Swipe Right for Art: This New App Lets You Experience Honolulu Through Artists’ Eyes

The Art World Escape app lets you select interactive, one-off experiences with local artists as they paint, dance, sculpt and create. In some, you’ll be able to take photos, take part in the creative process or lend your body as a canvas.
Tommy Hite painting Chinatown
Photos: David Croxford


Fronting for artists is in Paige Donnelly’s blood. The job that got her to Hawai‘i was running the artist residency program at Doris Duke’s Shangri La, Museum of Islamic Art, Culture and Design. “As the daughter of two foreign correspondents, I spent the largest chunks of my childhood in Cairo, Jerusalem and South Africa,” she says. “I was always helping artists with salons.”


Bringing in artists from the Middle East for Shangri La and the recent Honolulu Biennial was what gave her the idea for AWE, the Art World Escape app that matches the curious local or visitor with real live artists in their natural surroundings.


The free app opens to a homepage listing offerings in Honolulu and at least one on the Big Island. “There are studio visits, walking tours, art-making such as helping to create large installations,” she says.


Recent tours included taking a downtown photography walk with social realist painter Tommy Hite; joining painter and performance artist Hadley Nunes in a combination flower arranging, painting and tea ceremony; and watching body artist Jocelyn Kapumealani Ng transform herself into a human canvas (and then trying it yourself).   


There are competitors out there, including Airbnb Experiences, but, Donnelly says, “they curate what they feel are local experiences, and it makes locals feel like they’re plug and play, replaceable. We’re really about helping the individuals, elevating the artist,” with exposure and, of course, income. The AWE app takes a 10 percent cut of the total price (from $17 to $170), 3 percent of which covers credit card fees; the rest goes to artists. Galleries and agents normally take between 40 and 70 percent.


The AWE app is available on both iOS and Android platforms and currently draws from about 20 artists. Users can click on photos, descriptions, a calendar for availability and costs. With enough success, Donnelly hopes to expand to cities in other states.   


“Artists have been exploited left and right,” she says. “This is a way to get money into their pockets.”


Download the app at artworldescape.com.


We Tried This: Art World Escape

Tommy Hite


THE EXPERIENCE: Looking at Chinatown Through Social Realist Painter Tommy Hite’s Eyes

LENGTH: 90 Minutes

TIME: 9–10:30 a.m.

COST: $30 a person


Chinatown at 8:50 in the morning is a different world from the one I’m familiar with. My office is deep underground beneath Bishop and Hotel streets; I usually go topside around lunchtime and if I wander ‘Ewa into Chinatown the place is already bright, hot, often crowded, smelly and all-too-familiar.


But in the crisp cool shaded morning hour as I walk toward River Street with painter Tommy Hite, the sidewalks are still rolled up, as they say in Westerns. We can swing along without brushing by a soul on pavements freshly washed down, watching storefronts stir to life. As we pass, proprietors unlock doors, deliverymen wait at the curb: Everyone’s in a good mood, nobody’s in a hurry.  


A wiry young man with close-cropped hair, Hite is wearing black jeans, black Nikes and a white T-shirt unadorned with decoration except for a discreet logo of a beat-up traffic safety cone. It’s almost like the self-defined social realist painter treats himself as a blank canvas. Certainly, this describes how he seems to see his neighborhood. As he leads us off in a quick loping stride, his eyes are alert for the scenes that inform his art—which he, in turn, describes to us.


Seeing Chinatown through his eyes, we ramble from Hotel Street to River Street. He takes out his cracked phone and pulls up a photo of an impressive painting: a very important-looking gray-bearded gentleman in a red robe, posed in the manner of the Dutch portraitists, Vermeer and Rembrandt. Over one shoulder he carries a green palm frond. “That’s to represent Hawai‘i, the tropics,” Hite says. Atop his head is a red and yellow conical hat that, on second look, is an empty movie-sized box of popcorn. That, says Hite, is a “touch of magic realism.”


With that in mind we follow Hite up River Street, listening as he gestures at faded signs, architectural filigree, graffiti, a bowl of saimin noodles left steaming on the curb—all sources of ideas, compositions, subjects. We pause at the statue of Sun Yat-sen holding a book and looking toward China. At Hite’s nudge we notice a group of Chinese men reading newspapers and chatting—sitting as if at a counter, only their seats are those of Biki bikes locked in their stalls. Further down, a group of 40 or so people are (possibly) betting on what looks like games of dai di.


We see through Hite’s eyes, but he isn’t a tour guide in the traditional sense. He doesn’t fill every silence with commentary. And there’s a lot of silence. Artists observe, after all. And observing an artist in his zone is actually quite interesting. Even more refreshing, in this day of relentless personal branding, is how he doesn’t promote himself, sell anything or put on an artist’s persona like a bright red robe. 


On the other hand, if I want to know what he feels about something we pass, I find it easy to ask him outright. His way of thinking, his mental process, is informed by years of careful contemplation about art; although a recent graduate of the University of Hawai‘i, his appraisals and examples span centuries. He relates them in the casual style another guy of his age might use discussing video games.


By the time we reach the intersection of Pauahi and River streets it’s already clear that this is no ordinary point-and-shoot experience. Hite pulls out a set of postcards. These, it turns out, are miniatures of paintings he’s done around Chinatown, where he works both as a painter and a barista.


He passes out the first. What we’re looking at is a painting of our view, from exactly where we’re standing. It’s immediately clear that Hite is a capable draftsman who applies a restrained, almost delicate brush when it comes to color. The result is impressively true to the Chinatown we know—its faded glory and brash new life, an incongruous mix of old and new, fresh and decrepit.


But a social realist is not the same as a representative painter—one who faithfully reproduces a scene in paint. Hite’s paintings go further than reality will take the eye, into that magic realism. Amid the buildings and streets rendered in scrupulous detail the postcard reproduction has one jolting anomaly, also painted with impeccable technique: a large red, shaggy banana tree in the middle of the intersection.


“It’s playing with a reverse effect,” he explains, “the idea of putting a tropical bush smack dab in the middle of the street, where nobody expects it, putting the nature into the middle of the city, instead of planting a city in the middle of nature, like Waikīkī.”


Our tour winds around several more corners, and we hold up another postcard to see how well he’s captured reality only to subvert it, and not subtly, either. Then, as promised in the AWE app description, Hite takes us into the interior of an artist’s warren of studios inside a nondescript building. Mounting the steep stairs, we traverse an exterior second floor balcony on the inside of a courtyard and climb another set of stairs. We enter a kind of storeroom, dark and crammed with paintings, stacked with objects and half-finished sculpture. Then we notice, behind a gauzy curtain, the lurking form of a well-known Island artist rapt in concentration.


We don’t want to disturb him, so we ascend a circular wrought-iron staircase that corkscrews up to another floor. Here is an artist’s studio worthy of the name: bare brick walls, slanted roof appropriate to a Parisian garret and, best of all, a row of Hite’s largest canvases lined up one after the other.

  Tommy Hite


The barest of them all is a simple pale rendition of a typical Chinatown intersection with a traffic safety cone in the center of the street. On second glance, the cone reveals itself to be a wizard’s hat. A third glance, this time at Hite’s T-shirt, matches the cone to the logo on the shirt. “Yours?” we ask. He nods. No sales pitch follows.


But I want that shirt.


Tommy Hite—remember the name. And take the tour. In New York, you’d count yourself lucky at 10 times the price.