Kurokawa’s portrait of Abercrombie unveiled

Maui artist spent 2 years on project for former governor

Wailuku artist Kirk Kurokawa officially unveils his oil painting of former Gov. Neil Abercrombie at a ceremony Friday at the Hawaii State Art Museum on Oahu. • SHANE A. TEGARDEN photo

Wailuku artist Kirk Kurokawa’s “most significant” project in his artistic collection — the official painting of former Gov. Neil Abercrombie — was unveiled last week on Oahu.

Kurokawa was chosen from among 46 artists from across the nation, including those who paint portraits of presidents, chief justices and congressmen, to create the 48-by-36-inch portrait, which soon will hang in the governor’s chambers at the state Capitol.

A ceremony including Abercrombie, his wife and former staffers and friends was held Friday at the Hawaii State Art Museum Sculpture Garden on Oahu. The State Foundation on Culture and the Arts oversaw the portrait process.

Abercrombie, who was governor from 2010 to 2014, could not be reached for comment Monday for his thoughts on the portrait, but he was seen giving the artist a hug after the unveiling in a video of Friday’s event.

“He is a singular talent, unique and compelling, and his work is a panorama of growing sensibility, bold and sensual in my view, and that’s the reason I wanted him,” said Abercrombie in 2015 when Kurokawa was selected to do the portrait.

The former governor, who now owns the Honolulu consulting firm Pacific Strategies, had seen the portrait before Friday, having viewed it at a private unveiling about two months ago.

“I think as far as a job or a project, it is probably the most significant,” Kurokawa said Monday. “It’s going to be timeless. It’s going to be part of our state’s history. . . . It’s going to be in the archives. It’s always going to be (available) for people to see.

“I feel that’s why it’s so important for me as an artist. You don’t get a choice where your painting is going to be hung or who is going to own it years to come. This one’s going to be there forever.”

The painting depicts a smiling Abercrombie wearing a black jacket over an aloha shirt while standing at Washington Place, the governor’s mansion.

“He wanted it to be a portrait of him, not him as the governor. He wanted to show more of his compassionate side,” Kurokawa, 43, said. “He really wanted it to be smiling. He wanted to show that side of him. I think he was really happy about that.”

Many of Abercrombie’s former staff members who gathered Friday commented about how well Kurokawa captured that smile.

“I was really happy about that. People that actually worked for him for years felt like it was him,” Kurokawa said.

The portrait, which he painted in his home studio in Wailuku, took around three months, but the entire process took about two years and involved sketches and lunches with the former governor and consultations with the selection team.

Painting a portrait of a man who once held the state’s top government post could have been a daunting task, but Abercrombie made Kurokawa feel at ease.

At their first meeting, the former governor joked about them being about the same height, Kurokawa recalled at Friday’s unveiling. Kurokawa is 5 feet 5 inches; the governor is a little shorter. Abercrombie told Kurokawa that the two men already could see “eye to eye.”

“That really set me at ease,” Kurokawa told the crowd, noting he took a liking to Abercrombie after that. “He’s already making fun of me.”

The portrait was funded through the Art in Public Places Program of the state foundation, which receives 1 percent of construction and renovation costs for state buildings to integrate art into the building environment of Hawaii.

The final cost for Kurokawa’s fee, framing, shipping and travel was $38,750.

Portraits of Hawaii’s territorial and state governors have been commissioned since 1912 when Hawaii’s first territorial governor, Sanford B. Dole, was painted. Abercrombie’s portrait is the 18th in the series.

Kurokawa, a 1992 graduate of Baldwin High School, is a familiar name at the annual Schaefer Portrait Challenge, sponsored by the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. Kurokawa said that the contest helped launch his painting career on Maui.

He received a Bachelor of Fine Arts with distinction from the California College of Arts and Crafts in San Francisco. He was an illustration major and designed compact disc covers on the Mainland. As the internet started growing, Kurokawa did illustrations for websites, but getting jobs was a roller coaster of lots of work and dry spells.

He moved back to Maui in 2001 and took a liking to painting. He normally paints on wood, but his oil painting of Abercrombie was done on linen canvas, which he said is not much different.

Kurokawa does gallery and commissioned work. His art is shown at Viewpoints Gallery in Makawao and at The Village Galleries Maui in Lahaina. His work also can be found at the state Art Museum and in public buildings, Kurokawa said.

His subjects often include his family — wife, Karla, and children, Mason, 6, Meiko, 4, and Max, 5 months.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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