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A moment of reality — more than skin deep

With wind in my hair, sand in my shoes, and sun on my face I write home from Honolulu, Hawaii.

Arriving at the Honolulu Airport, I noticed clothes beginning to fall off white chalky bodies and through the course of the vacation golden suntans gradually began to surface.

This is the way of Hawaii: swimming, snorkeling, shopping, relaxing, five star resorts and hula girls in their bright flowered dresses. It’s the Don Ho experience for those who remember “Tiny Bubbles,” an image imbedded in our minds when we think of Hawaii. Happy Hawaiian people with big bright smiles eager to please their guests’ whims.

This is our fourth trip to the islands. We also have our own traditional must-sees, such as a visit to Duke’s for hula pie, the International Market for cheap plastic things such as hula dolls that bounce on the dash of the car, post cards to send home and, of course, T-shirts.

On this visit, I was hoping to see the art galleries again. My family indulged me grudgingly, but sweetly. Visiting art galleries and museums has been a lifetime preoccupation for me, and my family knows if I get to do what I want to do, they will be through myriads of galleries.

The money flow from tourism is what Hawaii lives on. The front page headline reports “Twenty million dollars down for resorts in 2009.” They have also been hit by the economy. I discovered it is the arts, not tourism, that’s keeping their reality alive. It is a very fine line, what they need and what they really need.

Our gallery trek began at The State Art Museum where a photography show was on exhibit. Life is what we think it should be until we encountered a moment of reality. The show at the museum brought us he alda he alo (face to face) with the people who remember the days of the sacredness of the Islands.

The walls were lined with photographs of young hula girls from years past and a DVD documentary interviewing the older women who used to be hula girls. Most of them said that they only had one teacher: a grandmother, mother or aunt, a family tradition passed down from generation to generation. Each hula has its own mo’olela (story), whether sacred or secular, and hula begins and ends with a pule (prayer).

One older lady remembered, “My grandmother taught me to embrace the warm, soft beauty of nature around me. She told me to take a leaf and feel the texture on my cheek. The arms are to follow the line of the body and we were taught to be comfortable with our bodies. It springs from the heart, bad people can not hula.”

Another older lady was asked if she remembered chanting when she was young. “Yes, I remember, it was so different back then. I would hear the older people become very emotional, then the emotions just stopped and then a soft quiet prayer began. Today they make loud noises, but then it was different.”

Another part of the museum showed photographs of Hawaii depicting the Islands of Fire with the red-hot volcanoes, bombshells half exposed, the turmoil of war and its existence, and the pain in the midst of a gentle people.

Just across the way on the grounds of the historic Iolani Palace in downtown Honolulu the Royal Hawaiian Band, which was established in 1836 by King Kamehameha III, gathers to play every Friday at lunch time. The band is one of the last living links to Hawaii’s monarchy. The young children from different schools come on Fridays to eat their lunch and listen to the music. It is just another way that the arts keep the memory alive for the next generation.

Edward Steichen, a renowned painter and photographer talks about one instant of reality. In the ’20s and ’30s he captured some of the most glamorous, captivating images of the icons of his day, such as Marlene Dietrich and Martha Graham along with Al Jolson.

Steichen said, “It is impossible to include both laughter and tears in one picture — both tragedy and comedy in one face at the same moment… But what we can do is to get one instant of reality out of that person.”

I believe we can move into one or the other, but not at the same time. Hawaii is more than skin deep. It is masked with an image that visitors pay for and want to see, skimpy bikinis, basking in the sunshine on the beaches and drinking Chi Chi’s at the swimming pool.

For me, for an instant, the mask came off and I saw the real face of Hawaii. I was transported through a photography show. I came into communion with the true heart that is buried under the skin. For a fleeting moment there was a spiritual unveiling and I met the true Hawaii face to face.

The final brushstroke: Art has the power to bring that moment when the mask falls away and for one instant we experience reality.

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Artist’s quote

“I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way — things I had no words for.” — Georgia O’Keeffe.