Quote Unquote: You Can Now Find Hawai‘i Artist Mark Chai’s Designs in New York City
Since the early 1990s, the Hawaiian-Chinese UH Mānoa art school graduate has been creating sculptures and lamps from wood as well as recycled cardboard, X-ray film boxes and other discarded materials from his day job at The Queen’s Medical Center.
This heliconia loop sculpture, designed by Hawai‘i artist Mark Chai, was commissioned as part of the Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawai‘i exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden. This project is different for Chai because fabricators in New York built the large metal sculpture based on his drawings, while he usually does his own work in wood or plastics. “It’s otherworldly, almost like an alien star,” Chai says. The sculpture and 12 of Chai’s lamps inspired by local plants are part of the Hawai‘i exhibit popping up in the Bronx through Oct. 29.
photo: courtesy of the new york botanical garden
Hawai‘i artist Mark Chai often finds inspiration in the curves of nature. Since the early 1990s, the Hawaiian-Chinese UH Mānoa art school graduate has been creating sculptures and lamps from wood as well as recycled cardboard, X-ray film boxes and other discarded materials from his day job at The Queen’s Medical Center. His latest work is popping up in New York.
Mark Chai with his lamp version of the kukui nut.
Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino
I’m a maker. I started making model airplanes, making simple wood carvings, trying to make my own surfboards when I was in high school.
I think my sense of craftsmanship may have developed when I was really young and we were living in Japan. We were in a military housing complex and I was watching these Japanese craftsmen. They didn’t use any nails to put this fence together. They cut and chiseled everything and it all fit together.
I really liked curves and spheres. One of the people who really helped shape my thinking was Buckminster Fuller. It was so cool he built these giant domes. I actually … met him at the Hilton Hawaiian dome, which he had designed.
One of the pieces that really caught my imagination was this piece that Picasso did of a bull. He took a bicycle seat and the handlebars and he made this bull’s head. Something so simple but brilliant. I started thinking in those terms, looking at things that were designed for one purpose yet you could see something else.
The first recycled thing [I made] of an everyday object was in one of my first foundation art studio classes. I got these plastic cups and glued them all together to create a sphere.
[The New York Botanical Garden commission was to] create an art installation inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe. They kept using the word “monumental” and they showed me the work of the guest artist before me. It was [renowned glass blower] Dale Chihuly. It was daunting and exciting at the same time.
I did lamp versions of hala, pandanus; ‘awapuhi or shampoo ginger; mountain apple or ‘ōhi‘a ‘ai; ‘ulu, breadfruit; ipu, gourd; and the kukui nut. They had to be translated and created as lamps.
“It’s really funny that you’re not really an artist until Disney picks you up.”
I have three pieces at Disney Aulani. They came to me because they said, we really want a Hawaiian artist that’s making stuff out of modern-day recycled materials. I ended up making a hōlua sled, a kōnane game board and a kite.
My fantasy project, something I’ve actually wanted to do for the longest time, would be to create one of my lamp pieces that would be so big you can walk through it.
I have work in Ed Kenney’s Town restaurant and Kaimukī Superette. One of my friends was joking with me: “You’ve got art in all these places on Wai‘alae, we might as well just call it Chai-mukī.”
Mark Chai’s first public art installation was a giant cardboard coffee cup he made in 1995 for Coffee Talk in Kaimukī. It’s still there. See more of Chai’s work at markchaiarts.com.