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Pao, Carl (on native art)

Melehina Groves
January 2007

Carl Pao was born and raised in Kailua on the island of O‘ahu and, in 1994, graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Furthering his study in Auckland, Aotearoa, Pao earned his Masters in Fine Arts from Elam School of Fine Arts and also came to realize the strength and validity that exists in the artistic expressions of indigenous peoples. He hopes his work will speak to people on many different levels, allowing room for others to draw their own conclusions while appreciating the statement he makes as an artist. Now a high school visual arts teacher at Kamehameha Schools Kapālama, Pao’s work is currently featured at the new Native Hawaiian art gallery at Moku Ola in Hawai‘i Kai, and he also has a solo exhibit, I Makua, showing at the Gallery on the Pali through February 12.

Pao shares, "My work revolves around the concepts of kaona and wā. My kanaka māoli culture describes kaona as being the veiled layers of knowledge that are only accessible to the experienced person, and wā as the ʻspace between.’ I believe that residing within the wā is the kaona of the universe. The purpose of my work is to provide entry into the nebulous realm of wā where the kaona exists."



MG: Could you tell us a little bit about your background? 

CP: Sure, I was born and raised in Kailua, O‘ahu. Went through Enchanted Lake Elementary, then to St. John Vianney, then came to Kamehameha in high school. Throughout those years of my life, really through my whole life, people have always been supportive of the arts. I was fortunate enough to have people that noticed a talent and nurtured it, encouraged it, especially my parents and grandparents. I feel very fortunate. With that said, I’ve always had the drive to be an artist or do something that was art-related. I was always very clear about that.

MG: Did you have other artists in your family?

CP: My mom painted, she always collected things to paint or painting materials, but was one of those who never painted as much as she probably should have. My dad’s a cabinet maker, my Tūtū paints, my uncle’s an architect, another uncle’s a woodworker . . .

MG: So it’s in your blood.

CP: Yeah, so I kinda jump around a lot, from painting, print making, wood working, ceramics . . .

MG: Is there one thing you gravitate towards that you really enjoy?

CP: You know, I don’t. Right now, I’m really anxious to work with wood, I don’t really even know why. Just wanna get a chainsaw and go at it! It might be because I just got ready for my show (I Makua) and that’s been all painting. It fluctuates. 

MG: So you actually studied art in school, emphasizing in ceramics?

CP: I got a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts with an emphasis in ceramics. While I was at UH Mānoa, I really wanted to take advantage of the facility and try to learn as much as possible. For a long time they had me as a painting major, but because I really enjoyed ceramics, mostly because of my time at Kamehameha and getting involved here as a junior and senior. It’s very addictive. 

Producing art in class can be really challenging. If you’re the kind of person that sees something and whatever you’re making has to be exactly what you envision in your head, I think you’re always going to have a difficult time making something. There’s a point where you kind of have to step back and think, "Things are out of my control at this point," and accept that this is where my skill level or my confidence is at. If you’re not able to let that go, or don’t have a teacher or mentor along the way that helps you understand that part of the creative process, it can be very difficult.

MG: How do you navigate through the time deadlines and what they do to the creative process?

CP: You find a way. I get to work here at 7:00 a.m., get home about 6:30, make dinner, eat, spend some time with my wife til she goes to bed at 9:00, and then I start painting. I might paint til 11:00, take a nap, get up at midnight, 1:00, paint for another two or three hours. Then get up and start again at 5:00. [laughing] 

MG: Is your wife a teacher, too?

CP: No, she had a broadcasting career in New Zealand, and now she’s doing her Master’s in Pacific Island Studies. She edits as a graduate assistant for the Contemporary Pacific Journal. She’s beginning to focus more on art, now, and how art is a vehicle for Pacific Islanders, or indigenous people around the world. 

It’s funny, because I actually wanted to be an architect with a minor in art. Then I got shot down in my interview with the dean of architecture . . . it was terrible. It was when I was trying to enter as a freshman, my mom was with me and he shot me down to the point where I was almost in tears . . . I don’t think it was so much they’re trying to weed you out, or just make you feel small. It was a terrible experience. After that, I decided, well maybe art should be my major. 

MG: I guess that’s one way to get started!

CP: [laughing] People along the way have said, you can always do architecture later on. Now I do have some artwork that is architectural in one way or another. 

MG: And you furthered your study in Auckland, New Zealand?

CP: Yeah, I did my MFA in Auckland. Usually with a Fine Art, you have a little bit more art history with your studio.

MG: Did you choose to study in Aotearoa (New Zealand) for a specific reason? 

CP: I was challenged by Herman Pi‘ikea Clark in 1994. I was looking to do my masters and considering all the big schools on the east coast of America, and he challenged me, asking why not look at schools that come from an indigenous perspective. I hadn’t even considered it. At that time, I was really starting to engage into understanding more about my Hawaiian heritage, and his suggestion really made sense. So I did a conference, a hui, in Aotearoa with Maile (Andrade) and Pi‘ikea (Clark), about 40 of us, 40 international artists and 40 Māori. I had an amazing time there and after that experience in January 1995, I came home and decided the next year I was gonna go. Thank goodness, got scholarship monies from Kamehameha and was on my way.

MG: So you were just starting to get more in touch with an indigenous outlook on art when you went to Aotearoa?

CP: Yeah, and it was very much getting thrown into the deep end of the pool!

MG: What were you doing before that?

CP: A lot of it was trying to please my professors, as a student, you know? I was falling into that whole mindset of what they have to say is the only way and the Western way of art making was the only way. Being in Aotearoa and seeing a whole other art world of Pacific Island artists, aboriginal artists, where I was being pulled had validity and strength behind it. Just being there, around that energy and support, not only from the Pacific Islander community but also from the greater Aotearoa community, both Pākeha and Māori. It was fantastic. 

MG: It’s a different environment down there in some ways.

CP: Yeah, so encouraging, even at the government level, grants for this, grants for that, festivals here, workshops there. But straight off the bat, you can draw the parallels between here and there, our histories, our struggles, achievements, what we’re doing now. Where they’re at, in terms of a creative art community, in terms of where we’re at, and looking at ways in which we’re ahead, and might be behind them, and how we can work with each other. It’s also about experiencing this competitive nature, this voice or fire that’s there . . . we don’t really have that here, it’s been . . . I don’t want to say it’s been extinguished, but all the vents have been closed and the air kept out that keeps the fire going. I really found confidence in my voice, not only as an artist, but as a person, too. That’s where I really feel fortunate to be back here working with the kids and letting them know that yeah, it’s good to go to college, but why not look at the South Pacific, or Europe, why be fixated on America?

MG: What is your position at Kamehameha?

CP: I tell the students I’m just a visual arts teacher [laughing]. That’s all. Once in a while I’ll supervise Saturday detention [laughing].  

MG: How long have you been teaching?

CP: Seven years full time, then two and a half years in the mid-nineties as a lab assistant for the visual arts department. I graduated in 1989. I’ve kinda experienced the school at almost every level. You never know all the work behind the scenes. When I first came back, I was grabbing materials that were getting thrown away, things we really take for granted, you know. "I can fix that!" or "I can paint over it!" It’s still a resource.

MG: Your current exhibit, I Makua, is that your first solo exhibit?

CP: No, it’s my second one here . . . it’s been six years since the first one that I had here. It’s supposed to be a precursor to the Mākua Valley show that Jan Becket kinda initiated two years ago. That’s gonna be in Kona, Kūnane Wooton is curating it, designing the gallery set up. It’s supposed to be a precursor to that show, but along the way, I Makua kind of became more of a sequel to my first show. My first show was paying homage to ancestors, the title was capital "I"—or it could be seen as Roman numeral one—then 4, 40, 400, 4,000, 40,000, 400,000, then it went back to the "I". It was supposed to speak about the pantheon of our gods, our ancestors.

This one, it started to make more sense that I should be addressing something a little bit closer, addressing "makua." So "I—pronounced eye— Makua" or "I Makua." Could go either way. This body of work talks about makua, ‘aumakua . . . I’ve broken down "makua" and looked at all the different meanings within it. Some of them relate, some don’t, but hopefully, visually, the show pulls together. It was nice to sit down and look at one word and the multitudes of meaning. 

