Nisei Veterans Memorial Center Telling Their Story Inside and Out
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Crisp, colorless images of young American soldiers of Japanese ancestry are coming to life on a concrete canvas on the windswept oceanfront campus of the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center. At the center, situated where the towns of Kahului and Wailuku meet, award-winning artist Kirk Kurokawa chats with several admirers who have come by to see his depictions of the World War II Nisei soldiers, some of which stand 6 to 7 feet tall.
A couple of women snap photos with their cellular phones while others chat with the Maui-born artist.
“Every day, there is [at least] one person that stops [by],” Kurokawa said after the group left.
But that’s what his mural was intended to do.
The mural was the brainchild of the center’s former executive director, Deidre Tegarden, and NVMC board member Saedene Ota. They wanted to attract “more visibility” to the center, which is located along busy Kahului Beach Road, Kurokawa said.
And so the idea was born.
By mid-October, Kurokawa expects to wrap up work on the 80-foot-long concrete canvas that is located along the hilly driveway leading up to the center.
The Nisei Veterans Memorial Center was developed by Maui’s Sons and Daughters of the Nisei Veterans to honor the sacrifices and achievements of the Japanese Americans soldiers who fought in World War II. Preserved in NVMC’s Education Center are the history and stories of the men who served in the 100th infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Service. It houses the Nisei veterans’ archives and a workroom. Also located on the NVMC campus are the Maui Adult Day Care Center for senior citizens and the Kansha Preschool, which enables the seniors and preschoolers to interact with one another.
Kurokawa, who painted the official portrait of former Gov. Neil Abercrombie, said he prepared for his work on the mural — one of his larger works — by looking through the center’s archives and attending a few NVMC functions, where he met several veterans.
This is his first artwork featuring Nisei veterans.
“I have also listened to a few podcasts and audiobooks while I painted the mural.”
The inspiration for the artwork, which depicts the young soldiers in every day military life, comes from actual archive photos, although the mural does not depict specific veterans.
“We wanted the mural to represent all of the veterans and not single out individuals,” he said.
In the process of working on the mural, the 45-year-old Kurokawa, a yonsei, said he learned more about the AJA soldiers and their sacrifice.
“Just amazing stories,” he said of their experiences.
He conceded that he might not have been as courageous as the people he is painting. “I don’t know if I would have done that,” he said.
Kurokawa said he felt a self-imposed pressure to produce a mural that would honor the soldiers.
“Especially in today’s craziness, I want people to take some goodness from these guys and their determination,” he said, adding that he hopes people will be inspired by the soldiers’ values.
Kurokawa began working on the mural this past spring. Before he could get started, however, the wall had to be power-washed and primed. He taped his sketches on the wall and then copied them with his paintbrush. