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 by
Amaury Saint-Gilles

 

 

 

Remembering a Much Missed Friend

 
   

Wailehua Gray, 1933 - 2005

 

     I was at my desk pondering on how to begin writing about a man whose presence I miss every day. Space being at a premium no matter the medium, I’ve chosen just a few works of his to demonstrate what makes Wailehua so luminous a figure in the painted chronology of Hawaiian art history. His art of the past several decades, since returning to Hawaii from a lengthy stint in California, fell mainly into two categories. A Zen series that originated from a combination of teacher-oriented studies and his own varied travels thru the Far East, and a Hawaiian series that drew upon the lore he lived and learned from his full-blooded Hawaiian mother and her extended family. Although I've often been drawn to works from both arenas it is his “local” style that truly epitomizes his enormous talents to me. I find their depth of meaning rife with both exuberant color and complexity of composition.
Wailehua Gray painting entitled “Ka’io Kea” (The White Hawk)
     Wailehua utilized a characteristic “cartoon or window” mannerism in many of his works. Thru this device he was able to bridge both space and time bringing each fully formed story to life within a single canvas. “The Office” is one painting I easily recall taking a simple storyline and putting each element into place via a series of such windows. This ability to see beyond each canvas’ dimensional limitations was one of his great strengths. Often these small but vibrant windows would easily slip into the psyche of the viewer without being apparent in any out-of-the-ordinary way. They are frequent but basic elements to most of his overall compositions. Each such portion could be seen and appreciated visually as independent without being separated from the whole. In retrospect, I believe none of these windows, complete as they may have been, would survive outside their intended positions in his finished paintings.

     His involvement with local organizations was heart-felt and keenly demonstrated by works such as his amakua* figure of a solitary hawk sitting atop a tree limb before an undeniable Big Isle landscape: “Ka’io Kea” (The White Hawk). He created and lent this image to Save Hamakua for fund-raising efforts by their fledgling group. *(amakua – Ancestral spirit guardians represented by a host of animals found in Hawaii.)

     Wailehua was also chosen by philanthropist Earl Bakken, supporter extraordinaire of the North Hawaii Community Hospital, during early stages of NHCH’s building program to create a signature artwork for the hospital. Wanted was an image that would visually define the manner in which NHCH would pursue health for the community. Wailehua’s masterful mural entitled "Lokahi" – stretching seventeen feet, imagines the community and its health proponents ensconced in a huge outrigger canoe and traveling together before the vista of our islands mountainous majesty, a true vision of its titled unity. Despite its current unfortunate placement along a narrow corridor one can still revel in the splendor of its size and pleasure in the impact of its colorful textured message.

Wailehua Gray painting entitled Lokahi

     “Kipuka” was executed in acrylic and sand on canvas (4’x 3’) to depict a common aspect of almost any lava flow inundation – where whim or the gods decide to spare a trifle of land amid almost complete desolation. A hike over the Pua’u O’o trail here on the Big Island was his inspiration for this paintings blended spectrum of colors. He was much impressed with one copse of ancient trees on a high knoll, an oasis completely surrounded by lava that lent itself to the paradisiacal imagery he captured so blithely and beautifully. He felt it was akin to being in a time capsule – on an island in a lava sea.
Wailehua Gray painting entitled Kipuka
     “Alae Ula” shows an ancient legend of how the Hawaiian Coot brought fire to the first Polynesians settling here. Enjoined to fly back to the islands from whence they had come and return with a live coal in its beak, this bird journeyed to and fro successfully. But the once brown feathered traveler was burned to a lustrous black hue by that flaming ember held firmly in its mouth. To remind all of its great feat and sacrifice, the Coot was given a beak reminiscent of that live ember whilst retaining its newly blackened feathering. This oil on canvas (5’x 4’) has always been one of my favorite paintings.
Wailehua Gray painting entitled Alae Ula
Wailehua Gray painting entitled Mo'o
Mo’o” depicting perhaps the earth-shaking giant lizard of legendary times, is from a series of beautifully executed acrylic works on paper done late in his career. This painting was actually the first in that series which started when an intrepid gecko scooted across a fresh sheet of paper just prior to Wailehua’s beginning to paint. Just as I needed a point of inspiration to begin this remembrance, Wailehua used that small moment to connect with the idea of amakua in immortalizing that small gecko as a work of art.
     As I searched for a place to begin writing about Wailehua Gray, I dashed out to the local post office and the answer appeared literally before my eyes. In the day’s mail was a flyer from the Hamakua Music Festival. Quadruple imprinted images by Wailehua graced this small brochure reminding me (and everyone) once again how much he gave and how much we have lost with his passing.
     His artistry is something too few people are acquainted with. The answer why is quite complex. Even people who knew him usually didn’t have a clue about the depth of artistic variety he produced. To wit Wailehua’s simple ink drawing (used by the afore-mentioned music festival) which combines a signature (but stylized) petroglyph figure playing a bass viol with the distant moon perched in an upper corner like a stage hung spotlight. He caught within this small granulated image, both the flavor and reasoning behind their festival – funding of a youth scholarship program and providing music teachers for local schools. An accomplished guitarist himself he played with some of the worlds’ finest musicians in his seven plus decades. In deed Wailehua loved making music almost as much as he did the act of painting.
     How little he’s known is easily pointed up by several pertinent facts. None of his works has yet been collected by the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts for the Hawaii State Museum and although his work has hung in group exhibitions at Honolulu’s Academy of Art, they too have none in their permanent collection. The majority of his paintings have gone into private collections spread across the nation and internationally with but a handful still in Hawaii. I know he felt somewhat neglected in this respect but a deep pride of creation wouldn’t allow him to even consider angling for attention. He felt (and rightly so I believe) the State was missing the boat by overlooking his work. He once remarked that they’d eventually come round. I hope this proves true.
     Intensity of hue defines the excellent works of Wailehua Gray amid their tremendous variety. As part of his oeuvre, they are just a few of many, many works that so eloquently express the depth of artistic talents plumbed by this fine man and much missed friend.


 (April 2006)

 

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