How did you begin making art?

I was born in the Territory of Hawai’i (pre-statehood). As a child, I was interested in cartoons and comic books and I began to draw and write my own comics. I was self-taught and did not have any formal art training. I had an art class in middle school, but did not take any art classes in high school. I did take a community painting class from a local Maui artist, David Warren. I wanted to paint like the science fiction / fantasy artist, Frank Frazetta. Then I discovered underground comix and loved the bizarre humor, psychedelic graphics, and irreverent story lines. After high school, I attended the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, and had no idea what I wanted to major in or do with my life. During my second semester, I took Art 101: Introduction to the Visual Arts, taught by Duane Preble. That course really opened up my mind about the grandness, history, and possibilities in the art world. I took more art classes and graduated with a BFA in studio art. I decided to further my art education and experience and went to Northern Illinois University, where I earned an MA and MFA. In spite of the greater opportunities that the mainland offered, I moved back to Maui to start my career as a visual artist. I knew that I would never survive by selling my art, so I worked at various jobs as a custodian, picture framer, library assistant, and a truck driver, while continuing to produce, develop, and exhibit my work. In 2000, an art instructor position opened up at Maui Community College (now the University of Hawai’i Maui College) where I’m currently a tenured Associate Professor. I feel very fortunate that I have a paying day job that I’m really passionate about, and at the same time, I’m able to create my own work.

I’m curious about the 90’s on Maui–it seems like there was an emerging community of young artists on the island that were fairly experimental. What were these years like for your practice?

To me, there were two major factors that influenced the contemporary visual arts scene on Maui in the 1990’s. The first was the 1994 opening of the Maui Arts and Cultural Center with its spacious, non-commercial, museum-quality, exhibition area. The Kazuma (now Schaefer) International Gallery provided artists with opportunities to experience, produce and exhibit large scale works and installations. One of the early exhibitions of local, contemporary Maui art at the MACC was Twelve x 12, in 1996. Organized by Ben Kikuyama, this was a group show of twelve artists displaying twelve bodies of work. My interactive installation in that show was Book Sale.

The second factor were the contributions of artists who had recently moved to Maui, and in particular, Rich Richardson. I first met Rich when he was the exhibitions director at the Hui No’eau Visual Arts Center. He was very responsive and supportive to new and experimental art. Through Rich, I was able to exhibit and create works like Red Fence and Break Room at the Hui.

Rich also had an ongoing project he called Salon 5, which included a series of art events/happenings held at his residence, a Quonset hut in Haiku. Every so often, Rich would clear out his furnishings, invite artists to create interactive works, and basically have a one night art party. There would be a live band, a pot luck dinner, adult beverages, and lots of participation and merriment. Works like Clothes Line and Paint Your Own Masterpiece were featured on those occasions.

Rich eventually relocated to Honolulu in the late 1990’s (Maui’s loss and Oahu’s gain) and opened a new incarnation of Salon 5 in Chinatown. Rich invited a few of his old Maui friends to participate in some of the initial exhibits at his new space where I displayed Ecole de Paris vs. the New York School, Clothes Rack and other works.

(Side note – Rich soon became the director of The Arts at Marks Garage and he is now recognized as one of the main influential people who helped transform Honolulu’s Chinatown from a seedy, forlorn district into a lively center of cultural and artistic activities.)

On a personal level, I do recall the 1990’s rather fondly. I had a studio in the backyard of our family house in Kahului. I was working at my day job and making art when I could. I didn’t worry about selling or marketing my work, and loved the creative freedom that resulted. I was fortunate in having opportunities to exhibit on Maui and Oahu. I also enjoyed and relished the challenges of interactive installations: the way they pushed me to explore new forms of expression and communication, and how I could involve viewers to experience art and life in reflective, humorous, and hopefully profound ways.

It seems like such a productive time to be working as an artist in the islands. Were artists a bit less serious in those days, allowing for more play and experimentation to occur?

