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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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Kane is shown with his wife, Deon.

Photo: David Croxford

Hokulea has since logged more than 100,000 miles across the open ocean. It wasn’t just a proof of concept; Hokulea become the central symbol of the Hawaiian Renaissance.

“It succeeded beyond my hopes,” says Kane. “Not just the canoe, but the whole culture that grew up around it. I think there are 56 songs about Hokulea.”

At the same time, Hawaiian culture became the driving force behind his paint brush. His career as a painter of Hawaiian antiquity took off, as well as a career as an architectural designer of resorts and history centers.

His achievements in Hawaii are so well known we didn’t much talk about them: three illustrated books: Pele, Goddess of Hawaii’s Volcanoes (1987), Voyagers (1991), Ancient Hawaii (1998); seven U.S. postage stamps, including the stamp commemorating 50 years of Hawaii’s statehood in 2009; a stream of paintings that seldom saw an art gallery because they were purchased before they were finished in Kane’s studio.

The night before, we had seen a new, highly respectful, koa-framed exhibition of 40 of Kane’s prints. It stretched down a long hallway in the lobby of the Kailua-Kona’s King Kamehameha Hotel, and was so powerful in its cumulative impact that you seemed to breathe the same air as Kamehameha, who, after all, had retired to a shoreside hale about 100 yards away.

Kane had a copy of one print on his own wall, of Cook sailing for the first time into Kealakekua Bay, surrounded by canoes of Hawaiians. Kane had, of course, studied canoes for decades, and obtained admiralty drawings and historic accounts of Cook’s ships. You took it for granted that every line on the sailing ships, every lashing on the canoes, was as accurate as Kane could make it.

What struck me this time, however, were the faces. They were all different, expressive. “The ships are from history,” says Kane. “The faces are from life. They are friends, neighbors, people I know. You need life in a painting.”

We toured his studio, though he wouldn’t let us take his picture with the large canvas he was working on, saying, “Not till it’s finished.”

He then took us room to room in his small, but beautifully appointed house, including the annex he’d built for his wife, Deon, and the garden, with ingenious floating sculpture of Pele’s sister, Namaka, made largely of Styrofoam, though it looked like stone.

When Kane died, his website was filled with dozens of tributes, from as far away as Switzerland:

“A great man.”

“A fantastic visionary who enjoyed the fruits of his visions within his lifetime.”

“He has set the bar for excellence for all artists in Hawaii that strive to depict Hawaiian culture accurately and with integrity.”

“A true Renaissance man in the footsteps of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo: a man who was ahead of his peers, who excelled at many things.”

“You were a mighty man, Herb Kane, and one of the gentlest of souls who walked these plains.”

That sunny morning in Kona, he seemed so alive and full of spirit that we gave no thought to losing him.

As he walked us to our rental car, all we said was, “Goodbye. Thank you for everything.”

For more information on Herb Kane’s artwork or to purchase a print, visit herbkanestudio.com.


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