Artist Keala Kai navigates life with a pencil in hand

Five months ago Keala Kai started drawing outrigger canoes as a way to fend off depression.

“I thought depression — no way. I drink one beer and I’ll be fine,” recalled Kai.

On the day this free-spirited ex-lifeguard was scheduled to end his time on the Hokule‘a, a veteran navigator on the famed sailing canoe warned Kai of the perils he may face upon returning to Kaua‘i. “Hokule‘a can only train you for the voyage,” Kai recalled. “Hokule‘a can not train you for when you go home.”

Kai had joined the crew of the Hokule‘a to sail to Japan earlier this year. The Hokule‘a was the first canoe built by the Polynesian Voyaging Society to prove that ancient Polynesian voyaging canoes did indeed sail long distances using the stars for navigation. The Hokule‘a made its first crossing to Tahiti in 1976.

Kai didn’t expect or prepare for the shock of returning from his month-long working tour. “I missed the camaraderie and the simplicity of sailing.” He missed it so much, that all he wanted to do was sit at the old picnic table under his starfruit tree and draw canoes.

What began as a therapeutic tool to cure his yen for sailing, evolved into an educational tool on Hawai‘i culture. The artist’s work not only links him intimately to his ancestry but on the level of craft, his drawings zoom in on minute details of construction.

Last month when Kai wandered into the Ship Store Gallery at the Coconut Market Place, he was surprised to discover his drawings appealed to others. Today, framed originals of Kai’s pencil drawings hang in the Ship Store Gallery next to such notable painter-historians as Raymond A. Massey.

“People are drawn to my work because not too many artists draw Hawai‘i structurally,” said Kai.

But there’s more to Kai’s work then craftsmanship. For insight on culture and history of the outrigger canoe, the artist includes statements that accompany each drawing.

Wa‘e: A Cross-section of a Canoe, Kai wrote: “. . . whenever I look at this cross-section of a Hawaiian canoe, it reminds me of the great risks my ancestors took as they explored our world during a time when voyaging canoes were still made of natural materials. I often wonder how many lives were lost at sea during those treacherous voyages, what was the name of the first canoe that found Hawai‘i, and what were the names of her crew…..”

Kai not only draws canoes, he is presently part of a team of builders working on Kaua‘i’s own voyaging canoe, the Namahoe.

“See that sawdust,” Kai said, pointing to a heap of shavings scattered in a flower bed. “That has mana. It’s from the paddle that will steer us to Tahiti someday in the Namahoe.”

“When I die, this is how I will be remembered,” said Kai. “This is a special time to build a voyaging canoe and to draw them.”

Kai said he will never draw a picture of the Hokule‘a, however. “Some moments are too big to capture,” said Kai. “I would draw something like the Hokule’a but not the actual vessel.”

Kai’s trip on the Hokule‘a to Japan may be the catalyst that steered him toward his present occupation drawing canoes, but he has been playing with pencil and paper since he was a boy.

“I’ve always drawn,” said Kai. “My grandfather was a machinist and taught me to draw with a pencil.”

“Then I had an art teacher, Roberta Agena. She was a very good artist.”

Kai recalled a day in school when he was drawing a race car on the desk in pencil. “The room got quiet and I knew she was right behind me,” said Kai. “But she didn’t say anything.”

“So the next day, we come to class and she stood at the front of the room and said, ‘the subject for today is how to draw geometrical objects in placement of light and shadow.’ Then she looked right at me.”

When Agena raised the projector screen, on the chalk board behind it, she had drawn a perfect rendition of a race car wheel.

“That was my yesterday’s wheel,” said Kai. “I knew then I wanted to draw like that.”

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