtyard are reminiscent of the Mexican homes that Charlot, who was of Aztec descent, inhabited in his early adulthood.
It was in Mexico where Charlot garnered fame as an artist, working amongst the likes of Diego Rivera and Fernando Leal. In 1922, he completed Massacre in the Templo Mayor, the first mural of a new artistic style that would come to be known as the Mexican Muralist Renaissance. The piece’s use of bright colors and focus on indigenous subjects would become his trademarks. It was also the first time that he utilized the buon fresco technique that would become a quintessential element of his oeuvre.
By the time Charlot got to Hawaiʻi over two decades later, he had received world renown for his part in the founding of the Mexican Muralist Renaissance. Yet once Charlot arrived in Hawaiʻi, Fraser said, “he felt as though he had ʻcome home’ for the first time.”
“For 30 years, except for brief trips, he never left,” Fraser said in a Star Advertiser interview. “He lived here far longer than any other place in the world. When Jean found us, he became one with us—completely.”
This was evident in how the home, despite its foreign influences, was still uniquely of the Hawaiian Islands. There is the wrap-around lānai, a quintessential Hawaiʻi design. Natural materials, many of them native, texturize the home, such as the slab wall separating the dining and living rooms which is made entirely of hāpuʻu, the Hawaiian tree fern. It seems like an ordinary wall until a sliver of sunlight streams in, illuminating the countless sprigs crisscrossing its surface. It reflected the sense of place that Charlot so often emphasized in his work.
“Charlot’s interest in Hawaiian culture was unusual at the time,” his son, John Charlot, wrote in an essay examining his father’s relationship to Hawaiian culture. Charlot arrived in Hawaiʻi amidst a burgeoning tourism industry. Mainstream depictions in art and in film promoted a romanticized, exotic image of the islands. Charlot detested this.
While most artists had “restricted themselves to picturesque visions of Paradise with lissome Polynesian temptresses,” John wrote, Charlot immersed himself in the culture so that he may give it justice within his art. He took Hawaiian language lessons with linguist Samuel H. Elbert. He consulted cultural experts in the accuracy of his Hawaiʻi focused murals. He catered his house parties with Helena’s Hawaiian Food.
Charlot’s Hawaiʻi phase was stirred by the verdant landscape that surrounded him and inspired by the way Native Hawaiian art symbolically merged man and nature. “Hawaiʻi focused on an all-encompassing nature,” writes John. “Rather than the environment and the human community being separate, in Charlot’s mural they form a coherent whole, all bathed in the beautiful local light.”
This coherence of nature and man is evident throughout the home’s design, which blurs the interior and exterior. Floor-to-ceiling glass doors create the illusion of a home with no walls, while natural materials like hāpuʻu and ʻōhiʻa wood bring the outdoors in.
The dining table is the paragon of this philosophy. Designed by Charlot himself, the table branches out from the exterior wall, one half in and the other out, the delineation made by sliding glass windows that meet on top of the table’s middle. During the many soirées held by the Charlots, which were frequented by many in Hawaiʻi’s intellectual circles (evidenced by the home’s guestbook), the windows were slid open, the congregation transcending the home’s physical barriers.
Walking through the home, feeling my feet atop the hardwood floors where Charlot walked, it is hard to shake the feeling that the artist is still there. After over two decades living in the home, this was where he spent the last of his days in March 1979. Six months earlier, he completed his last mural, for Maryknoll Elementary School, part of the many public art works he did for the state.
“Charlot pops into people’s lives in so many different ways—be it through a mural at their old school or a print they’ve discovered,” says Bronwen Solyom, erstwhile curator of UH Mānoa’s Charlot Collection. “It’s inspiring to know he’s touched so many people.”
Though his home, currently under the ownership of UH Mānoa’s School of Architecture, is not open to the public, except by appointment, Charlot’s artistry is on display in various Honolulu sites.
“United Public Workers Mural” This six-panel mural spanning the length of the United Public Workers Building took six years to complete. It was a collaboration between Charlot and ceramicist Isami Enomoto. It depicts scenes of union members at work and in action. Charlot insisted that the two panels bookending the piece should be of union member demonstrations to establish balance and show workers’ strength.
Henry B. Epstein Building, 1426 N. School Street
“Early Contacts of Hawaiʻi with Outer World” This mural replaced one of the same name when the building was being demolished in 1966. The original 1952 mural, which was over 60-feet long, was cut up into approximately 70 easel sized pieces. This piece inside the First Hawaiian Bank, then named First National Bank, is an almost exact replica of the original.
First Hawaiian Bank in Waikīkī, 2181 Kalakaua Avenue
“Relation of Man and Nature in Old Hawaiʻi” This was the first piece commissioned of Charlot by the university and was what first brought him to Hawaiʻi. Charlot delved into extensive research to ensure the accuracy of the work, speaking with Hawaiian scholars and visiting places like the Bishop Museum. It was done in Charlot’s typical buon fresco technique and depicts a Hawaiian feast just before the fateful arrival of Captain Cook.
University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, Bachman Hall 1st Floor, 2444 Dole Street
The Charlot Courtyard featuring “Chief’s Canoe,” “Conch Players,” “Hawaiian Drummers,” and more A five-piece collection once part of two murals originally installed in a café at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, then named Kaiser Hawaiian Village Hotel. When the hotel was remodeled in 1986, the murals had to be cut out of their concrete walls. One mural was so fragile that it was disassembled into smaller vignettes.
Hawaiʻi Convention Center, 5th Floor, 1801 Kalakaua Avenue