Labor of legacy: Artist reworks decades-old mural at Konawaena High School

  • Martin Charlot paints a replica mural for the Ellison Onizuka Gym at Konawaena High School. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Martin Charlot uses photographs to paint a replica mural for the Ellison Onizuka Gym at Konawaena High School. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Martin Charlot paints a replica mural for the Ellison Onizuka Gym at Konawaena High School. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Kamalu Charlot helps his father recreate the mural on the Ellison Onizuka Gym at Konawaena High School. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • The mural on Ellison Onizuka Gym at Konawaena Gym is being replicated by the original artist. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Martin Charlot paints a replica mural for the Ellison Onizuka Gym at Konawaena High School. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — Martin Charlot’s first step off the plane was a step through time.

The artist and author slept on picnic tables in public parks in the Puna District when he was 18. The state commissioned a massive mural for what is now known as the Ellison Onizuka Gymnasium at Konawaena High School from Charlot in his 30s. And now, in the heart of his 70s, Charlot has returned at the behest of the school to replicate what he captured on canvass more than four decades ago — legacy, community and history of place.

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More than five months in, Charlot regards the monumental task an honor and a responsibility. But traveling back to an island full of personal history he’s called home more than once to recreate a seminal piece of his life’s collection makes the work more than just those things.

It’s become an emotional journey of a distinctly circular quality, conjuring lost faces of both the vital and hand-drawn varieties, and reconnecting a man late in years with who he was at an influential point in his past.

“A lot of my life is mixed up in this mural,” Charlot said as rain poured down outside the open car port in South Kona serving as his studio. “I had some very personal things that happened while I was doing the mural, things that changed my life completely. Like my wife leaving me … and raising four kids on my own.”

“When you paint something, you’re touching it,” he continued. “Your feelings are very real. You become very involved in it. The emotions do flood back as you’re working, as you touch the board and touch the moment of what was happening when you first painted it. You remember all of that.”

Now requiring either a wheelchair or walker, and also down the sight in his right eye, three of Charlot’s children have spent stints on the island helping their father paint from scratch 38 plastic/fiberglass panels, each 4 feet wide and 5 feet, 3 inches high.

Charlot has also enlisted help from fellow artists, like Oahu’s Calvin Ho who is portrayed in the mural along with his son, along with friends, namely Rosa and Marcelino Sanchez, who have been with Charlot since he arrived in December.

Rosa has been Charlot’s caregiver for more than 15 years and manages the mural’s joints, the areas where panels connect, scaling scaffolding and touching up the barriers until they’re invisible. Her husband, Marcelino, sanded the panels and has also assisted with the painting.

Even with the extra hands, it’s likely to be at least two or three more months before Charlot casts his final brush stroke. The first time around, when the work was completed with less reliable paint on wooden canvasses that would be ravaged by weather and termites over coming decades, the project took two years to complete.

“It’s a big labor,” said Charlot, who spends 10 hours daily brush-in-hand. “It’s a huge mural, and I want to make it as least as good as I did the first time. But I’m even wanting to make it better.”

The newer version isn’t a precise shot-for-shot remake of the original, though it’s close. The most prominent change is the inclusion of Onizuka, the gymnasium’s namesake, on a prominent panel near the entrance — more or less the center of the mural, which stretches along three sides of the structure.

A smaller change will be the addition of native Hawaiian birds to various corners of the piece, images inspired by photos sent to Charlot from his granddaughter who is conducting scientific research on Kure Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Shawn Suzuki, principal at Konawaena High School and author of the effort to restore Charlot’s work rather than discard it, believes the value of the end product will exceed the cost of time, money and effort on the part of everyone involved.

That value exists in the legacy and pride of the South Kona community the “vibrant” mural represents, and for whom it was meant to enjoy, he said.

“That mural was up there over 40 years and in such a state of disrepair that so many details were lost,” Suzuki said. “It’s not like you could really stand there and look at the mural and tease out the images there or make connections to it. But now, you’re not going to be able to miss it.”

All the money for materials, housing of Charlot and his assistants, and paying for their work has come by way of donations and fundraising, Suzuki continued. The school expects a need of $10,000-$15,000 more to finish the project.

A fundraiser to that intent is scheduled for 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. June 15 at the school’s gymnasium. For $11, donors will receive a plate lunch from Kona Grill House consisting of lobster crab cake, rice and ocean salad. Tickets can be purchased at the Konawaena High School vice principal’s office.

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Attendees will be afforded an early look at some of Charlot’s newer work, as mural panels now adorn both the mauka and makai sides of the gym.

“As a muralist you want your art to be out for the people where it’s seen, where it’s not just a rarefied image meant for only people who are supposed to know about art,” Charlot said. “You’re making it for a community. That’s what murals are supposed to be about.”

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