by Pam Woolway
Thirty-one years in business on Kaua`i is no small feat.
Tucked in the shade of a Shower tree at the back of Hanalei Town Center, is the working studio and art gallery of Mercedes Maza, a 38 year Kaua`i resident and the in-house artist and owner of Art and Soul.
Referring to one of her favorite paintings, “Mystic Mountain,” a quiet mountain landscape shrouded in clouds, she said, “This is what I consider Kaua`i: We are on hallowed ground.”
But the meditative mountain scene is not typical of her recent work exploding with color.
Her latest work she calls her “heart period.”
“I like this dreamy feeling of the metallic. It’s like fairy dust,” she said pointing out how the pigment is saturated with very fine gold and silver glitter. “This time is about spreading the love.”
Maza’s schooling as an artist may have begun in New York, but her life as an artist matured under the guidance of Kaua`i Community College watercolor instructor, Wai Hang Lai.
“He taught me to approach painting with Chi,” she said.
Loosely defined, the Chinese concept for energy, Maza described as “capturing the essence or soul” of your subject.
“It’s not literal. It’s catching the life force of the flower. It’s a feeling.”
Oriental brush painting has been her greatest influence.
“One brush stroke does it all,” she said.
Maza’s warmth and obvious joy for life are immediately palpable. As visitors enter the colorful world she inhabits, there is a feeling a genuine aloha.
“Being an artist is an act of faith. I’m not working for a paycheck. I love what I do,” she said.
She pays homage to her teacher, Mr. Lai repeatedly. The importance of painting daily to improve technique lay the foundation for her work today. As a beginner watercolorist she began studying the simplicity and importance of single strokes by painting bamboo.
“Some people never move on from bamboo,” she said.
Comparing this to her son’s training as a sushi chef, she said that while working with a master chef the culinary student can spend a year washing rice.
“Until they master washing rice, their training can’t progress to cutting fish,” she said. “It’s the same studying watercolor, students have to master painting bamboo first.”
Maza’s first studio/gallery was a shared space in Hanapepe in 1982. Since then Art and Soul has changed location four times. Hurricane Iniki forced a temporary closure, only to redirect her to Old Koloa Town, then Po`ipu and eventually Hanalei in 2000.
An offer from Princeville Resort is what compelled her to move north. Maza was invited to work at the resort painting on location, exhibiting and talking to guests. She worked there until their closure in 2008.
Her work has seen many evolutions. Born in Columbia and having lived in New York, the African Congo, Brazil and Europe, Maza’s work is informed by her travels. She makes an annual pilgrimage to some far flung place annually to recharge her creative battery.
Flipping through one of her binders packed with small representations of her work, one will find everything from riotous floral scenes to the crisp structural facades of a European village.
“I’m more literal with my painting in Europe. I love the architecture – it’s about the buildings. But in Kaua`i,” she gestures to the framed paintings filling the walls of her cheerful gallery, “You can see I go wild with color.”
Besides the obvious impact the hurricane had on her work, the only other time she felt her business was threatened was in 2008 when the economy tanked.
“Eighty percent of my business is shipped,” she said. “Visitors want to remember their trip with a piece of art.”
She described the streets of Hanalei as completely empty during that period.
“I thought I couldn’t stay open. If it weren’t for the (Hanalei) community, well, they wouldn’t let me close. Truly, it does take a village to run a gallery.”
A few hard knocks cannot quell Maza’s optimism.
“I’m a firm believer in God. I put my faith in God,” she said. “You put yourself out there and ask how will people receive you? The more you do something the better you get. If it doesn’t work you just move on. You accept that you’re not always going to get paid.”
The gallery is open 12 to 5 Monday through Saturday. For more information visit maza-art.com or email email@example.com.