MG: It’s on exhibit right now?

CP: Yup, opened January 12. The Gallery on the Pali, they like to have aboriginal Hawaiians show during the month of January because of the significance of the overthrow and to help bring awareness, so I tried to have the opening as close as I could. 

MG: Would you like to share anything about I Makua, what you’d like people to come away with after seeing it?

CP: With all my shows, I try to structure them as either timelines or a process that builds as you go through. Sometimes I’ll give you the final piece at the beginning so that as you go through, you kind of put together what’s going on, so that when you come back to that first and final piece, hopefully it makes sense. I really believe, in both our ancestral work and the work that we do today, that unlike in Western art, there’s these elements or principles of design. In Western art, there’s virtually no acknowledgement of the spiritual element, so I really believe that in the work that I do, there’s a spiritual element or level that communicates to the viewer. I believe that whether or not you physically or consciously get it, at that other level, we’re communicating. There’s a hidden process behind all my work where I’m trying to, in a way, feel connected to the way my ancestors may have worked . . . oli or saying a pule as you work, imbuing the work with the spiritual component. Hopefully I’m able to achieve that, and it comes through both spiritually and physically. 

More importantly, something that people always say is "make your kūpuna proud, make your ancestors proud." I started thinking that maybe we need to change something, not to throw that away, still keep it there, but also start thinking about doing things that make our future proud of us. Have that hope or goal . . . I think we get too wrapped up in trying to please the past, and with capitalistic society being so caught up in the moment and satisfying momentary needs, we’re forgetting about the future. I think this is kind of my new . . . motto . . . or I’m pushing to think in this way. There’s that idea of "ka wā ma mua," understanding that we need to not only satisfy our ancestors, but also leave a positive legacy behind us.

MG: In doing that, you can bring the ancestors forward, too.

CP: Exactly. If I’m paying tribute to my ancestors, and I leave that for the future, that’s building on their legacy.

MG: And we’ll all be kūpuna one day . . .

CP: Yeah [laughing]. I’m already "Uncle" right now, so . . .! I don’t know when that happened.

MG: That idea of "ka wā ma mua" being both behind and ahead of us, as well as the idea that things can’t stay the same, seem to both be repeated often by artists.

CP: Because you’ll just be going in circles. You’re not looking . . . you’re going down the stream, and then you start doubling back in circles in a little whirlpool. Then you get comfortable, and you don’t look for that exit or opening in the rocks to continue down. I think at times we get like that, we get safe. Start doing things that are safe. 

MG: Have you ever felt pressure to do what’s "safe"?

CP: Yeah, over here, actually. I was asked to talk about my work to the art club and one of my series of works is based on ‘ule. I was asked not to show those. Too provocative. My argument was that we show Michelangelo’s "David," and this particular series I did was speaking to Kū, it was speaking to men to be more responsible, as well as that whole movement not only by missionaries, but also by ourselves, that went and removed the genital areas of both male and female images. A psychological stripping away of your masculinity, and that can cause some issues that we may not be addressing. We actually are addressing them now, things like Hale Mua, and Ty Tengan’s doctoral work, there’s a growing awareness. We’re coming around. It’s a good thing. Wāhine have been carrying the load for far too long, it needs to be pono, have that balance there. 

MG: I’ve heard from other artists that there is sometimes pressure to do things a certain way, make something that "looks" Hawaiian. 

CP: Well, that’s like what I was addressing in works that I did for the Moku Ola gallery exhibit. That’s one of the issues it addresses, through a series of "artifacts."

MG: And that will be on exhibit through February 9, right?

CP: Yup. Well, the pieces that are in there, one of the groups is "artifacts" that were "discovered" at various locations around the island. What I’m trying to do is create a museum, the Post-Historic Museum of the Possible Aboriginal Hawaiian—PHMPAH (pronounced poom-pah). One of the issues it addresses is the ridiculous nature of federal recognition—the idea that we need to be recognized by some entity in order to be ourselves, when in actuality, we are still a kingdom.

