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Dana Paresa: Why I Left Hawaii

Guess what? Another promising Honolulu artist moved to Portland, Ore. What gives?


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Illustrations: Dana Paresa

By age 26, illustrator Dana Paresa achieved the kind of success many Hawaii artists strive for: two solo gallery shows and a steady stream of magazine freelance assignments and events work.  A local art museum approached her for a project. And, just before she moved to Portland, she got an offer to teach art to high school students.

This Kamehameha Schools graduate had earned the appreciation of a tight clique of critically and financially successful Hawaiian contemporary artists. Yet even with this group—whose support and connections have linked artists to affluent art supporters—she left Hawaii for Oregon. Was this one more case of brain drain?


PORTLAND, Ore.—Moving to Portland was just an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. I had friends here who’d worked together a lot in Hawaii, and there was a room that was open in a house. I kind of went with my gut and bought a ticket. After my friend DB Amorin moved here, I found it hard to find a collaborative art partner in Hawaii. I thought it would be good to move back in with him so we could feed off each other, that it would benefit my work.

I was afraid I was going to get stuck in Hawaii. I was in my mid-20s. There’s a certain point where trying to start your life over again becomes harder, like it stops being the right time. I want to live on my own.

Whenever I got the idea in my head, it was like, I have to do it. In the beginning of last year, I really took the reins, doing illustrations seriously. Learning how to do inking with a brush.

It’s no secret that I doubt myself. A lot of the shows and jobs I got were through people who know me, and that felt, in a way, like nepotism. For example, my first job at Ben Franklin came from a woman there who knew my uncle when he was a kid. My two solo shows came about at the gallery that was connected to the coffee shop where I worked.

Pretty much everything I got came through people I knew. While I like to think their appreciation of my work was sincere, part of me was unsure if I deserved those opportunities. There are a lot of really great artists in Hawaii who also deserve the same type of opportunity. Maybe the circumstances weren’t in their favor, or they didn’t get the exposure because their best friend wasn’t an editor at Honolulu Weekly. (That was how I got my first print illustration job.)  The who-you-know factor made some of these advances in my career seem less sweet.

Now, I’m in a different place, and it feels like the geographic distance gives me the space I need to be judged on the merit of my work. That this move can finally satisfy my question of, “Am I really good at this?” Or “Should I do something else entirely as a career?” This is the point where I’m trying to decide what I want to do.

It’s different when I hear feedback on my work from somebody I don’t know at all, and they’re not trying to be nice to me. I want the truth. You never get an honest assessment in Hawaii because the community is too small. Your friends don’t want to hurt your feelings. Critique in Hawaii? How can you have true criticism when everybody knows everybody? Nobody wants to step on each other’s toes. Have you read a bad art review in Hawaii? No? That is crazy and implies that everything is good, which is impossible. Every art show can’t be good, or deep, or conceptually sound. That doesn’t work, because if everything is good, nothing is good.

It’s even worse when you get praise from somebody you really look up to, and then you learn that they like everybody. That they don’t say that anybody else sucks. In the most general sense, there’s no winning in Hawaii, because everybody wins. It’s great for building your confidence in the beginning. But after a while it starts to feel hollow to keep seeking the same pat on the back. You can’t grow if no one is telling you what you should work on.

I’m not saying that Hawaii isn’t challenging enough. But it got to the point in my professional career where I didn’t have anywhere else to grow. For an illustrator in Hawaii, getting printed in the top local magazines marks a major milestone. But where to after that?

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Honolulu Magazine July 2020
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