Mural at Hanapepe Post Office

From canvas to a Post Office wall. Hanapepe, home to the island’s popular Friday night art walk, claimed another art first for the island, and for the state, in 2006 with this mural. Mark Jeffers of Hanapepe Storybook Theatre (l) chats with artist Fred Tangalin in front of the Hanapepe Post Office. Tangalin had help — 74 then-fourth graders in three classes at Ele`ele School. Archival photo by Anne E. O’Malley

by Jan TenBruggencate

It’s a thrill to wander through any of Kaua`i’s many art shops, and see how our island’s artists interpret this singular place.

I was sitting in the county’s Pi`koi Building recently, having a conversation about the debris field arriving from the Japan tsunami—when I noticed that one of the pieces of artwork on the wall had been “painted” in marine debris.

At one show, I was impressed by art rendered in the form of a modern Hawaiian-style basalt adz—an artistic combination of working in wood (the handle), working in stone (the blade) and working in fiber (the cordage that lashed it together.)

Nearby was a large, glossy, turned wooden bowl.

You could argue that those are craft rather than art, but shucks, I’d hang them on my wall. Is a fine canoe paddle hung on one wall less artistic than a framed pressed flower on another, or a watercolor on a third?

Art’s like that. It’s hard to define, and the very act of trying to define it can diminish it.

It’s like, perhaps, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s 1964 statement on obscenity: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced . . . and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.”

When the artist Christo stretched a curtain of orange fabric across a valley in the Rocky Mountains, was that art? When someone takes chunks of fencing, and nuts and bolts and car parts, and creates a rusty thing in the shape of a horse, is that art?

When a street person paints herself silver and acts like a robot while soliciting donations, is that art? When an accomplished hula dancer glides onto the stage, with liquid fingers and rolling hips, is that art?

And if music is art, and food (culinary art), and landscapes, and pottery, then what isn’t?

Andy Warhol in 1962 helped create a new form of art—pop art—with his 32 Campbell’s Soup cans. Some folks still have a problem with images of soup cans as art, but oddly, since the soup cans were paint-on-canvas, they suit traditional definitions of art more than a lot of other things that get the title.

And yet, it can be uplifting to see what another human brain can do with bits of driftwood, colored wire, scraps of old fishing net, seeds and branches, and, yes, oil and acrylic paint.

Art, ultimately is not only something you know when you see it, it’s also where you find it.

Among my favorite venues, and I recommend them highly to anyone who hasn’t been, are the Kaua`i Society of Artists shows, which are at Kukui Grove Center. As this is written, the small works show is up, to be followed early in the new year by the society member show.

You can also wander the art nights in Hanapepe on Friday nights and first Saturdays of the month in Kapa`a — and of course, the many galleries in virtually every town on the island on any day.

Jan TenBruggencate

Jan TenBruggencate

Jan TenBruggencate is a beekeeper, an author and the former science writer for The Honolulu Advertiser. He operates a communications company, Island Strategy LLC. He serves on the board of the Kaua’i Island Utility Cooperative and on the County Charter Review Commission.