For decades, stained glass artist Erica Karawina helped bring Hawai‘i’s cathedrals and state buildings to life with her work.
Shining out from the crown of the Kalanimoku Hale State Office Building in downtown Honolulu, four elaborate stained glass murals bring to life Hawaiian Gods alongside petroglyphs, rainbows, flowers, and abstractions of the sea and sky.
They are each set during the different phases of the day from morning, noon, afternoon and night. As beautiful as they are when viewed from Beretania, Punchbowl, or King Street, the full impact of these murals’ beauty can only be seen from within the buildings, as an appreciative gesture for the state employees working within.
This was the intention of local artist Erica Karawina who, for over half a century, created elaborate works of stained glass art, most notably for Hawai‘i’s government buildings and cathedrals. She developed what she called “faceted glass works” by hammering and chiseling rough-hewn glass, then placing the pieces into a frame and embedding it with epoxy. From the windows of the Manoa Valley Church, St. Anthony’s Church in Kailua, and Lili‘uokalani Protestant Church on the North Shore, to installations at the former Honolulu Advertiser’s News Building and Punahou School, Karawina created her large commissions to be unique to particular spaces. Often only by coordinating with a build- ing’s management, working closely with the architect and understanding the function of a room and the type of building (and light exposure), would she begin to design.
“A good light can even make a relatively poor window look good. And poor lighting can destroy the best window in the world,” Karawina told interviewers for a 1984 Department of Education video profile of her work. “I love architecture work. But it’s not easy.”
Born in 1904 in Germany, Karawina received her art training in Europe, then New England after moving to the United States in 1923. She didn’t receive a formal classroom education; instead, she studied with tutors. Masters such as prominent Boston School sculptor Frederick W. Allen and Charles J. Connick, who created the rose windows of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, Chicago’s First Presbyterian Church, and the American Church in Paris. Under Connick’s tutelage, Karawina spent months researching the history of traditional glassmaking before being allowed to work with glass itself. Like medieval apprentices, she learned her craft through careful observation before practice.
Although Karawina’s favorite is stained glass, she had worked in a variety of different media. Her earliest years were spent drawing and painting. “I was drawing so much [as a child] that they felt it wasn’t good for my health to be drawing all the time! My family doctor said, ‘no no, not too much of that …’ It was just a natural sort of thing with me,” Karawina recalled. “Now, a painting … you may look at it with different eyes occasionally but still, it’s not as lively as stained glass. Once you’ve done stained glass, it’s hard to go back to painting.”
After her education, Karawina’s early work was in cathedrals, creating glass for the Princeton University Chapel and Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. She also created lithographs and woodcuts in the 1930s that have been displayed in galleries including the Library of Congress and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. But it was the vibrancy and colors of Hawai‘i that kept Karawina in the Islands after traveling here in 1949. “I just love Manoa and the lushness of it. There’s something about greenery that I simply thrive on,” said Karawina. “What I love about Hawai‘i are the many cultures; the diverse people. It sort of fits in with my own background … I realize now that my palette has changed considerably. In New England, when we used stained glass, we used beautiful colors too but it was a lower key. The brilliant colors of the flowers [here], I think all that echoes, sort of, in one’s work unconsciously.”
Karawina’s stained glass work at the Church of the Epiphany in Kaimuki is a prime example of how local culture has influenced the artist. Through large panels that tell the nativity story, Karawina weaves Hawai‘i into the narrative: Mary is greeted by an archangel wearing a Hawaiian malo; the baby Jesus is swaddled in a blanket made of tapa cloth; and of the three kings who present gifts, one is dressed as a Hawaiian ali‘i, making an offering from a conch shell. Similar diversity can be seen in Karawina’s mural at Wai‘oli Chapel in Manoa, where the artist created stained glass windows telling biblical stories.
One of Karawina’s most famous local pieces stretches 24 feet by 45 feet and is nestled in the ceiling above the cavernous atrium of the five-story First Circuit Court state judiciary building. With tapa-like patterns, this stained glass work of art doubles as a sparkling skylight, casting colorful reflected lights throughout the building and across the interior courtyard below. This piece, like all of her works, continues to leave a lasting legacy, even as Karawina herself passed away in 2003 at age 99.
“The real reason I liked stained glass so much is because it’s naturally kinetic,” Karawina said, in 1984. “The light simply works with it, especially when the light of day changes, the different seasons change, the different times of the day. It’s alive.”