Kailua sculptor Henrik Van Ryzin creates nouveau tiki art that’s idolized by collectors.
Two dogs pad through an airy studio in the back of an old Kailua house. Buddy and Marzipan seem unaware that they have crossed onto VanTiki Island, a territory known for treacherous beaches, spooky catacombs and enormous, tutti-frutti-flavored squid. Will the cannibals get to the dogs first, or will it be the crazy doctor practicing his trepanning surgeries?
Luckily for the pooches, VanTiki Island exists only in the mind of their creative owner, artist Henrik Van Ryzin. Van Ryzin envisions his fantastical island as the home of his art; by day, he’s an animator and illustrator, in off-hours, he’s an explorer in the wacky, magical world of tiki mugs.
But if you’re envisioning a cheapie $4 mug from a tourist trap, you’re wrong. Van Ryzin’s mugs are intricate grotesques, each hand-made and taking weeks to produce. And they have sold for as much as $1,400. Each.
Born and raised in the Kailua area, Van Ryzin headed to the Mainland for college and then worked in Hollywood as a special-effects artist. “I always loved monsters, movies, costumes and drawing.”
Van Ryzin worked “on a handful of good movies and a zillion bad ones.” The good ones include The Big Lebowski and Men in Black. While he was usually behind the scenes, he was occasionally drafted to appear on camera. “I wore a lot of monster suits. I was a vampire in From Dusk to Dawn. I played a bear in a bunch of Disney movies.”
After moving back to Hawai‘i with his wife, Denise, Van Ryzin had an epiphany. “I went to a Don Tiki concert at the Hawaiian Hut. I still have the tiki mug my mai tai came in that night.” Holding it, he says, he realized a tiki mug “is not just a vessel for holding a fruity drink. It’s a transporter that takes you to a different place and time.”
The next day, though he’d usually sculpted with bronze and hadn’t ever studied ceramics, he went to a ceramic studio and made a clay tiki mug. Four years after he began selling his earliest creations, his work has become highly desired by collectors of tiki art.
“Tiki is Polynesian Pop,” he explains. “It’s pop art meets exotica and retro sci-fi. It’s not traditional art.”
Van Ryzin’s mugs push the boundaries even of tiki. “The Terrifying Tooty Ku,” for example, has a hidden flute.
A true wooden tiki “has something about it,” says Van Ryzin. “It’s one-of-a-kind. You know the artist touched it.” This rough-hewn aesthetic obviously appeals to him, though, he notes, “There are so many variables in clay. I try to accept that I can’t control the outcome.”
The inhabitants of VanTiki island would undoubtedly approve.