A Sneak Peek Inside Honolulu Museum of Art’s Competitive Summer Exhibit

What to expect when a showcase of top Island artists opens in July.

Editor’s Note: Through our partnership with the Honolulu Museum of Art, HONOLULU Magazine publishes a monthly blog written by Lesa Griffith, the museum’s communications director and a talented Hawaii writer on arts, culture and food.


While the holidays were consuming the rest of us, the artists selected for the next Artists of Hawai‘i exhibition have been creating wide-ranging bodies of work, from street photography taken with a digital camera to conceptual art involving water and light.


To start the new year right, we offer this peek behind the scenes of the summer exhibition, which showcases the quality and diversity of art being made in Hawai‘i.


Artists of Hawai‘i, which debuted in 1950 as an annual open-call juried exhibition, has evolved and is now held every two years, but it remains the premier open-call show in the Islands. And the competition is stiffer—where in the past one or two pieces were selected from more than 60 artists just before the exhibition opened, now a handful of artists are chosen nine months in advance and they are tasked with creating something just for Artists of Hawai‘i.


In September, 249 hopeful applicants were winnowed down to seven artists and one art collective for the 61st Artists of Hawai‘iby Honolulu Museum of Art director Stephan Jost, deputy director Allison Wong, and curator of contemporary art James Jensen. On Dec. 16, the three met with the artists, and the artists got to meet each other, in Jost’s office.


Photo: Lesa Griffith 


Jost talked about the upcoming exhibition, offered words of guidance, and had the artists do presentations of their work. For Jost, the artists coming together to meet each other and see each other’s work was critical to the process.


“We hope your work will influence each other,” said Jost. “I can’t name a single important artist who didn’t know other important artists”—even the notoriously unpleasant Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh had each other (for a time).


If people walk into the show’s opening on July 2, and “we see eight solo shows, we will have failed,” Jost concluded.


Photo: Lesa Griffith


As the artists showed projected images of past and current work, they peppered each other with questions about concepts, techniques, and processes. The sharing has begun! 


The artists also revealed just how diverse Hawai‘i’s art community is, from O‘ahu-born-and-raised art scene veteran Maile Yawata to University of Hawai‘i student and New Zealand transplant Lauren Trangmar.


Here’s a look at what’s brewing:


.5ppi Agora.
Image: duncan dempster

Duncan Dempster, representing the printmaking collective .5ppi, revealed that the group will show not just prints, but a video of sequences made from works using a modular print technique members have developed. The collective is currently working on a huge commission in Kaka‘ako, putting up a 1,500-foot-long work on a wall surrounding a building project. .5ppi members print during the week and put up 11- by 15-inch sheets on the weekends.


Oil Tanker Sunset Series: Double.
Image: Alison beste

Alison Beste talked about her fascinating Oil Tanker Sunset series. “What you see is not always what you get,” she said, as she shared her long-exposure images of the ocean horizon from Waikīkī and Kewalo Basin that turn passing tankers into faux sunsets. The works bring to mind so many issues facing Hawai‘i today.


Left: Elisa Chang on the hunt in Waikīkī. Right: One of Chang's works, Untitled #28.
Photos: David Chang, Elisa Chang

Street photographer Elisa Chang, who patrols the sands of Waikīkī a couple times a week with her Sony rx100 II, going from the Honolulu Zoo to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and back, showed visual treasures she has captured in her searches for accidental, awkward beauty.


Ferrous Wheel – Painting.
Image: jesse houlding

Jesse Houlding, who moved to Hawai‘i Island 18 months ago from California, showed video of his “magnet drawing”—the brilliantly named Ferrous Wheel,  and “truck paintings” created by having a shotput roll around on inked paper in the bed of his truck. For Artists of Hawai‘i, he is now working with light and water, filming light reflecting off what he calls a water vortex. Some of the results echo Thomas Wilfred lumias. 


Painting # 714.
Image: akira iha

Painter Akira Iha, who moved from Japan to Maui 30 years ago to windsurf, showed images of his abstract paintings inspired by his tours of Zen temples, teahouses, and historic ruins in Japan and Okinawa.


Sky Burial (detail).
Image: Emily McIlroy

Emily McIlroy, who teaches at the museum’s Art School, talked about how the loss of her twin brother in 2007 created a “new physics” for her. With her life flipped upside down, she made a big move (to Hawai‘i) and found a new direction her large-scale, labor-intensive work that is rooted in her “lifelong connection to nature.” It can take her up to two years to complete a project.


Image: Lauren Trangmar

Lauren Trangmar walked her peers through her Considerate Vandalism series, in which she combined traditional and digital processes to create installations that she put up on the University of Hawai‘i campus walls, such as “Ugh” written in a pretty script in moss—yes, the kind that grows on rocks.


The Man in the Mooncake.
Image: Maile Yawata

And finally Maile Yawata paraded her engaging rogues gallery of characters she creates and places in intriguing stories, like the crew of Chinese pirates she dreamed up and put onto paper. She also creates ceramic figures, builds elaborate sets for them and photographs them, film-like, in dramatic scenes, changing the expressions of their faces with strategic lighting.


Now that we’ve seen what they’ve done, we can’t wait to see what they create over the next six months. Curator of contemporary art James Jensen just finished his first round of studio visits with the artists.


See you at the opening in July!


Lesa Griffith is director of communications at the Honolulu Museum of Art. Born in Honolulu, one of her early seminal art experiences was at the Honolulu Museum of Art, when on a field trip her high school art history teacher pointed out that the ermine cape in Whistler’s Portrait of Lady Meux was not just a cape—it was visual signage leading viewers’ eyes through the painting.