Faces of Konawaena: Original artist to revive mural adorning high school gymnasium

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly listed the Konawaena Foundation’s mailing zip code as 96740. The correct zip code is 96750. It is the policy of West Hawaii Today to correct any incorrect information as soon as it is brought to the attention of the paper.

KAILUA-KONA — More than 40 years ago, Martin Charlot ventured to the edge of the world to capture its essence in brush strokes.

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Now in his mid-70s, Charlot will soon return to replicate that effort with the complete revival of a mural ravaged by time, termites and the elements, which adorns the Ellison Onizuka Gymnasium at Konawaena High School in Kealakekua.

“Hawaii is the most distant landmass in the whole world, and Kona is the most distant place in that landmass,” he said. “So you’re really at the end of the earth when you’re there in Kona. Even more so back then.”

Charlot spent four decades in Hawaii and grew up on the islands. Yet he said locals still initially regarded him as an outsider when he settled into West Hawaii at the age of the 30 to start work on the first of many murals to come throughout his career.

That sense of worlds colliding is perhaps the most prominent on the 5.3-foot by 162-foot work, as its imagery, located directly above the entrance to the gym, greets visitors first.

“You’d go into a community and people who weren’t from there were kind of looked at a little askant, and I wanted to capture that,” Charlot said. “So those two figures right over the door, those two teenagers, that young lady and young man, are kind of looking out at you as you arrive at the gymnasium with a little bit of a cold eye asking, ‘Who is this stranger?’”

But the work is far from singular. Charlot’s brother, John, describes the mural in his book as “a psychic landscape of Kona,” juxtaposing the elements of Hawaii Island’s unique geological composition and exploring its humanity through the dimension of time — a connection between the old and the new.

For Konawaena principal Shawn Suzuki, it’s the mural’s many faces that resonate most profoundly. Parents and community members tell him that one face is their grandfather, another is an auntie, yet another is a friend from the past.

Charlot, who said he retains several ties to Hawaii including many people he loves, used real life inspirations for a number of the portraits in the mural.

One belongs to Calvin Ho, who Charlot worked with in the 1970s on Oahu as part of a community association where Charlot said the two helped preserve the Waiahole Valley by standing in the way of a proposed housing development.

Another face belongs to Charlot himself, a signature of sorts emerging from a crashing wave in the upper right corner of the last wooden panel on the makai side of the gymnasium.

Yet many of the faces had no names, existing only in the land and the artist’s imagination.

“When you walk around on the lava and you look at it, it’s like looking up at the clouds,” Charlot said of the images that struck him as he strolled. “When I looked down at the lava, I’d see what looked like people that had been covered over by the lava. I imagined them breaking out of the rock and that became a very important image in the mural. It’s one … that has stayed with me for a long time. I liked that image of a strong man being born out of the earth.”

The only planned change to the mural will be the inclusion of a portrait of Ellison Onizuka, to whom the gym was dedicated after Charlot finished the mural in 1976.

Faded, but not for long

Time has stolen the expressions from several of Charlot’s faces. His return to Hawaii Island, likely sometime this winter for a three- to five-month restoration project, will bring them back to life.

But there have been several obstacles to overcome, and their resurrection for many years remained a question. It was the state that commissioned the mural and up until about a year ago, the Hawaii State Foundation on Culture and the Arts that acted as its steward.

The foundation reached out to Suzuki a few years after he assumed the principalship in 2003 with a directive that unsettled him. The mural on the gym was in a condition of ever-declining disrepair, and they wanted him to dismantle and destroy it.

“I’m going to be the principal that takes that mural down?” Suzuki remembered asking himself. “I forgot about the call. Let’s put it that way.”

He decided on a different course — restoration. But that was tricky. The foundation explained the only person allowed to work on the mural was the original artist. So Suzuki tried to track down Charlot.

As it happens, he finally got in contact with the artist only a few months after Charlot’s daughter had returned from a visit to Hawaii Island. She’d seen the mural and told her father he ought to consider restoring it. Then Suzuki called. Charlot took it as a sign.

“He said, ‘Shawn, if you get that mural down and you put a brush in my hand, we’ll make it new,’” Suzuki said.

However, it quickly became clear that painting over the old plywood canvasses wasn’t an option. The termite and rain damage was too severe. If Charlot was going to do this, it would have to be from scratch.

And scratch is the operative word, Suzuki explained, as he projects the overall cost in the neighborhood of $60,000-$80,000. The school has some money for supplies, but also required are funds to transport and house Charlot and his team of three artists who will assist with the project, all of whom will also be paid wages for their work.

Regardless of the cost, Suzuki called the opportunity more than a bargain.

“It’s a blessing,” he said.

Foundation to help

Suzuki thinks the school will need to fund raise to the tune of $30,000-$40,000 to make the project happen. Enter the Konawaena Foundation.

Gloria Krier Matthews, part of the Mural Restoration Committee that’s working alongside the Konawaena Foundation, said a GoFundMe account was set up in May but hasn’t been meaningfully publicized yet. At this point, it’s raised only about $400. However, she said efforts to get the word out will ramp up in August.

The link to the account can be found by visiting the homepage of the Konawaena High School website or simply by visiting https://www.gofundme.com/KonawaenaMuralRestoration.

“We’re hoping to just tap into the community and alumni,” Krier Matthews said. “You know, $5 a person goes a long way.”

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The committee and the foundation are also accepting fundraising ideas and proposals from interested community members. Those can be submitted via email to konawaena.mural.restoration@gmail.com.

Anyone interested in donating by check can make the check out to the Konawaena Foundation and specify in the memo line that it’s for the restoration project. Checks can be mailed to the foundation at 81-1043, Konawaena School Road, Kealakekua, HI 96750.