Help solve a Kaua‘i art mystery

The Kaua‘i Historical Society is on a treasure hunt — following clues to piece together an outstanding portfolio of Kaua‘i’s visual past. These sleuth-seeking historians are in need of your help.

From the mid-1970s to early 1980s, an Oscar-winning art director took it upon himself to create 100 original drawings depicting views of the island. Tambi Larsen and his wife Barbara Dole lived in Ha‘ena on the North Shore in the 70s and 80s, and it was during this time that Larsen created a treasure trove of original art. He decisively chose to shift focus from the typically captured natural beauty of Kaua‘i to the businesses and structures that recall a bygone era of pre-Wal-Mart development. The Historical Society is planning to publish a book of these historic drawings, but can only locate 50 of them: Have you seen a colored-pencil drawing that resembles these? If you have, you could help create an invaluable archive that has high cultural value to the history of Kaua‘i.

While his father was working as a missionary in Banglore, India, Tambi Larsen was born on Sept. 14, 1914. His colorful and visually rich birth-country must have formed his bold aesthetic which carried him to Hollywood success by mid-century.

“Larsen attended the Royal College of Engineering before pursuing more creative endeavors at Yale Drama School and becoming a U.S. citizen. Prior to breaking into the movie industry, Larsen worked frequently as an art director on Broadway before serving as a broadcaster over the Voice of America, for the Office of War Information in London during World War II. In the year following the war, Larsen began his career as an art director for Paramount, later receiving his first official job on 1953’s “The Secret of the Incas.” Winning an Oscar two years after his debut, for “The Rose Tattoo,” Larsen would later be nominated by the Academy for Best Art Direction for “Hud” (1963), “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” (1965), “The Molly Maguires” (1970), and “Heaven’s Gate” (1980), and would win a British Academy of Film and Television award for “Spy,” reports Jason Buchanan of The New York Times.

“We are currently working on developing a book with the original art works of Tambi Larsen called ‘100 Entertainments,’” writes a member of the Kaua‘i Historical Society, Lindsey Fayé. Fayé is heading the treasure hunt for the society and has catalogued “about 50 of the drawings so far. Working on this has been a lot of fun. You start looking at the details in these drawings and the history of the island comes alive,” Fayé said.

“Larsen retired to Kaua‘i and decided to do a total of 100 colored drawings of various locations of the island over the years. We need to find the owners of his artwork so that we can get them digitized for publication,” states the Historical Society’s Web site on the possible future publication of the Larsen book.

Tracking down the missing work is the task facing Fayé. “We are working with the Printmaker to scan everything — they’re doing a great job,” she said. The pieces were sold after a series of four exhibits held at The Kaua‘i Museum in 1982, ‘84, ‘88 and ‘91. Each show contained 25 illustrations ranging from locales in Ha‘ena to Polihale. While most of the pieces were catalogued when sold, some changed hands later on, leaving a vanishing trail of these precious works.

Larsen’s wife currently lives in California and is supporting this endeavor, but has no clues to finding the missing art works. Larsen died in March of 2000, in his North Hollywood home. “All you have to do is just look at these pieces and you know he must have just loved the island,” said Fayé.

The influence of mid-century modernist aesthetic and ‘international style’ of geometry and mathematics clearly informed Larsen’s unique perspective on the island’s functioning architecture and the built-environment. When every other artist of that time became mesmerized by Kaua‘i exquisite flora and fauna, painting waterfalls and orchids ad nauseam, Larsen saw the beauty and perfection in another aspect of the island’s living culture: its buildings, homes, gas stations and churches. His choice to use colored pencil was unusual compared to his more typical work of watercolor and occasional oil.

Looking over the fifty works already documented is like taking a trip through time. With the ease and prolific advent of the digital camera, a project such as Larsen’s is even more rare today. Looking at hand-sketched snapshots that Larsen lovingly drew, Fayé said, “it’s really an amazing collection, and we are determined to find the missing links.”

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