THREE DAYS AFTER MADGE TENNENT PASSED AWAY ON FEB. 5, 1972, THE HAWAI‘I STATE SENATE OF THE SIXTH LEGISLATURE EULOGIZED THE ARTIST WITH A RESOLUTION: “Better than any other artist to date, Madge Tennent was able to capture and honestly express in her many paintings and drawings the subtle charm, quiet grace and dignity of the Hawaiian people … having spent half a century in Hawai‘i, [Tennent] leaves behind a rich legacy of art, which shall forever belong to Hawai‘i.” It was a fitting tribute to the late painter who, within her lifetime, had alternately been described as a pioneer of local contemporary art, an impassioned eccentric, a feminist, and “one of the most controversial and important artists ever to reside in Hawai‘i,” according to the Senate.
For more than 40 years, Tennent painted Hawai‘i’s people; specifically women, in portraiture or natural scenes. She portrayed them as majestic and larger than life, whose fuller bodies and strong personas evoked the imagery and classical beauty of the Greek gods. “The Hawaiians are really to me the most beautiful people in the world,” Tennent once said. Even today, nearly half a century since her pass- ing, Tennent’s works continue to find and inspire new audiences.
Part of the reason is due to the relocation of the artist’s works—from the Tennent Art Foundation, located in Madge Tennent’s former cottage on Punchbowl— to the Isaacs Art Center at Hawai‘i Preparatory Academy on Hawai‘i Island, where thousands of visitors to Waimea can now view the world’s largest intact assemblage of works by Tennent.
“At the [Tennent Art] Foundation, there were some paintings on display but there wasn’t enough room for most of them. Another issue was how to maintain these pieces,” says Bernard Noguès, former director of the Isaacs Art Center. “At some point, someone would have to take over the responsibility of overseeing this collection and there weren’t many candidates on O‘ahu.”
The dream for an art center at Hawai‘i Preparatory Academy dates back 20 years, when real estate entrepreneurs and philanthropists George and Shirley Isaacs first presented the idea in 1999. Their son, George Jr., had attended the Academy in the ’70s, and the Isaacs wanted to bring their passion for fine art and museums to HPA. They explored a few site options before learning that the historic Waimea Elementary and Intermediate School buildings nearby were facing demolition. Built in 1915 as the first public school in Waimea (its first class of students in 1916 were mostly comprised of the children of employees at nearby Parker Ranch), the 5,580-square-foot-facility had seven rooms and Douglas fir floors. The Isaacs, Noguès, and HPA saw an opportunity to achieve two goals at once: save a Hawai‘i landmark and build a gallery for Waimea.
“We received a lot of local support and sympathy for what we were trying to do, because many people in Waimea had previously attended HPA as children,” Noguès says. “At the time, HPA had an art building, complete with a photo lab and a furnace for pottery. But it was designed to teach students, not exhibit works. We would’ve had to build a new facility on the campus.”
Instead, in June 2002, the former Waimea Elementary was sliced into sections and moved, one piece at a time, on the back of a flatbed truck to HPA. (“I heard some people in town thought that we had lost our minds,” recalls Noguès.) Reconstruction and installation took 18 months at an estimated cost of $700,000; during this time, the new building was added to the State Register of Historic Places for future preservation in March 2003, and was later placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005. HPA’s new museum, now named the Isaacs Art Center, opened to the public in 2004.
Since then, the Center has been home to a variety of works by renowned local artists, including Volcano School painter D. Howard Hitchcock, historian and Hokule‘a designer Herb Kawainui Kāne, and printmaker Louis Pohl. But the jewel in the crown is the vast Madge Tennent collection, which includes 30 oil paintings, as well as 45 assorted watercolors, charcoals, and line drawings. In 2003, Noguès visited the Tennent Art Foundation Gallery and met the artist’s son, Arthur, and his wife and gallery director, Elaine. Their mutual friendship would lead to a collaboration in bringing Tennent’s collection to Waimea in 2009.
Among the artist’s pieces at the Isaacs Art Center include “Local Color” (1934), which depicts women gathered and making lei in vibrant, tropical colors. “‘Local Color’ epitomizes a lot of what I see as my grandmother’s artistic vision. She transformed Hawaiian figures into universal archetypes because to her, they symbolized the generosity of spirit, bountiful nature, grace, exuberance, passion, all the wonderful qualities,” recalled Madge Tennent’s grandson, Leslie “Buzz” Tennent in a 2009 interview with HPA’s magazine, Ma Ke Kula.
Another piece, “Girl in Red” (1935), is a floral scene painted with complementary colored oils that bring to life softer, iridescent figures. “The first thing you notice is the subject matter, then you notice the scale … then you notice the strength of the draftsmanship, then you notice the strength of her ideas of color,” said art conservator Anthony Moore of Tennent’s work in 2009. With many of the artist’s pieces at close to 80 years old, the team at Anthony Moore Painting Conservation worked for more than six years, beginning in 2006, to diligently perform restorative maintenance on Tennent’s oil paintings, cleaning the canvases and restoring luster. In addition to removing dirt and applying protective varnishes, conservators examine structural stability; Tennent often extended her compositions by joining canvases together. Moore’s team repaired canvases to ensure that seams were secure and virtually invisible. It’s a process that took anywhere from a few days to a few weeks per painting and, at a clip of $1,500 to $4,000 each, was a cost largely funded by Watters Martin and the Dolores Furtado Martin Foundation on O‘ahu.
Today, the Isaacs Art Center showcases the work of local artists, as well as helps to raise funds for a scholarship fund on behalf of HPA students. Tennent’s works are not for sale, but Noguès mentions that high-resolution giclées become available from time to time. “Tennent’s paintings are intended for people to come see and admire,” Noguès says. “It’s an honor to have her works here; HPA is proud to be the caretakers of this collection.”