Another issue focuses on how I was getting fed up with all these protests that we were doing. We had to go get a permit, figure out a date when everyone could be there on a Saturday, it’ll be from 9–11 before we have to clear out, and it just seemed . . . if we’re gonna protest, practice civil disobedience, why are we filing for a permit to go and protest? Why don’t we just go to the airport, sit down, and protest? So the pieces there were, at one point, going to be entitled the "Weakened Warrior" series, a play on words with "weekend" and "weakened." Then it started to become a question of these garden tools where I was using the opposite end of the actual tool and making a spearhead, all to the question of, "Why do I have to carve a spearhead when I can actually just use the other end of this tool which is pretty deadly in itself?" Then going back to the whole ridiculous nature that I’m creating artifacts from everyday items, and I’m claiming that they’re of aboriginal origin. Either because I’ve tattooed them with a niho design, or I’ve carved a spear tip in there that roughly looks Hawaiian in nature, or done some inlays on feather standards, which are actually feather dusters. Questioning what makes us Hawaiian.

Usually when I present the work, I’m the museum director, or the acting director. So I’m actually not the fabricator, I’m the discoverer, I’m the archaeologist who discovered these pieces. It’s a lot of fun. You look at comics, comedians, and their material is actually very deep, very edgy, but it’s the way that they present it that makes it light. You take it in, because it’s funny. You put down your walls, and it gets to you. So with that idea, I just thought of a different approach. My next step is to have a documentary, start to create a website for the "museum." Just to take it a step further. [laughing]

MG: Have you ever had someone give an interpretation of your work that was completely far out in left field? 

CP: . . . Yes.

MG: How did you feel about that?

CP: I was actually pretty honored by it. One of my philosophies is to try and abstract my work to a very simple form so that it becomes . . . I wouldn’t say universal, but there’s enough simplicity in it so people can start to read into the way I intend it to be, but also in other ways. I believe that’s what kaona’s about. It’s not hiding stuff, it’s creating various levels of visibility based on your experience. If I can get that out of somebody, that’s great. That usually comes out of my dad, or somebody close to me. They’ll see something totally different than what I’m trying to do. 

MG: I would think that gives strength to the piece, too.

CP: Yeah, yeah. Kaona is an element that is always present in my work. I’m very interested in "wā"—the space between. A friend of mine, John Ioane, a Sāmoan artist who lives in Auckland, for him, wā (or vā) as an artist, he’s creating the magic for you to enter into that place, that space between. For me, that space between is where the kaona exists. You can navigate through there, doors open up and you can see more than what you were seeing before at a show or seeing a work of art. That work of art touches something that you’ve closed off or put to sleep. I think in Western terms, maybe that’s inspiration. That’s a huge part of my work. I think because of that, it’s allowed me to understand my culture, myself, my family, my community, and my world a lot better, too. It’s allowed me to be a little bit more receptive, more open. It’s a huge part will always be a huge part. 

MG: Given what you’d said earlier about Western art being practically devoid of spirituality, how do you feel that the two, Western and indigenous, art forms have sort of . . . come together in peoples like ours who are both indigenous and colonized, influenced by both spectrums?

CP: I think it’s been happening from day one. When Cook and other westerners arrived, even before him, that was already happening. We already . . . my wife likes to use the term "agency." We were using our agency to pick and choose what aspects of Western culture that we liked and wanted to adapt into our own culture, we threw away aspects of our own culture that we didn’t feel were up to date. And right now, I think that because of the way that we think now, "this" and "that," contrast and comparison, that way of thinking, people assume there has to be this contemporary Hawaiian look. If we were just accepting of the fact that what I do as an artist is no different from what another artist of Hawaiian ancestry does, again, it’s just another way of doing it. We’re both existing in the same time and space, it’s just our experiences that have shaped what we’re doing and what makes it unique. 

For me, my work might stand out more as being recognized as Hawaiian because I’m starting to look more closely at our motifs, our designs, work from a foundation of our ancestral thought. Other artists are more involved with things that are of today, or elsewhere, pulling those ideas together. 

