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Latest ‘Small Town Big Art’ works highlight Maui icons

Program continues installations in Wailuku town

A trio of paintings hangs in the front window of the First Hawaiian Bank branch on Market Street in Wailuku Friday. The paintings by Avi Molinas include Hokulani Holt (from right), Judge Noa (Auwae) Kepoikai and Rose (Daniels) Kepoikai and are the latest in a series of historical and cultural art pieces in Wailuku’s Small Town Big Art initiative. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Guillem “Avi” Molinas’ recent oil paintings each reflect a different piece of Hawaiian history, culture and language, in the hopes that residents and visitors learn more about the “depth and richness of these islands and people” when they see his artwork hung in Wailuku.

With a desire to connect to Hawaiian ancestry and today’s kupuna, Molinas’ portraits feature Hokulani Holt, Judge Noa (Auwae) Kepoikai and Rose (Daniels) Kepoikai.

As part of the Small Town Big Art program, the three large-scale replicas will hang facing Market Street from First Hawaiian Bank’s front window display through March, each with a web link to learn more about the work and to share perspectives on the concept of “legacy.”

“I hope people learn about the culture, to take a break in your life, take 30 seconds to look at a portrait of someone, look them in the eyes and try to understand who they are and where they are from,” said Molinas, a self-taught painter and sculptor originally from Barcelona. “I hope people can learn about the Hawaiian culture and have more respect for it. I hope people start to enjoy Hawaii, Maui and Wailuku, and get to know more about the people, respect it and know the place.”

Portraits “keep the people alive” by communicating the dignity and intellect of Hawaii’s kupuna and ali’i, who are known for their commitment to the welfare of their people.

“Legacy, truly for me, is my ohana,” said Holt, a Maui-based kumu hula and Hawaiian cultural/language specialist, in a news release about the latest art installation. “I have halau, I have hula, I’ve had many students, but it’s your children that will carry on what you hope you have instilled in them.

“Legacy is not only what you do, but it’s where you call you, where you call your identification to ‘aina,” she added. “What I hope people will say when I die, is that she was tremendously proud to be Hawaiian and she was tremendously proud to be from Maui.”

The paintings themselves took a few months each to complete once Molinas got started, but he noted the amount of time spent speaking with Holt, researching, learning, making sure all the details were accurate and gaining permission.

“I love her, she has so much power in the way she talks,” he said. “It’s like everything is dancing around her.”

Judge Kepoikai and his wife Rose, who were born in the 1860s, were chosen as subjects due to their power and influence in the community, Molinas said.

“I think portraying our ancestors that have come and passed is a connection that we have as a younger generation to remind us of where we come from,” said Hayden Aluli, the great grandnephew of the portrait subjects, in the news release. “To see these Hawaiian faces, now, in Wailuku, is just an inspiration as for me to be Hawaiian and to want to live up to their legacy and try to contribute with the work that we do as Hawaiians for our community.”

Due to COVID-19, Small Town Big Art program leader Kelly McHugh-White said they couldn’t ask the community to gather at Hale Ho’ike’ike at the Bailey House museum to view the artwork, so they “supersized” the paintings to hang at the bank for everyone to see.

Molinas said he will hold the original oil paintings in his home until he can put them on display at the Bailey House.

“My colleague Joanne Stevenson and I both admired the intention to not only share history and culture with our community, but to create a platform to learn from the community as well,” said Dean Duque, First Hawaiian Bank senior vice president and Maui region manager.

Before moving to the North Shore, Molinas said he got his start at a gallery called Sala Gaspar in Spain where he spent hours studying the lines and form of Picasso, Miro, Tapies and others. Sala Gaspar was the first to exhibit Molinas’ artwork until the gallery closed many years later.

After moving to the Pyrenees, he completed public sculptures and found other work for nearly 10 years.

Hawaii eventually drew him to the islands around 2004. Molinas said “it’s an amazing place” and “I fell in love really fast” with the lifestyle, culture and environment.

“I hope the culture in Maui gets more support, not like waterfalls, turtles and dolphins and stuff like that,” he said. “I’m talking the real deal, the real culture.”

All of his work is created out of his home with his family in Maliko Gulch where he also tends to a small taro patch farm, paints and sculpts.

“It’s a really good connection here, it’s a really special place,” he said. “It’s good for creating.”

“For me, it’s special because Wailuku is a beautiful town,” he said. “The influence from the island is so strong for years and years. I love Wailuku, it’s a powerful place.”

Small Town Big Art is a collaboration between Maui County and Hale Ho’ike’ike at the Bailey House/Maui Historical Society aimed at turning Wailuku into a “public arts district focused on its distinctive sense of place, history and culture,” according to the program’s website. Funded by the National Endowment for the Arts grant, the program has brought together professional artists to create murals and other artworks of historical and cultural significance throughout the area.

Old Wailuku town has undergone renovations and construction projects throughout the years, however, Molinas said that “they need to find the balance between the culture and tourism” moving forward.

“I think we can find a balance between both if we promote the culture of the town,” he added. “I think it’s a strong root for later on when the tourists go over there.”

By “spreading the knowledge and the culture of the people” of Wailuku through art and education, and keeping the character of the buildings and the streets, Molinas said that balance can be achieved for future generations.

“If you go to some place, it’s important to know the people because they have the experience,” he said. “If you know the history, you can enjoy everything about the place. . . . I think it’s happening little by little.”

Molinas said he is now working on more historical portraits of Queen Lili’uokalani’s supporters who had been jailed during the fight against the annexation of Hawaii by the United States during the 1800s.

While researching Hawaiian history, he chose 10 individuals who “spoke to him.”

“I follow my instincts, and I follow the history and what I need to do,” he said. “It’s like my kuleana now to continue these portraits; it’s what I need to do.”

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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