Dana Paresa: Why I Left Hawaii

Guess what? Another promising Honolulu artist moved to Portland, Ore. What gives?

Illustrations: Dana Paresa

By age 26, illustrator Dana Paresa achieved the kind of success many Hawaii artists strive for: two solo gallery shows and a steady stream of magazine freelance assignments and events work.  A local art museum approached her for a project. And, just before she moved to Portland, she got an offer to teach art to high school students.

This Kamehameha Schools graduate had earned the appreciation of a tight clique of critically and financially successful Hawaiian contemporary artists. Yet even with this group—whose support and connections have linked artists to affluent art supporters—she left Hawaii for Oregon. Was this one more case of brain drain?

PORTLAND, Ore.—Moving to Portland was just an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. I had friends here who’d worked together a lot in Hawaii, and there was a room that was open in a house. I kind of went with my gut and bought a ticket. After my friend DB Amorin moved here, I found it hard to find a collaborative art partner in Hawaii. I thought it would be good to move back in with him so we could feed off each other, that it would benefit my work.

I was afraid I was going to get stuck in Hawaii. I was in my mid-20s. There’s a certain point where trying to start your life over again becomes harder, like it stops being the right time. I want to live on my own.

Whenever I got the idea in my head, it was like, I have to do it. In the beginning of last year, I really took the reins, doing illustrations seriously. Learning how to do inking with a brush.

It’s no secret that I doubt myself. A lot of the shows and jobs I got were through people who know me, and that felt, in a way, like nepotism. For example, my first job at Ben Franklin came from a woman there who knew my uncle when he was a kid. My two solo shows came about at the gallery that was connected to the coffee shop where I worked.

Pretty much everything I got came through people I knew. While I like to think their appreciation of my work was sincere, part of me was unsure if I deserved those opportunities. There are a lot of really great artists in Hawaii who also deserve the same type of opportunity. Maybe the circumstances weren’t in their favor, or they didn’t get the exposure because their best friend wasn’t an editor at Honolulu Weekly. (That was how I got my first print illustration job.)  The who-you-know factor made some of these advances in my career seem less sweet.

Now, I’m in a different place, and it feels like the geographic distance gives me the space I need to be judged on the merit of my work. That this move can finally satisfy my question of, “Am I really good at this?” Or “Should I do something else entirely as a career?” This is the point where I’m trying to decide what I want to do.

It’s different when I hear feedback on my work from somebody I don’t know at all, and they’re not trying to be nice to me. I want the truth. You never get an honest assessment in Hawaii because the community is too small. Your friends don’t want to hurt your feelings. Critique in Hawaii? How can you have true criticism when everybody knows everybody? Nobody wants to step on each other’s toes. Have you read a bad art review in Hawaii? No? That is crazy and implies that everything is good, which is impossible. Every art show can’t be good, or deep, or conceptually sound. That doesn’t work, because if everything is good, nothing is good.

It’s even worse when you get praise from somebody you really look up to, and then you learn that they like everybody. That they don’t say that anybody else sucks. In the most general sense, there’s no winning in Hawaii, because everybody wins. It’s great for building your confidence in the beginning. But after a while it starts to feel hollow to keep seeking the same pat on the back. You can’t grow if no one is telling you what you should work on.

I’m not saying that Hawaii isn’t challenging enough. But it got to the point in my professional career where I didn’t have anywhere else to grow. For an illustrator in Hawaii, getting printed in the top local magazines marks a major milestone. But where to after that?


Illustrations: Dana Paresa

Portland just suits my personality better. Hawaii offered a nice little market for my kind of work, but now I’m submerged in a bigger arts scene where I’m one of many. Artists are a dime a dozen here. That feels cool, because I have to try harder. It’s motivating. It’s great to be surrounded by all these people who have similar goals. There are a lot of people who truly believe they’re going to be artists. In Hawaii, so many people feel it’s impossible to be a working artist because there aren’t a lot of galleries in Hawaii to show. I don’t even know if those galleries try to seek out different people. I’m talking about opportunities for artists in general rather than the feeling that people always pick people they already know.

Hawaii offers a very warm embrace—in keeping with the tradition of the Hawaiian community values of protecting each other. I’m not embarrassed about being Hawaiian. In fact, I’m very proud of my heritage. But I don’t want it to be the reason I’m successful. I want my artwork to be judged on the work, because I’m good at what I do. Who I am personally should matter a lot less, if at all.

Dana Paresa’s illustrations, exhibited at ii Gallery last year.

I don’t know if I got those shows at ii Gallery because I worked at R/D, or because I’m Hawaiian. But that felt like a double whammy of: She’s right here anyway; let’s give her a show. The first-time offer was presented as, “We have a hole; do you want to fill it for a two-week show?” I love that I was given the opportunity, especially the first time. The second time, I felt bad, because it’s just a great space and I wished other people could have had that opportunity.

I think my plan of action in a place with so many art jobs, is keep doing what I did in Hawaii: working on my art, expanding and experimenting with my own stuff. One of the cool things about Portland is that materials are cheap and there are a lot of places to share your work: a comic-book shop where you can sell your zines, venues that will do whatever you want. There’s truly something for everybody.

I don’t think people should be offended when somebody leaves Hawaii, because it totally makes sense to leave. Even King Kalakaua was the first Hawaiian king to go to Washington. It’s okay to leave home and see the world.

You could live a full life by staying in one place, but it’s not the path that I want to take. I want to see what I studied in art history. I’m a visual person, so I need to be in certain places in order to experience them.
Since I want to do national work—that’s my ultimate goal—I don’t think that I could expand into it unless I move beyond hometown magazines. If I work in other states, such as for Portland magazines, it can lead me to different places and challenges.

In Hawaii, I worked with and for people I knew personally. In Oregon, I have the opportunity to work with art directors I’ve never met. Doing illustrations for national magazines has been my goal for a while, and I’m working toward that. I don’t want to work in a coffee shop anymore, because I often lost my focus. In Portland, I can afford to work from home, doing only illustration—actually afford to live in my own place, while practicing and pushing myself. That was impossible for me to do in Hawaii.

Hawaii does have its moments. For example, at the end of last year, Wei Fang wanted to do a show at R/D in Kakaako, bringing in Raymond Pettibon’s punk album cover art. I thought that was awesome. Totally opened my eyes. It was to have been this huge wall of illustrations. Unfortunately, funding wasn’t available to ship it all over.

But studying Pettibon’s work during that time led me to look at inking illustration as a medium. I thought I should learn how to do that. It’s interesting, striking and something I could do in my own work. So I looked up Stan Lee’s “How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way” on YouTube. Yes! I learned how to ink from Stan Lee and bought the brush suggested on YouTube. I practiced at home a lot and taught myself how to work with Adobe Illustrator, how to get it to look how I wanted it to, while still making people like that style. I started getting jobs, and everything just worked out. Portland is teaching me, exposing me to other new things.

I might move back at some point even if I succeed in working for a national publication. If I got a job with a magazine such as The New Yorker, I could work in and from Hawaii and just send work over online. Right now, I’m on the cusp of something, so I can go either way, and follow where the work takes me.

I hope to see expanding opportunities in Hawaii for creative artists because Hawaii could be a destination for arts and culture. Nobody should ever feel like they’re in a rut in Hawaii. I don’t think that staying in Hawaii forever is the wrong or right thing to do; leaving was just the best thing for me.