Kailua: Portrait of a Place
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By Tamara Moan
Once you start poking around, you realize Kailua is chock full of artists. They have workshops in every neighborhood, and their designs and artwork pop up not just in local storefronts, but on the national art scene as well. So why is Kailua such a beacon for the artistically inclined? For many, it’s Kailua’s physical setting, but for just as many it’s the town’s charm and friendliness. Its relaxed pace also offers fewer distractions than other places, with plenty of space for creative work, too. Let’s meet some of Kailua’s most talented residents.
Mark Chai’s garage workshop is a hop away from Kailua Beach. The salt-scented air and the sound of the surf permeate the place, which is filled with a jumble of thick plastic sheeting, reinforced corrugated cardboard, PVC pipe and X-ray film bags. Chai’s co-workers at The Queen’s Medical Center save cast-off materials for him, from heavy plastic containers that he heats and reshapes into tables, to PVC boards that he drills and cuts with a jigsaw into interlocking curled forms to create ceiling lights.
From the inorganic materials, Chai creates organic shapes inspired by the ocean. “I like curves and waves,” he says, “and I’ve always been fascinated by being in the water. The curves resurfaced in my work after I moved back to Kailua in 2003.”
Born and raised in Kailua, Chai spent 25 years living in Honolulu, where his work space was limited to his apartment’s living room or kitchen table. Away from Honolulu’s hubbub, he devotes more time to his art, contentedly spending whole days in his workshop. “It’s a different sort of life, living in Kailua. It’s gotten more simplified for me. I like the kind of beach-town feel Kailua has,” Chai adds. “If you’re a water person, getting out in Kailua Bay or Lanikai makes so much difference to your well-being.”
Painter Paul Levitt landed in Kailua from New York City, moving to his wife’s hometown in 1997. Levitt calls Kailua “the Hamptons of Hawaii.”
For Levitt the biggest change wasn’t the physical differences, but giving up friendships and connections. He says, “Kailua has a good atmosphere and a good feeling in the sense of spirit. There are certain places on the planet that have a certain energy. Kailua’s is from the natural configuration of the beautiful bay.”
As an abstract painter, Levitt is slow to admit Kailua has seeped into his work. “You’re porous and you absorb your surroundings. My job as an artist is to not be obvious about it.” But as he talks, it’s clear his physical environment has opened up new insights. “One thing we have here is very strong shadows,” he says. “I find them as interesting or more interesting than the objects. And I’m much more aware of plants and nature. I paint orchids now and I never thought I’d do that.”
Levitt’s content in his adopted home. “A New York friend commented that I’m so isolated from my past out here in Kailua, but I don’t know that that makes a difference,” he says. “There’s no doubt this place feels very special.”
Chalky footprints lead around the side of Esther Shimazu’s house to her ceramics studio, cluttered with bags of clay, glaze jars, brushes and clay tools. Shimazu lives with her sister, Donna, a certified master goldsmith, and they fondly refer to their home as the Shimazu Maiden Ladies’ Hobby Center. The sisters bought their house, tucked up under Mount Olomana, in 1989. Manoa and Makiki were no longer affordable. Shimazu prefers Kailua’s climate and likes the proximity to Honolulu. “It’s not the city, but it’s near enough you can pop in and out,” she says.
Before moving, Shimazu had only vague memories of Kailua. “Growing up we came out with my dad to go tilapia fishing in the canal. I thought this was the far reaches.”
Shimzu soon found other Kailua artists. “The first Kailua person I met was [ceramicist] Kay Mura. She used to substitute for my teacher when I was at Roosevelt. She was my ‘in’ to this place. It’s a neat little town,” she says. “It’s small and has some quirky restaurants. I love the library and the farmers’ market. It seems to be a really nicely diverse neighborhood.” Shimazu works alone in her studio most days, creating finely detailed figurative sculpture. “I’m stubborn and just do what I want to do,” she says. “The pottery fat girl thing is something I’ve always needed to do. It gives me a recognizable style. And it’s the one thing in life I do well, so I cling to it.”