Artist Kirk Kurokawa is Living His Dream
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Kirk Kurokawa was in the first or second grade when knew he wanted to be an artist.
“As long as I can remember, I have always liked art,” said the 44-year-old award-winning painter.
Like many youngsters, the Wailuku resident was fond of comics and animated movies. But he also had an affinity for painters like Norman Rockwell and local artists, including Hawaiian historian and Polynesian Voyaging Society co-founder Herb Kane. He was also impressed by the work of Maui-born artist Tadashi Sato, whose circular mosaic piece, “Aquarius,” graces the rotunda of the Hawai‘i State Capitol. Sato, who served with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in World War II, made the iconic work from six million tile pieces that had been imported from Italy.
And now, Kurokawa is on his way to becoming just as famous as the artists he has always admired.
Last July, Kurokawa’s commissioned portrait of former Hawai‘i Gov. Neil Abercrombie was unveiled at the Hawai‘i State Art Museum. The oil on canvas portrait measuring 48 inches by 36 inches shows Abercrombie standing on a länai at Washington Place. It is now displayed in the ceremonial room of the governor’s office along with the portraits of Hawai‘i’s 17 previous governors.
Abercrombie selected Kurokawa from a field of 46 artists from across the nation who applied for the commission. Some had previously painted portraits of presidents, chief justices and members of Congress. The selection process also included an interview with Abercrombie, who said he was impressed with Kurokawa’s work and passion.
“I’m completely impressed and totally confident in not only his (Kurokawa’s) talent but his commitment to our values in Hawai‘i,” Abercrombie said of Kurokawa’s selection in a 2017 news release issued by the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts.
The 1992 Baldwin High School graduate said he was proud to have received the commission from SFCA, which paid Kurokawa $38,750, including his artist’s fee, framing, shipping and travel. At the time, Kurokawa said it was the “most significant” work he had done to date, noting that it is now a part of Hawai‘i’s history.
“I did feel confident in my abilities to paint a good portrait, but I definitely felt the weight and importance of the project,” he said. “There were parts of the portrait process that were very challenging, but the most stressful part is the anticipation of finding out what the community and Governor Abercrombie were going to think when it was done.”
From application to unveiling, the process took Kurokawa two years to complete and included several trips to O‘ahu to meet with Abercrombie and the selection team. Kurokawa said he spent about three months actually painting the former governor at his home studio in Wailuku.
Kurokawa, who is Japanese, Chinese and Hawaiian, was born and raised on Maui. He said his artistic interests were supported and encouraged from a young age. His mother enrolled him in art classes, where he learned painting, drawing and ceramics.
“I am not sure what drew me to art, but I have a very artistic family. I have a few cousins and family members that are artists, as well.”
After graduating from Baldwin High School, Kurokawa began his formal training at the California College of Arts in San Francisco, where he majored in illustration. He earned his bachelor of fine arts degree with distinction in 1997 and then worked on the Mainland for a time, designing covers for compact discs.
When the internet began taking off, Kurokawa did illustrations for websites. But the jobs weren’t steady — sometimes he had lots of work, other times hardly anything.
In 1997, Kurokawa decided to return to Maui. Last year he told The Maui News that the move home sparked his interest in painting.
Kurokawa’s all-time favorite works are three portraits he painted of his growing family. They were featured at the Schaefer Portrait Challenge, a statewide, juried exhibition that showcases the diversity of Hawaii’s people through portraiture. The event is sponsored annually by the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. Kurokawa has participated in the challenge for several years, garnering numerous honors, including the Peoples Choice Award and the Juror’s Choice Award.
Kurokawa describes his Schaefer Portrait Challenge works as “slices of life” paintings. One shows his family walking together to the beach. Another shows them riding different modes of wheels — bicycles, tricycles, even a baby-walker.
“The subject matter of people in their every day activities intrigues me because most of the scenes I paint happen in an instant,” he explained. “Sometimes it is so fast that we miss it or we don’t remember it. I want the viewers of my paintings to enjoy these moments and maybe be inspired to look and pay more attention to the little things in life.”
One painting shows a little girl about 5 or 6 years old, wearing an orange dress and rubber slippers with a backpack on her back, intently drinking a can of soda while walking behind one of her parents.
Kurokawa also enjoys painting landscapes, including restful scenes of Waikapü and ‘Ulupalakua on Maui, and birds and hula dancers. His website, kirkkurokawa.com, shows a good variety of his works and style, including slices of life scenes from Japan.
Kurokawa said his paintings are heavily influenced by Japanese woodblock prints. “I love Japanese woodblock prints and general graphic aesthetics that Japan tends to have.”
His paintings have been exhibited at Art Maui at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center; Across the Hawaiian Islands: Recent Landscape Painting, Group Exhibition at The Contemporary Museum at the First Hawaiian Center on O‘ahu; Hui No‘eau Members Show on Maui; Accession, Recent Acquisitions from the Art in Public Places Collection at the Hawaii State Art Museum; Viewpoints, Solo Exhibition, The Contemporary Museum and the Hui No‘eau Solo Show on Maui.
Kurokawa is one of the fortunate few artists who are able to make their living as a full-time artist. He does both gallery and commissioned work that many people purchase and take home beyond the shores of Maui.
“I’m happy to say that I have work in many different countries. It is fantastic to know that some of my work is hanging on walls around the world.”
Kurokawa is embarking on another significant project, which will have him painting a 76-foot-long mural at the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center in Wailuku.
NVMC executive director Deidre Tegarden said Kurokawa wanted to do something special for the center. After some brainstorming, NVMC and Kurokawa decided on a mural honoring the legacy of the Nisei veterans, including the veterans’ wish to be involved in “continuing service,” and making things better for future generations.
“We are thrilled and honored to have Kirk Kurokawa share his talent with us on a mural that will pay homage to the past and the future generations for the entire community to enjoy,” Tegarden said.
Kurokawa looked through the center’s extensive archives for imagery and photos, which he is using as reference material and for inspiration. He also read news articles and books.
“It was also awesome to hear the stories from the men themselves when the center had some of the veterans come and speak at a couple of the events in the past,” he said. “It was quite humbling to see what these men and their families had to endure. I just want to honor these brave people as best I can,” he said.
Kurokawa said he expects his sketches to be approved soon. His plan is for the mural to begin at 2 to 3 feet high and reach as tall as 7 feet.
Tegarden said the mural will be painted on the center’s front wall, near its entrance. Work is expected to begin this summer and should be completed by the end of the year.
“It is an important project to me and I definitely put a lot of pressure on myself . . . . I just want the artwork to be worthy of the center and what they represent,” Kurokawa said.
Melissa Tanji has been a reporter for The Maui News since 2000. The Maui native earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa.