Using Waimea’s Kahilu Theatre as a blank canvas, hundreds of children and adults are creating an enormous outdoor mural that defines their community and creates a sense of place.
Their gazes were fixed pensively on three walls as they made clean lines, brush strokes and aerosol undulations late Tuesday afternoon. Meanwhile, motorists pulled over to watch the distinctive panorama in progress or honked in approval while rushing by. Other passers-by did more than a double take. Since the painting began Monday, people have crowded around the project for photographs and contemplation. Some have offered to lend a hand.
This vivid public art is more than a work of beauty. It’s a unique project that empowers youth, provides art education, and strengthens community while highlighting traditional Hawaiian mele. It’s part of Mele Murals, a program by the Estria Foundation, a nonprofit co-founded by Oahu-based muralist Estria Miyashiro. It is working to create social change through the creation of art in public spaces.
The foundation plans to paint 20 murals, all focusing on mele that explore moolelo aina (stories of place), cultural heritage and history. It strives to create pieces that are “artistically excellent, deeply connect to the history of Hawaii, and a source of pride.” Other goals include building and sustaining public art statewide; helping youth become storytellers, painters and community leaders; and allowing all to learn and share mele, stories and Hawaiian values.
The foundation partnered with Kanu o ka Aina New Century Public Charter School for this project, which is its first neighbor island Mele Mural and second overall. The credit for the collaboration goes to kumu Kanoa Castro, who contacted the foundation when one of his students asked to do a project on graffiti and later took a small group of students to participate on a Mele Mural on Oahu, said 16-year-old Kay-ala Kahaulelio, a Kanu o ka Aina junior and the project’s student-leader.
With some schools choosing to cut art programs and physical education, projects like this Mele Mural in Waimea become even more important. Exclusion and marginalization of the arts means students miss out on valuable cultural learning experiences, as well as opportunities to develop their innovative thinking skills and have a voice in their community, Miyashiro said.
Through the generosity and support of residents and businesses, Kanu o ka Aina raised roughly $4,000 for the project, which typically costs about $20,000. There were numerous in-kind gifts, including use of scaffolds and meals made by families for the participants, said Mahea Akau, the foundation’s program event coordinator.
Students from Waimea Middle School, Hawaii Preparatory Academy, Parker School, Punana Leo o Waimea and Alo Kehau o ka Aina Mauna have also worked on the mural. During Monday’s Paint Party, more than 350 people of all ages engaged in this art piece.
Kahaulelio said it was a long, thoughtful and rewarding process coming up with the themes for the mural. Workshops began Feb. 24. Nearly 50 Kanu o ka Aina, Waimea Middle School and HPA students were guided by Miyashiro and John “Prime” Hina, a graffiti artist who started 808 Urban, a collective of artists, organizers and volunteers improving the quality of life in communities through arts programming.
Excursions were taken. Input was received from community leaders, cultural practitioners, kupuna and those in performing arts. She thanked all who shared their time and knowledge, often poetically and with tremendous heart. From them, Kahaulelio said she learned storytelling is an art itself and that these shared stories are the foundation for our continuing to take care of us, our history and the places we hold dear.
Kahaulelio said the three mele chosen were “Malana Mai Ka‘u,” “Hole Waimea” and “Na Puu Kaulana o Waimea.” She hopes viewers recognize elements from each — whether it’s the famous Kipuupuu rain or the puu that protect the watershed. The mural also celebrates an olelo noeau, a saying that translates as “The canoe is an island, an island a canoe,” she added.
For Kahaulelio, this project isn’t just about painting something as thought-provoking as it is aesthetically pleasing. “It’s coming from deep. It’s about connection to each other, this place, the community,” she said.
In the end, Miyashiro hopes the participating students will form a mural club and be inspired to continue doing public art. He also hopes the mural will be an asset that the community is proud of; a landmark that viewers are attached to and feel a deep connection; and a treasured gathering place to share stories and engage.
The public is invited to attend today’s unveiling of the mural from 4 to 6:30 p.m. at Kahilu Theatre. This free event features live entertainment, food and craft vendors. Donations are welcomed. For more information, visit estria.org.