Pooling the Arts

Hawai‘i State Art Museum treads lightly.

CHILDREN WHO SPOT DOUG YOUNG’S POOL at the Hawai‘i State Art Museum immediately want to step into it. “They’re intrigued and try to swim in it. They lie on their backs and start moving their arms,” quips the artist, noting that the “water” in mention is really enamel on glass.

The trompe l’oeil “pool,” dubbed “Waikui,” is the heart of HiSAM’s sculpture garden, which comprises 10 works by Hawai‘i artists, including three new site-specific works commissioned by the State Foundation of Culture & the Arts (SFCA).

The work replaces the actual pool that was part of the 1927 Armed Forces YMCA building that was acquired by the state in 2000 to house the foundation and museum.

Planning for a garden that would replace the historic pool began at that time, when the pool sitting in the middle of the property was deemed a liability, according to SFCA O‘ahu commissioner Peter Rosegg.

“There was no lifeguard. So, people could fall into it. And maintaining it was expensive. DAGS (the Department of Accounting and General Services), which operates the building, didn’t like it for all those reasons.”

But he said museum planners liked the idea of replacing the pool with a piece of art that would evoke its essence and rekindle memories of kama‘aina who learned to swim in it through the YMCA over the years.

Young, known for his photorealistic paintings, worked with a glass factory in Germany to come up with a work that people could walk on and touch. He overlapped imagery of a calm pool with ocean and sand to suggest the mingling of two waters and sought help from Hawaiian cultural experts in coming up with a name to convey this idea.

“Waikui” turned out to be the name of an area near the northern tip of the Big Island that was once dominated by sandalwood and a stream that flowed through the forest to the ocean,” the artist shares.

Alan Brown, a respected cultural expert, instructed Young to visit the site to determine whether it was pono to use the name. Once there, Young says, “It was electric, it was vibrating. It was something you don’t see every day. The light was just dazzling, and a small school of keiki fish was following me around as I walked in the water.”

Now, when he sees people sitting around his artwork, he says, “It’s touching, because I can see the next generation enjoying it. When they ask about its name, it carries on.”

Other artists featured in the garden are Satoru Abe, Carol Bennett, Hon-Chew Hee, William Mitchell, Bumpei Akaji, Sean K.L. Brown, Jun Kaneko, Kenneth Shutt and the late Toshiko Takaezu, who donated several sculptures to the foundation.

“It really says something that she didn’t want to sell these works, but wanted to give it to somebody who would share it with the people,” says Rosegg, who adds that HiSAM was founded as a people’s museum, free to all thanks to the state’s 1 percent funding for the arts.

A call for artists ensued for three site-specific areas: the pool, the railing beside the pool and a canopy to provide shade over bleachers at the far end of the garden.

For the railing, the foundation chose Satoru Abe, whom Rosegg deems “one of the most renowned artists alive in Hawai‘i today.”

Abe used a welder to create imagery and organic forms out of metal sheets in negative space, rather than the positive space that characterized his past work.

“In terms of his life’s work, it’s a departure,” Rosegg notes. “It shows the evolution of the man and his work. It’s nice for the state to own pieces like this that show an artist’s progress.”

Also adding another dimension to her work was Carol Bennett, who was chosen in part because of her familiarity painting on glass. Like Young, she found herself traveling to Germany to learn all about glass making for her enamel-on-glass creation, “Trigger Picasso Energy.” Sun shining through the colored glass cast their light on the concrete below for an ever-changing light show.

Beyond mere beauty, the work also incorporates energy-producing photovoltaic cells to create its own energy source. Bennett says she had used recycled materials and dealt with environmental issues in her work before, but the monumental scope of her work and use of photovoltaic cells introduced her to the possibilities of combining science and environmental art in changing the way we think about architecture in the 21st century and beyond.

As beautiful as the canopy is to look at by day, she said it must also be seen at night when “it illuminates itself. It looks like a disco.”

The garden isn’t intended to be static, as a few pieces can be rotated in and out. Next to come will be a child-oriented work by May Izumi, telling the story of a Hawaiian trickster dog. It is tentatively set for installation in early 2014.

The HiSAM Sculpture Garden is open during regular museum hours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays, except state and federal holidays. The museum is also open from 5 to 9 p.m. the first Friday of every month. The garden is available for private rentals, starting at $1,000. Visit https://hawaii.gov/sfca/rental.html for more information.

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