Yes, the 1990’s were definitely more playful and experimental on Maui. Currently, it seems like if you want to do an installation or interactive work at the MACC or the Hui (basically the only two non-commercial art spaces on the island), you need to submit a formal proposal with detailed plans that have to be approved. One recent exception I had was 2014’s Transcendental Infestation at the Honolulu Museum of Art, where I did some preliminary concept studies, but the curator, Jay Jensen, pretty much gave me free rein to do what I wanted once the installation process started.

Red Fence really stood out to me as I was looking through your archive. It’s a really mysterious piece and its materials are so pronounced. On your website you invite “viewers to move to the center of the spiral and undergo physical and visual changes and sensations.”

Red Fence was part of Uncommon Grounds, an invitational exhibit where Rich Richardson challenged artists to make outdoor installations on the Kaluanui Estate at the Hui. Red Fence was inspired by Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and Christo’s Running Fence. I wanted to create an experiential work that viewers could physically move in and out of. Visually, I wanted to contrast the lush green vegetation with the bright red of the construction site fence. Also, psychologically and physically, a construction barrier is usually meant to keep people out, while Red Fence invited them in. I vividly recall installing Red Fence on the day of the opening, it was pouring in Makawao, and it took a friend and myself a couple hours to pound in the stakes and attach the fence. Too bad we didn’t have drones then, I would have loved to have taken aerial photos of the work.

Red Fence, 1996

Something I really like about Red Fence that differs from Smithson and Christo’s large scale works is how accessible and moderately sized it is. Almost anyone could recreate Red Fence in their backyard for a day. It wouldn’t be exactly like your piece, but the result would be similar. Did you create instructions for the piece or did you just follow your intuition?

I had an idea what I wanted to do - no instructions. I started in the center, pounded in stakes, attached the fencing, and worked my way out until running out of fencing material. I don’t remember how much fencing I had - somewhere between 30 to 50 yards.

Many of your installations look almost like classrooms or deconstructed libraries. You also teach regularly at a university. What role does the classroom play in your teaching curriculum? Is it also a site for installation?

As an arts educator, I view my classes as living installations. I believe that meaningful and powerful learning takes place in an active learning environment. The basic framework of each of my courses is centered around it’s Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs), and there are a variety of pedagogical methods I utilize to achieve those outcomes. Also, in a visual arts course, it is so important to incorporate the 4 C’s - communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity into the curriculum.

UH Maui has an open door policy, and the variety of ages and range of skill levels of the students makes each class a challenge. Every student learns in different ways, and by making my classroom an interactive, learning/teaching installation, I’m able to guide them into becoming active participants in their own education. My goal is not to develop artists in particular, but rather to help students become aesthetically aware individuals who are in touch with their creative abilities and will will hopefully function and contribute to our society and culture in productive and meaningful ways.

You have created many murals in libraries and schools on Maui. How do you choose your subject matter and collaborators when working on a mural?

I approach public murals much differently from my personal work. Basically, I’ve been asked by various schools and libraries to paint murals on exterior and interior spaces. Sometimes I get paid for it, but more often I do it for community service (I do enjoy the physicality and technical challenges of making large paintings). When creating a mural for a public space, I feel the imagery should reflect the values and vision of the institution that requested it. So I do a few preliminary studies and ask the administrators and community for feedback and suggestions. That way, I hopefully won’t run into any issues with the design or content (trying to avoid the problem Diego Rivera had with the Rockefeller Center).

I had one such incident at Kamali’i School in Kihei. The school mascot is the pueo, or Hawaiian owl. The principal wanted a kid friendly, cartoon-like bird, which I included in my study and painted on the wall. The PTA wanted a stern, more realistic looking owl. I ended up repainting the pueo, as the PTA funded the project.

As for collaborators, it depends on the project. Some are completed by myself and others involve friends, family, students, and community members. By getting others involved, they can also take ownership of the painting. One of the first murals I did was at Kihei Elementary School in the late 1980’s. Amazingly, it’s still there and I’ve been told that some of the children who helped paint it, now grown up, bring their kids to see it.

