The Sketchbook Show: Origins

Ka-Ning Fong

Maile Yawata

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On Display:

Koa Gallery at Kapi‘olani Community College

January 14 – February 10, 2011

Whatever your favorite example of visual art, whether a sculpture you found in a book or a dramatic oil-painted vista, it started as a sketch. That preliminary bit of ideation, that creative genesis of all things visual, can always be routed back to the humble beginning of a hand grasping an instrument, noting the concept in its elemental form on paper or parchment. In the digital age, so much of this conceptual artistic groundwork is gone in the initial taps of a mouse or a trackpad – many of the most complex of visual presentations in advertisement or art no longer begin with that pencil and paper progeny. Not so for the artists whose work is on display at what is likely the most gorgeous community college in the world.

Until February 10, the Koa Gallery at Kapi‘olani Community College is showing the sketches of several beloved Hawaii-based artists. From at least 27 artists, The Sketchbook Show: Origins displays framed drawings, actual sketchbooks, and a few cases protecting the valuable work of a few of our community’s most talented. Many of the sketches belong to 20th century artists who have passed away like Isami Doi, Joseph Feher and Tadashi Sato, however the bulk of the work is by artists who are very much still sketching and creating.

Upon entrance to the little gallery, viewers are invited to use a bit of hand sanitizer and don white Mickey Mouse gloves to peruse the sketchbooks a bit closer. It’s worth it. Peeling back pages of an artist’s work is a window into their right hemisphere, an impressive look at the development of ideas. The show is a bit like spending an afternoon YouTube’ing your favorite bands rehearsing. For some of my favorite pieces by John Kelly, it was inspiring to see the grid work he laid out on some of his more thoughtful sketches. You can read the sketch, see him thinking through the print to be developed from those initial strokes of his pencil.

For modern artist Harry Tsuchidana’s work, he appreciates the graceful female form. It’s not what one normally sees from the artist; Tsuchidana’s work was bought in the early ’80s by the state and displayed in many state buildings. Instead of Mondrian contemporary fields of color, we’re presented with an artist that can draw a gestural body as well as anyone. He really is that good.

The same can be said of the encased work of Joseph Feher and John Kelly. In the rear of the gallery are some of Feher’s more famous pieces in their early development. Some of them ended up as watercolors, many others as illustrations for the Bishop Museum or numerous other local institutions. For John Kelly’s work, we’ve all seen the menus from the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, or the ubiquitous prints of a serenading local boy or a fantasy Hawaiian woman reduced to the basic elements: figure, kihei, flower, breast, bedroom eyes. Those prints would be cheesy as hell if they weren’t done with such masterful technique. The show is worth seeing just for the sketches of those prints before they ever became famous. That beautiful woman posing for the sketch seems as fresh now as she was when she was reclining at his Diamond head studio in the 1920s. It’s enough to renew a love affair for the local visual classics.

The work on display in the small gallery is as diverse as the artists are numerous. Some pieces straddle the line between doodle and sketch, the only difference being their existence on a day planner or an accentuating mark added after the initial drawing with a different colored pen. For Fred Roster’s piece, it seems as if his day planner from a few years back exploded in a lit grid pattern. It gives the daily sketches some coherence. Without that presentation, the work would probably make as much sense as the detective’s thumbtacked back wall in The Usual Suspects, right when we figure out Keyser Söze was all made up and we were just along for the ride.

Sometimes artists are a bit embarrassed of their sketches. They get thrown away or lost under a pile when the final piece is taking form. For the viewer, however, the experience is different. If you love a piece you want to know what went into making it, where that final fruition of beauty got its start, the creative process at work. To see the initial sketching of an artist with talent and vision is to see the seed of a work as it is being sown, and the reason they are that good.

The show is up for another few weeks. Parking is easy and it’s free.

Solomon Enos

John Kelly, behind plexiglass

John Kelly, behind plexiglass

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