Herb Kane: The Last Interview

Just months ago, we had the opportunity to talk with Herb Kane, as powerful an artist as Hawaii has ever produced. We had no idea at the time that the world would soon lose him.

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This work, “Ancient Punaluu, Hawaii Island” was once a 24-foot by 10-foot mural, but was sawed in pieces and stolen in 2005. Artist Herb Kane got his revenge by repainting the work as an easel painting and refining it, turning the thieves’ version into a preliminary sketch.

I had always wanted to meet Herb Kawainui Kane. Kane, who died in March at age 82, was one of the principal figures of the Hawaiian Renaissance, that resurgence of Hawaiian culture that began in the 1970s and culminated in the rebirth of hula, the Hawaiian language, traditional Hawaiian music, Hawaiian voyaging canoes, and a growing sense of Hawaiian social and political identity.

Kane was a Hawaiian Renaissance man, in both senses of the term. When the history of that period is written, he will rank with Eddie Aikau, Gabby Pahinui and Eddie Kamae as one of the prime catalysts of the Hawaiian Renaissance.

He was also a Renaissance man in the more conventional sense of the term.

He was an author and historian, a founder of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, the designer of the Hokulea and its first skipper. Those were things he managed to do on the side, because, above all, he was a painter of vast, sweeping, detailed and colorful renditions of Hawaiian history and legend.

What did ancient Hawaii look like? If we visualize it at all, it’s because of Kane’s meticulous research and his skills with a paint brush.


Photo: David Croxford

Four months before his death, I was planning a trip to the Big Island with photographer David Croxford, primarily to document the traces of Hawaiian history that linger, still alive, just under the touristy surface of the South Kona Coast.

Hawaiian history? South Kona Coast? I decided we had to, absolutely had to, stop and spend a couple of hours with Herb Kane.

We didn’t really need to interview Kane for the story we were working on. It was largely a personal imperative: I just wanted to meet him, would never forgive myself if I blew this opportunity to be in his company, perhaps absorb some small bit of his mana.

I emailed him before we arrived. He replied, “I’ve got a rush job that will take every spare daylight hour for the next two months and have cancelled everything else, but I would like to meet you after all these years.”

We had, in the manner of people who live on different islands, only a telephone and email relationship. We’d talked every now and again, most extensively in 2007.

Thieves had stolen a mural of ancient Punaluu he’d painted for a history center near the Punaluu Black Sand Beach. At one point a tsunami had devastated the center, and it closed, but the mural survived in the vacant building, miraculously untouched.

In the largest art theft of the year, at least in size, thieves with power saws cut the 24-foot-long, 10-foot-high mural into five pieces and removed it. For what purpose, and where they put it, remains unknown.

I loved Kane’s response. He went into his studio and repainted the scene on a 7-foot canvas, improving and refining it. “Now all the thieves have is a preliminary sketch,” he said with a chuckle. “Vengeance is mine.”

I was not sure those phone conversations constituted a real claim on a busy, elderly artist’s time, but Kane was a gracious man: “Come at 9 a.m. That gives us decent morning light before Pele’s smog moves in from the sea on the day breeze.”

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,June

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