I recently had a great mural experience at UH Maui. I had a student in my intermediate painting class, Samuel “Kammy” Kaiwi, who wanted to do a centrally located, large-scale mural on campus. After jumping through a few (many actually) hoops he finally got the approval and funds to do it. There was no way the mural could be finished in one semester, but Kammy was determined to complete it. Of course, I agreed to help him, and a year later, the mural was complete. It was so ironic that my role went from being Kammy’s art instructor into being his mural assistant.

What prompted your work M.A.D Frescos? The potential reconfiguration of the tiles seems to be central to the work. There’s also a similar rearrangeable idea present in your work’s Book Sale and Break Room.

M.A.D. Frescos was a result of my fascination with traditional fresco painting. At that time, I only knew what I read about the technique and improvised using plaster of paris (wrong!) and tempera paint. I wanted to create a portable and modular body of work that could be installed in different arrangements, depending on the venue.

M.A.D Frescos

I refined my pseudo “fresco” technique with my next series, Third World Portraits, which incorporated political, representational imagery instead of geometric patterns.

Book Sale was a fun, interactive piece. As mentioned earlier, it was in a group show, Twelve x 12, at the MACC. I was working for the Hawai’i State Public Library System as a truck driver. I would drop off old and discarded books at the Maui Friends of the Library on a regular basis. The Friends had (and still have) thousands upon thousands of books that they sell for a nominal price (.10 - .50 cents an item). I asked them if I could “borrow” a bunch of their books for the installation, if any sold, I’d give them the money, and I’d return the unsold ones. In a corner of the space I was allotted, I carefully piled and arranged the books in a compact wedge. I estimate about 3000 books were used. If you look closely at the photo of the original arrangement, there is one book placed at the apex, and on its’ cover is an image Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” (totally by coincidence, that book was amongst all the ones I collected).

Book Sale, 1996

At the opening, people were invited and encouraged to go through and explore the multitude of volumes. If they found something they wanted, they could take it, and in return they were asked to leave a donation for the Friends (total honor system). I remember one of my friend’s two young sons literally plowing and digging through the books. By the end of the exhibit, there was still a large, scattered pile of books in “my” area, but there also were many books spread throughout the gallery, as some people arranged their own stacks (I’m not sure if the other artists were upset about this - intruding into “their” areas). Book Sale made about $100 for the Friends.

Break Room was part of the exhibition, New Directions. Once again, I’m indebted to Rich Richardson for this installation, as he invited me to participate in this show at the Hui No’eau. I really wanted to offer visitors a totally different art experience from the commercial galleries so prevalent on Maui. I covered the walls of the installation with various newspapers (printed in English, Chinese, and Japanese). I asked my girlfriend (now wife), Rae, a 3rd grade elementary school teacher, for some of her students’ drawings, which I mounted on top of the newspaper-covered walls. In the central floor space, there was a coffee table surrounded by a few chairs. On the table, there were assorted books, newspapers, and magazines, a box of Saloon Pilot Crackers, and a big jar of Jif Peanut Butter. In one corner of the space, there was a small, double-shelved cart with a black and white TV (constantly on and set to some local channel) on the top tier, and more books, newspapers, and magazines on the lower section. Of course, nothing was for sale and viewers were invited to enter the space, sit down, relax, talk story, read something, watch TV, and help themselves to a snack.

Break Room, 1997

Break Room was envisioned as a working class, blue collar place of respite, where people could escape into an interactive, stress-free, comforting area. Once again, an art environment so atypical of your usual Maui Front Street Lahaina gallery experience, where sales consultants will tell you how beautiful, wonderful, valuable, and important their art and artists are. The concept of creating a non-traditional space and experience in an “art”exhibition has always motivated my work.

Michael and Rae Takemoto installing Pane Gallery at Marks Garage in 2002.