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Pandemic pushed artists to seek connection, creativity

Maui Open Studios wraps up three-weekend showcase

Huelo artist Jan Maret Willman (right) chats with Haiku’s Darla Palmer-Ellingson in front of her abstract expressionism piece titled, “Wind Sister — Her Beautiful Mind,” during a Maui Open Studios event Saturday at The Sacred Garden on Kaluanui Road. Willman’s work is featured at the Wertheim Contemporary Gallery at the Harbor Shops in Maalaea. Also showing work at The Sacred Garden on Saturday was Haiku artist Lalenya L. Vann. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

HAIKU — Brooke Auchincloss smiled on Saturday afternoon as artists and art collectors mingled around tables lined with her handcrafted vases, bowls and sculptures, each one uniquely different from the next.

“It’s amazing, it’s wonderful,” Auchincloss said as browsers flowed in and out of her open-air carport she set up for the annual Maui Open Studios event. “It’s amazing that people get to experience art and are going around, and also get to see their neighbors, and support other people on the island.”

Open Studios wrapped up its third and final showcase this weekend, which highlighted artists located in the Upcountry areas — South Maui was weekend 1, and weekend 2 included all of West, Central and East Maui, and areas on the north shore.

Signs were posted throughout Haiku and Makawao on Saturday and Sunday to help drivers navigate the self-guided tour to participating artists’ studios and exhibition spaces.

Off Kokomo Road on Saturday afternoon, Auchincloss had a few tables set up to display her vases, bowls and tumblers that were created using the Japanese technique of “raku,” which involves heating the pottery to a temperature of about 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit and then rapidly cooling with water.

Brooke Auchincloss on Saturday afternoon explains the raku kiln technique she uses to make her pottery, which was on display at her Haiku home for the Maui Open Studios event. Her work is also featured in Maui Hands Art Gallery in Makawao. The Maui News / DAKOTA GROSSMAN photo

This process is done in a raku kiln, which Auchincloss made herself.

“You can learn anything on YouTube,” she said with a laugh. For Auchincloss, the COVID-19 pandemic provided time for her to pick up and practice these new artistic skills.

“It was nice to have time to really concentrate and spend time and devote yourself to your art,” she added.

Removing the pottery pieces while hot and quickly placing them in metal chambers with combustible materials, like feathers, sawdust or horse hair, creates unique designs and textures on the outer layers when the materials burn, she said.

“It’s magical,” she added. “You never quite know what you’re going to get. That’s what I love about it.”

Jennifer Owen sells one of her pottery pieces on Saturday. The Maui News / DAKOTA GROSSMAN photo

Handling hot temperatures, fire and propane are useful tools she may have gained from her background as a hot air balloon pilot in upstate New York, where at the time she was reportedly the youngest pilot in the nation at just 15.

“Who knew my whole life was preparing me for this?” she said with a laugh.

Auchincloss shared her venue this weekend with fellow ceramic artist Jennifer Owen, who, after 17 years as a full-time professor at the University of Hawaii Maui College, retired in 2018 and dedicated more time to creating salt-fired pottery in her small Haiku studio.

Owen can also be found teaching ceramics once a week at the Hui No’eau Visual Arts Center because “I love teaching and didn’t want to give it up entirely.”

The hui had temporarily closed during the pandemic, but reopened last summer.

“People were so grateful to be taking ceramics classes throughout the pandemic,” she said. “The classes were filling up immediately with waiting lists because people were so grateful to have a creative outlet when they were otherwise stuck at home and not seeing anybody.”

And it was a “godsend” for artists and creators alike who already had the space and supplies to delve in their passions, like working with clay, dye and a pottery wheel.

“We’ve been isolated, so we spent more time in our studios, so I felt really grateful that I already had a creative outlet set up,” Owen added. “I was not miserable during the pandemic, you know, I had a place to put my energy.”

On Saturday afternoon, the sculpture artist mingled with guests and answered questions about her work, which is inspired by nature and architecture.

Owen told The Maui News that the event is a great opportunity for artists and collectors to connect one-on-one.

“It’s really fun to see who’s buying your pieces, especially if you put a lot of effort into them, and seeing them go to people who really love them,” she said. “I always feel that my most successful pieces have come to life when I finish with them, like I’ve given it a life of its own, so when someone recognizes that and wants to put it in their home, that makes me feel really good and I think people do pick up on that and they find one that speaks to them.”

The venues artists used over the weekend ranged from gallery settings, home studios, backyard spaces and other larger exhibits, like the Hui No’eau Visual Arts Center on Baldwin Avenue where Bo and Tia Brady’s custom shirt printing work were on display.

Sacred Garden in Maliko also hosted painters like O. Borden, Jan Maret Willman and Lalenya Vann, all of whom have very different styles and use several media.

“The people in my opinion yesterday compared to all my previous experiences were a lot more willing to be more intimate and personal — it was really lovely because everyone wanted to stop and talk and hear about the art and more about my story,” said Willman of Huelo on Sunday. “I think that may be a testament to what’s been happening the past few years. People are starved for that connection with other humans and they’re anxious to be out and doing things.”

Describing her style as “emotive abstract expression,” where she draws ideas from the natural environment, universe and internal energies, Willman hopes that the art provokes calming and joyful emotions.

“I believe that I am a channel and that I’ve been given this gift to channel expressions of beauty and expressions of love and emotion to the surface, so my whole goal is to create stuff that, when people look at it, they may not see something they can identify with, but they’re going to feel something from it that touches their heart,” she said.

Though this was not her first exhibition — she spent much of her career in Colorado — this was the first art show without her late husband Thomas, who passed away a few months ago after 35 years of marriage.

“I’m left here to serve a purpose and my belief is still in my heart that I am tasked to share joy, love and beauty through my art and my being,” Willman said. “I know he was here yesterday and today, and the people that knew him that were here said that they could feel him, and I could feel him poking me and prodding me to go talk to people. … Somehow he’s still pulling me out of my shell.”

Though the high and lows of life evolved Willman’s work over the years, the heart of her inspiration always remained the same — Maui.

“As soon as I got here, it was like a direct match, so I’ve been channeling Maui for a lot of years through my work,” she said.

While many of the artists have pieces displayed in galleries and studios around the island, artwork is also for sale online. Visit MauiOpenStudios.com for participating artists and resources.

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

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