BY CYNTHIA SWEENEY
North Hawaii News
He stands 8and a half feet tall, wearing the sacred, feather kihei, mahiole and ka’ei (cape, helmet and sash) with an outstretched, open palm in a gesture of ‘welcome.’
Kamehameha The Great, the legendary king who united the Hawaiian islands, watches over his community and takes center stage each year in a celebration in which Kohala honors its favorite son.
After decades of exposure to the elements, however, concern for preservation led to the restoration of the king’s monument, and the debate over whether to continue to paint the statue, or restore it to its original gilt. This question raised artistic and cultural issues, inspired a PBS special, a book, and changed one man’s life.
“I certainly had an intense experience,” said Glenn Wharton, who led the restoration project, and is back in Kohala this year for routine 10 year maintenance. “It was interesting to me that the community voted to continue the tradition of painting the sculpture. What was even more interesting was the passion that people brought to the project.”
Using a torch and power washer, Wharton and his team removed 117 years and 23 layers of paint. Revealed, was a bare statue, with a very life-like face. Photos taken during this process are on display behind the statue.
No one can recall if the statue had ever been restored before. The 130-year-old monument is owned by the State and located on County property, yet is taken care of by community volunteers who regularly clean and maintain the statue.
“We don’t own it, but we do take ownership of it,” said Sharon Hayden, community organizer, and the force behind the restoration of the statue.
Wharton was part of a team that re-gilt Kamehameha’s statue in Honolulu in 1994, and in 2005, he did the same to the king’s statue in Hilo. His list of credentials is lengthy. Most notably he is an art conservator at the New York Museum of Modern Art.
Initially, Wharton questioned whether painting the Kohala statue might be like “painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa.”
Likewise, the decision to hire an outside expert to restore the statue was a concern for Hayden and others that Wharton would not understand how the community, and many members who are direct descendants of Kamehameha, feel about the statue. For many, the statue is like ohana, and when they talk to the statue, it’s like talking to an ancestor, Hayden explained.
“It represents all these things we care about and want to perpetuate,” she said.
“They (Wharton) are like scientists who steward objects into the future, with regard to the artist’s original intention. But Glenn fit right in, and got the emotional impact. He was willing to step outside of wearing the scientist hat and ask ‘what do these people want?’”
The project turned out to be life-changing for Wharton, who went on to write a book about his experience. On the statue, he worked closely with Kohala native, and Kamehameha descendant, Nalani Cabrerea.
“For me it was a really interesting job,” Wharton said. “For Nalani, it was an act of devotion. I learned a lot about Hawaiian values working with Nalani. He taught me about respect that Hawaiians have for their elders, including the king. He offered prayers to Kamehameha daily, and would often climb down from the scaffolding and tell the history of the sculpture through hula to people who stopped by.”
Originally, the statue was not destined for Kohala at all. Kamehameha died in 1819, and 60 years after his death, the Hawaii legislature voted to place a monument in front of the government building in Honolulu. King David Kalakaua commissioned the sculpture from Thomas Ridgeway Gould, a Boston-based sculptor, who drew inspiration from photographs Kalakaua sent him of the original garments, including the feathered cape of King Kamehameha, worn by two part-Hawaiian brothers. This cape for the 7 1/2-foot tall Kamehameha was made of feathers from the mamo bird, a black bird with only two small, yellow feathers. It would have taken generations to make. These sacred garments are now on display at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.
There was great debate over where the statue should stand, however. The seat of government was in Honolulu, yet Kohala was his birthplace. It was argued that no one would see the monument in the isolated community on the northern tip of the Big Island, and the statue was cast in bronze in Paris and shipped to Honolulu.
The sculpture went down in a shipwreck, however. Insurance paid for a second statue, which was unveiled in Honolulu in 1883 during the coronation of King Kalakaua.
Meanwhile, the original sculpture was found intact, in a shipwreck in the Falkland Islands. The original statue was shipped to Kohala, escorted by Kalakaua, and installed in front of the Boy’s School in Ainakea 1883. It was moved to it’s present location in front of the original courthouse (now the Senior Center) in 1912. There, it was painted brown, as knowledge of how to re-gild the statue had been lost. Archival photographs indicate it has been painted in different colors at least since 1908.
Kohala native and historian Fred Cachola now lives on Oahu, and spoke by phone about the original gilding of the statue.
“To me it was a very tremendous turnaround from the value of feathers, to that of gold,” Cachola said. “There was a very clear shift at that time of mores and values. It would have taken three or four generations to collect the feathers and another one to make the cape. Gold takes all of that away.”
In 2000, after much debate, a vote was put to the community, in the form of a ballot in every mailbox in Kohala, whether to gild the statue according to the original intent, or to paint it with traditional colors as had always been done. The response was overwhelmingly in favor of painting the statue.
With Wharton looking on, colors were chosen by a team of community leaders, that matched the paint to actual feathers, and skin color. A copy of the only portrait ever painted of the King hangs in the courthouse behind the statue, and this portrait is considered the main referral point for issues regarding the color of Kamehameha’s skin.
Wharton used an industrial paint system that is designed not to fade over time. The team used scientific methods, analyzing, assessing and documenting the entire process.
This year — in conjunction with Kamehameha Day — Wharton is back in Kohala for a 10-year maintenance visit. The paint is holding up well, he said, however the base of the statue suffered a crack in the 2006 earthquake. He will also treat the stone base for organic growth, clean it, and touch up minor paint losses.
The Hawaiian Alliance for Arts Education, in Honolulu, has served as the coordinating agency for this entire project. People in the community, from preschoolers to senior citizens have been involved in fundraising. Funds this year were secured by the North Kohala Resource and include $5,000 from the Atherton Family Foundation, $2,500 from the Dorrance Family Foundation and $2,500 from the Hawaii State Commission on the Kamehameha Celebration.
Wharton’s book, “The Painted King: Art, Activism, and Authenticity in Hawaii,” will be published this fall by the University of Hawaii Press.
Saturday, Kohala will celebrate Kamehameha Day with lei draping that begins at 8 a.m., led by kupuna Kealoha Sugiyama. Residents will drape the statue in tremendous leis using bamboo poles. Although there is no ho’olaule’a this year, a parade with Grand Marshal Joe Carvalho, and descendants of the King Margret and Lena Pule, begins at 9 a.m.