By Karen Valentine
What happens when you bring together a group of 42 master artists and craftsmen, put them in a confined space for only four days, and task them with producing fine art worthy of a gala charity auction?
It brings to mind the various, whimsical, collective nouns describing groups of birds and animals—and I think all of these words might apply:
a busyness of ferrets
a chattering or clattering of choughs
an exaltation of larks
a fluther of jellyfish
a labour of moles
a murmuration of starlings
a pandemonium of parrots
a parliament of rooks
a zeal of zebras
Although it may be a less playful word, yet still appropriate, the founders of this event have chosen to call it a collaboration.
The space is the open-air studio of Hōlualoa master woodworker/craftsman Tai Lake. The cast of characters is made up of 42 collaborating artists invited from Hawai‘i Island and beyond. Each one represents a specialty medium, as well as other factors such as geographic location, heritage and experience. “Put it all together and magic happens”, says Tai. The synergy of great minds and great talents collaborating together produces a new level of art compared with singular creations.
The serious work of fine art is most times a solitary endeavor, interspersed with a few wine-and-cheese gallery openings and workshops, none of which allow sustained conversations about art. What to do with all the thoughts running through those creative brains? Bring them to Hawai‘i Artist Collaboration for a week in October.
This year, beginning on October 22, this exclusive group of artists, representing some 14 different media, are gathering together to share, learn, and create art. Modeled after larger events in Canada (the Emma Collaboration) and New Zealand, this event is in its seventh year and has expanded into a multi-cultural and international gathering that is building bridges between worlds, says co-founding artist Tai, who is an internationally renowned koa wood furniture designer. A no-reserve auction is scheduled for Saturday, October 28, with funds going partially toward charitable outreach for art education in Hawai‘i Island schools.
Tai shares, “You get really talented people together in a no-rules format, and over four days a whole different level of contact occurs. There is no better way to expand as an artist than to come together with like-minded individuals. This creates a ripple effect and begins an explosion of interconnection and new possibilities.”
In 2006, Tai and local master wood turner Cliff Johns were invited to a similar collaboration event in Saskatchewan, Canada, the Emma Lake International Collaboration. “This was the granddaddy of the whole movement, begun after a group of artists started swapping stories during a snowstorm in the 1980s.” The concept of master artists gathering together there grew over time until now the Saskatchewan event invites 100 artists each summer at various stages of their careers. Tai and Cliff, who “have been cohorts forever,” says Tai, started thinking about doing the same thing in Hawai‘i, a dream they fulfilled in 2011.
“They spun off another collab in New Zealand,” says Tai, who also traveled there to participate. “I got to see how a prairie culture [Saskatchewan]—which is a very community-oriented culture—works together, and then how New Zealand, with a strong indigenous community, collaborates, often combining contemporary and indigenous art concepts.” Tai feels the New Zealand example of taking contemporary and indigenous art to new levels is something Hawai‘i can emulate. Discussions among the artisans in a relaxed setting may help facilitate this.
Choosing to schedule their Hawai‘i event in the fall and with a host of professional contacts, Tai and Cliff started putting out the word. “After realizing that art teachers were not usually available at that time, we decided on professional artists, people who have mastered the art of controlling their own time. This is just a matrix that Cliff and I discovered. It’s all about the artists that come,” says Tai.
And come they do—with tools, talent and tents. Tai and Mary Jo Lake have hosted the event since the beginning at their own home property situated on two acres near Hōlualoa. There is space for camping, which also allows for evening gatherings around a circle and an ‘ohana (family) house that serves as the kitchen and cafeteria. About 22 community and artist volunteers pitch in to help out, including the Lake’s sons Jonah and Noah and daughter Kristin.
“Four countries are represented this year. We could do the whole thing with outsiders,” Tai says. “Everybody wants to come here. But the whole point of it was to get the local artists together first. Then we try to bring in people with expertise that isn’t here—blacksmithing, for example.”
A stroll around the property reveals a fairyland of workspaces inside industrial-style structures filled with big and small tools, stools and every manner of materials.
“This is mission control. It’s my woodworking studio. During ‘Collab’, we have about 14 different media represented, including jewelry, blacksmithing, ceramics, pottery, woodworking, welding, painting, plus Hawaiian cordage and carving. The energy is just ridiculous. Most people have multi-talents,” Tai said while showing the spaces. “This becomes the jewelry studio. We have an entire studio set-up and there are consistently six people just doing the tiny-shiney stuff. They also do components for others. It’s quite the magical workshop space. There is another shed set up over there for ceramics and fine art.”
Tai says he keeps trying to move the ‘Collab’ to a neutral space, perhaps larger. However that would have other challenges, like moving all the big equipment, tools and workbenches. “All other collaborations have to put it all together in some neutral spot. This is unique because we pretty much have a base core of everything you’d ever want. People donate equipment, and stuff just shows up. We have all these wonderful materials sitting around that people can use.”
On Sunday, the first day, the artists set up campsites, get acquainted and introduce themselves with a slide show. Then on Monday, they officially open with a Hawaiian-style blessing. “Then it’s four days of ‘hammers down’ and the auction on Saturday. Everything has to be done in a very short time.”
The auction is show time and open to the public. It’s a gala affair held at the Holualoa Innʻs Malulani Pavilion, with heavy pūpū (appetizers) and open bar. It’s a unique chance for members of the community to acquire some incredible pieces of art with the knowledge that it was created at this special event.
“Each of us has spent our lives perfecting some thing or other, but this is like the band. This is like the orchestra coming together. When you come together, suddenly there’s an exchange that happens on a master level that allows artists to start really stepping up in a way they couldn’t do on their own. Living together during this time, we ask ourselves, why don’t we live like this? This is the old guild system in villages where everybody was doing their thing and if they needed expert advice, just walked somewhere nearby. We’ve all been cordoned off into our own corner. Even on our island, no other art event has brought the five districts together. We are all so cloistered.”
Tai serves as president of the 501c3 nonprofit educational organization they formed, Hawai‘i Artist Collaboration, which has started a fund that is available to local public school teachers to apply for art supplies for classrooms. They have attracted broad support, he says, and they are self-supporting, not grant-dependent.
“These events are essentially self-funded. The artwork produced is sold at an auction at the end of the event. The revenue from this, plus the registration fees, is enough to host the next event. The benefit to our communities comes from having their artists cross-pollinated and reinvigorated so that they can continue to do all the good that they already do.”
The bar is raised on the quality of art produced for this auction, participants say, because the process has been enhanced with input from so many skilled artisans, as well as the elevated atmosphere and energy. All the pieces are unique and reminiscent of this time and place.
“Please join us at the auction for a look at what happens when these lifetimes of skills merge,” says Tai. “Thanks to all who help make this happen.” ❖
Hawai‘i Artist Collaboration Auction and Gala: October 28, 2017, 4 to 8pm. Tickets $35 online; $45 at the door.