The artist whose images launched thousands (and thousands) of words

Anyone who has ever visited the King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel at the north end of Kona’s Kailua Bay or the Royal Kona Resort at the bay’s south end is familiar with the paintings of Herb Kawainui Kāne. For that matter, so are visitors to any number of resorts throughout the Islands (and in one instance, even a Burger King). Kāne, who died in 2011, is the unparalleled visual chronicler of ancient Hawaii.

Herb Kāne’s painting of Kamehameha landing at Oahu in 1795 graces the cover of my novel about old Hawaii, Once There Was Fire. I chose it (and licensed it from the late artist’s estate) because of its powerfully vivid evocation of the novel’s story and era. Then I worried about whether the book would live up to the cover’s promise.

During numerous visits to Hawaii, I visited many of the places I write about in Once There Was Fire.  On the Big Island, I’ve been to the Ahu’ena Heiau and Hulihe’e Palace in Kailua-Kona, the Pu’ukoloa Heiau and Pu’uhonua o Honaunau national historic sites in the Kohala and Kona districts, respectively, the Kilauwea caldera at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in the Ka’u District, Waipi’o Valley, Waimea, and Hilo. I’ve seen the sandy, red mouth of Kaua’i’s Waimea River, where Cook made his first “Sandwich Islands” landfall in 1778. I’ve been to the Nu’uanu Pali Lookout on O’ahu, where Kamehameha the Great drove hundreds of enemy warriors over the edge of the cliff to their deaths in 1795. I’ve explored Maui’s ‘Iao Valley, the scene of another horrific battle during Kamehameha’s wars. Visiting these places helped me describe them in my book. I was able to visualize the people who lived in them more than 200 years ago thanks to Herb Kāne’s images.

I consulted Kāne’s book, Ancient Hawai’i (Kawainui Press, 1997), frequently for visual references. This slim, 109-page volume is a virtual time machine. Herb Kāne’s images bring ancient Hawai’i’s oral history to life. When I wanted to know some detail about how the old Hawaiians dressed, farmed, fished, cooked, played, fought, built their houses, or constructed their sail canoes, I turned to Kāne’s images and his accompanying text for guidance. When I wrote about the Hawaiians’ initial encounters with Capt. Cook, I studied his painting of Cook’s arrival at Kealakekua Bay, in which the old Hawaiians’ excitement fairly jumps off the page.

I researched my book as I wrote it, consulting near-contemporaneous and later histories, a number of them pretty dry and mostly lacking in description. Herb Kāne’s images distilled the thousands of words I read in these gray texts into vivid pictures that I could see in my mind as I wrote, recycling them into the thousands of words of my own text, which I hope is less gray as a result.

Herb Kāne’s pictures being worth more words than most writers could produce in a lifetime, and certainly more than I could ever write to do justice to them, I’ll leave you with this link to the artist’s website. Explore and enjoy!

Mahalo, Herb!

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