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Wahine energy in Wailuku

Maui murals draw from community input

Haiku artist Amanda Joy Bowers adds details to her portrait of Mary Kawena Pukui while working on a Vineyard Street-facing mural with Lianna Rosa on Friday afternoon in Wailuku. The mural between Church and Market streets adds life, history and a Hawaiian proverb to construction fencing that screens the new Wailuku Parking Structure. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

Four “mana wahine” are bringing to life months of community collaboration with their public artwork in Wailuku.

Visual artists Alexandra Underwood, Amanda Joy Bowers, Bailey Onaga and Courtney Chargin — each born and raised on Maui — began painting large-scale murals last Monday. The group was selected earlier this year to create three pieces with Small Town Big Art’s call for a “mana wahine” collaboration. Once finished, the installation will serve as a temporary construction wall surrounding the Wailuku Municipal Parking Lot.

Bowers will continue creating her mural onsite along Vineyard Street through June 30. Underwood, Onaga and Chargin are working on panels offsite at Yokouchi Estate’s Imua Discovery Garden, an area where Maui’s last ruling Chief Kahekili once lived.

Small Town Big Art program manager Kelly McHugh-White said selecting an all-female group of artists for this project was intentional, especially because four women collaborating on one site solidifies a “mana wahine presence.”

“The site where two out of the three murals are being created — and the space where they will all ultimately be installed — is part of Chief Kahekili’s royal compound, who symbolizes kane energy,” McHugh-White said last week. “Additionally, the people, activities and even the materials within the Wailuku Municipal Parking Project site are so strongly kane, the STBA team believed that it would be an incredible opportunity to balance this out with a wahine energy.”

Wailuku artists Courtney Chargin (background) and Bailey Onaga work on their creation of a nighttime skyline of Wailuku on Friday at Imua Discovery Garden.

According to a news releaase, Bowers is a freelance fine artist and independent contractor, along with the owner and designer of Skelefin Studios LLC. Graduating in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in studio art, she attended Wake Forest University as a Presidential Scholar for Distinguished Achievement in Art, a university Ambassador for the Arts and a Richter Scholar for International Independent Studies.

Underwood is an illustrator, designer and muralist who created a mural at her alma mater, Baldwin High School, along with murals at other sites across Maui, Oahu and California. She received her bachelor’s degree in illustration from California College of the Arts in 2017. After completing an internship at Penguin Random House Publishing in New York, she worked as an in-house graphic artist at PopSockets for two years, creating original illustrations. Some illustrations have been featured in Target and Walmart.

Onaga and Chargin, who hail from Wailuku-based Sabado Studios, have experience in digital and traditional art practices. The two collaborated recently on a four-panel watercolor mural and one large-scale oil painting mural under the tutelage of local painter Philip Sabado. Featuring the Honouliuli ahupua’a system of Oahu with native species and Hawaiian mythology, these murals will be installed in early spring at Kaiser Kapolei.

The Small Town Big Art program does extensive community outreach, research and consultation, which is described on its website at www.smalltown big.org.

As part of the program’s 15th project, each artist has been participating in a series of online community consultations to help with the overall design. Also, the four have worked with the Small Town Big Art team since February to identify a proverb that connects their work to Wailuku’s sense of place.

Bailey Onaga adds a star to Wailuku night scene Friday.

“The site is right at the center of Wailuku, and countless members of the community have voiced their thoughts and feelings about what that space will become,” McHugh-White said. “It’s important to us that a deep sense of listening and experience is embedded in this project, and these four wahine have gone above and beyond to ensure that their artwork is indicative of that process.”

Bowers’ piece, which connects Market and Church streets, depicts a visual interpretation of the proverb “E noho iho i ke opu weuweu, mai ho’oki’eki’e,” (remain among the clumps of grasses and do not elevate yourself). 

Underwood will share a wall with artist duo Onaga and Chargin in her own piece inspired by the proverb “Mohala I ka wai ka maka o ka pua,” (unfolded by the water are the faces of the flowers). The shared wall will run parallel to Market Street, connecting Main and Vineyard streets.

Small Town Big Art aims to put Wailuku on the map as a public arts district that’s focused on its sense of place, history and culture. Derived from a national arts grant, the program is a partnership between the County of Maui and Hale Ho’ike’ike at the Bailey House Museum / Maui Historical Society.

The program has yielded 24 public artworks throughout Wailuku.

Muralist and Baldwin High School graduate Alex Underwood steps back to contemplate her next brushstroke Friday afternoon while working offsite at the Imua Discovery Garden. The wall panels will later be installed on the Market Street side of the Wailuku Municipal Parking Project site.

McHugh-White said that public art is vital to human connection and community health, especially amid a global pandemic.

“We’ve spoken a lot as a team about how important making public art in a moment like this is — having been socially distanced for over a year now,” she said. “In addition to resulting in an exquisite work of art, we’re also creating stories, sharing memories, making connections and building a renewed sense of community.” 

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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