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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Her eyes burning brightly, Pele’s fiery nature is conveyed in “Pele, Goddess of Volcanoes.” Chosen in 1984 as a Living Treasure of Hawaii.

He was born, not on the Big Island, but in the small Midwestern town of Marshfield, Minn.

“My father grew up in Waipio Valley,” he says. “He had a map of the United States, and he decided he would see all 48 states. There were only 48 then. He ended up in Detroit, and worked at the Ford Motor Co. long enough to become an auto mechanic, and he’d go from town to town, working that trade.”

One of those towns was Marshfield. There Herb Kane the elder met and married a farmer’s daughter, Dorothy Hansen. Their son split his childhood between Marshfield and the Big Island.

“I lived in both worlds,” he says, recalling trips to Hilo, learning to sail, fishing for aama crabs, shivering in a boat off Kona when the cold land breeze came off Mauna Kea.

Although he didn’t quite want to say so, Marshfield was essentially his home. That’s where he delivered newspapers in the chill Midwestern winters and sold suits to farmers in the town’s clothing store.

The Midwest almost claimed him, another Hawaiian lost to the diaspora. After a stint in the Navy, he earned a masters’ at the Art Institute of Chicago (which gave him an honorary doctorate in 2008), and settled into a 14-year career as an illustrator and advertising artist. “Anything to keep the brush moving,” as he put it.

It was the Hawaiian sailing canoe that brought him back.

Still in Chicago, doing illustrations of the Jolly Green Giant for commercial clients, he sailed his racing catamaran in Lake Michigan. He became fascinated—“obsessed, really,” he says—with the canoes of Hawaii and Polynesia, researching and doing 14 detailed paintings.

In 1969, Alfred Preis, the architect of the Arizona Memorial and the first executive director of the Hawaii State Foundation of Culture and the Arts, saw them and bought them all.

“That purchase enabled me to move back,” says Kane. “I immediately started proselytizing about building a replica of a Hawaiian voyaging canoe.”

Through his research, Kane had become convinced that the canoe was the “central technology” of the Pacific, that the Polynesians were capable of long sea voyages.

“That notion at the time was controversial,” says Kane. It wasn’t even that; scholarly opinion tended to dismiss it entirely.

In 1973, with Ben Finney, Kane founded the Polynesian Voyaging Society. “It was an experiment, because we didn’t know if it was possible to build a replica or sail it, didn’t know yet the navigation system.”

Kane designed and helped build Hokulea. He was its first skipper from 1973 to 1975, taking the canoe on shakedown cruises around the Islands. “It got a tremendous response among Hawaiians wherever we sailed,” he recalls.

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Honolulu Magazine November 2018
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