I’m starting to become more accepting of the idea that Hawaiian art is what Hawaiians are doing. Some people might say, "Oh, that’s so loose," but maybe that’s what it is. Why does it have to look a certain way? Why does it have to say a certain thing? We’re Hawaiian, we’re creating, we’re evolving, we’re still a part of that continuum. This is who we are today. A hundred years from now, people are going to look at Hawaiian hairstyles...! (laughing) Even with our old pictures, you know, that might not be how it was. That’s somebody’s interpretation of how it was, or somebody’s interpretation of the person who gave them the sketch of their interpretation. You have to be very discerning. Images you look at, people you talk to, there’s so many perspectives, so many experiences of what went on. So many different stories. I’m just trying to give my perspective.

MG: How do you think you came to be in this place, fairly confident in where you are as an artist? I’m sure there’s a lot of young Hawaiians, or young Hawaiian artists, who aren’t sure where they fit or what their voice is.

CP: Well, being an undercover Hawaiian growing up, being fair skinned, you learn how to . . . I don’t want to say live in both worlds, but as Kalehua Krug kinda put it, you work twice as hard. I guess for advice . . . really trusting in your voice and knowing that it’s OK to speak up, it’s OK to disagree. It’s actually very good to disagree. Know that what you have to say is important and contributing to what is happening today, what is going to happen. 

I think at one point, the moment I graduated from UH and left, the lights just went on, I don’t know. Or I stepped back into pō . . . I almost had this weight lifted off of me, I didn’t have to please anybody anymore. I think if kids learned that early on, to feel confident in who they are and what they have to contribute, it’d be a lot easier for them. [laughing]

As a teacher now, I can’t stand when I give the students freedom to do what they want, and they’re frozen because I’m not holding their hand, taking them through it. I’m actually giving them the opportunity to be themselves. Usually with the first year class, it’s very technically oriented, skill-based. So, we’ll be covering a monotype print, it’s almost like finger-painting on glass then pulling a print from there. I’ll teach them the technique, but the theme, the subject matter, is totally up to you. They just sit and look at the pane of glass like . . . they’re dumbfounded. I think the way the system is set up, we hold them by the hand too much. Maybe if we look at it coming from a cultural perspective of education, where we demonstrate, they watch, listen, then they do, then they might have a better grasp of things, of the way life works. I’m really big on inherent knowledge. That whole base of knowledge that we have that’s passed down to us. There are the those students that get it, you know, they’re the ones that are in here all the time, taking class over . . . you find those students that you’re on the same wavelength with, with that same kind of soul. And it might be only one a semester, or one a year, but like they say, if you can touch one student . . . [laughing] Chase that carrot. I think they say only one, because if you get four or five, you’re like "WOW! This is a great year!" [laughing]

And it’s nice, because a lot of the students that I’ve had that kind of rapport with have kept in touch. They’ll come back and share what they’re doing, or if they’ve changed to an art major or minor, or they want to go into art education. That I think is really rewarding. 

MG: Do you have a particular experience or achievement that really sticks out? One that you’re especially proud of? 

CP: I think . . . something that stands out is actually a chain of experiences, when I was in Aotearoa visiting different marae, and I was the only Hawaiian, the only visitor. They would have a welcoming for me, they would get up and do their long speeches and I would have to get up by myself, give my talk, and then usually you sing. Talk about humility. Talk about . . . growing . . . thank goodness for Song Contest. That was kind of a highlight, those experiences. Fortunately I had been on that trip in 1995 with a group, and I wasn’t the elder, we had our designated speakers, so I knew what to expect. But you can never prepare for it, the first time especially. That really helped my confidence, my public speaking, not being afraid to be embarrassed just to be myself in the face of humility and adversity [laughing]. Over there, they don’t put any walls up. There’s no facades, you know, they’re not trying to be something else. Very accepting of who they are, and who you are, too. They try to let you know that straightaway. 

MG: Any closing mana‘o?

CP: Just . . . try to be supportive of the arts. Go out and see what other people are saying, how they’re experiencing life. For an instant, it might open something up for you that inspires you to go and do something you’ve always wanted to do, or never thought of doing. It might be a painting, it might be going kayaking, anything. Just be open. 

Carl pao haleiwa mural  large

photo courtesy of: Ka Ipu o Lono

Artist Carl Pao pauses work on a mural to pose for a photo.

Carl pao paid by the sea  large

photo courtesy of: Ka Ipu o Lono

"Paid by the Sea" by Carl Pao.

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