Artist celebrates 40 years painting Maui landscapes

Curtis Wilson Cost is the quintessential Maui landscape artist.

He has more than 500 original oil paintings to his credit and the “longest running one-man gallery in the state of Hawaii” at Kula Lodge. Friday marks his 40th anniversary of painting bucolic Maui.

“I’m capturing the stuff that’s disappearing here,” said Cost. “The last 40 years is almost an archive.”

He gets a lot of compliments from old-timers who grew up on Maui.

Jill Cost, who is Curtis’ wife and business manager, shared a story about an elderly resident who descended the steps to the Curtis Wilson Cost Gallery below the Kula Lodge restaurant.

“The old guy had tears in his eyes. He said, ‘You’re keeping my childhood alive.’ “

The portraits of a dirt road winding through a green pasture to a plantation-era home, a cistern below a blooming jacaranda tree, or a taro patch beside the shoreline invoke memories for many residents.

“Old-timers recognize the details,” said Cost. “They’ve been here.”

Cost estimates that 30 percent of his original paintings remain in Hawaii and the rest are scattered around the world. That’s partially due to his aforementioned gallery, which has been at the same location at 15200 Haleakala Highway since 1985. It’s a can’t-miss location for visitors traveling to and from Haleakala National Park.

“There’s a wealth of subject matter,” said Cost of his Upcountry landscapes. “There’s the temperature, the view, the rural atmosphere, topography. There’s stuff that grows here that is not tropical.”

Influenced by the Hawaiiana landscapes of Lloyd Sexton and Howard Hitchcock, Cost was “looking for my own thing to do” when he arrived on Maui in 1973 at the invitation of Maui resident David Silva. He had just finished an apprenticeship under his father, landscape painter James Peter Cost, in Carmel, Calif., and didn’t want to return to “congested” Oahu, where he had graduated from Kalani High School in 1969.

“We went to a garage sale on Polipoli Road (in Kula), and I said, ‘This is it!’ ” said Cost. He hasn’t turned back since.

While Cost has painted rugged lava coastlines and hidden locations in Hana, his “center of gravity” remains Upcountry when it comes to subject matter. It is where he makes his home with Jill and raised his two children, Julia and Elliot. It is also where he paints in his home studio overlooking the south shore and the West Maui Mountains.

For all of their success, Curtis and Jill had modest beginnings on Maui. Silva had 10 acres below the Kula Lodge. He let the couple, who will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary Dec. 27, stay on the property when they first arrived.

“It was the tail end of the hippie era,” said Cost. “We bought a VW camper van for $400.” The property had a “teepee” platform with running water and a kerosene-fueled hot-water heater.

The couple lived in the camper while Curtis worked on his first Maui landscape paintings.

“We were not hippies,” said Cost with a chuckle. “The whole intention was to paint.”

Cost sold his paintings at Village Galleries on Maui for 12 years before opening his own gallery. A lot of his sales are prints of original oil paintings.

“The prints have been phenomenal,” said Cost. “It is a big part of the business.” They also help the bottom line because Costs’ oil paintings take a long time to complete.

This year, Cost has completed six paintings. “Jill thinks it’s two,” said Cost with a laugh. “Two are commissioned. I spend three times more (time) on a commission because I want to make sure the customer is satisfied.”

To mark his 40th anniversary painting landscapes on Maui, Cost recently unveiled “Keokea Picnic,” a pastoral landscape. It will be released as a print.

An anniversry celebration will be announced after the first of the new year, said Jill.

As for the future, Cost hopes to travel more to Italy. It is his ancestral home. He would like to search for relatives there and, of course, paint the rural landscape.

* Rich Van Scoy can be reached at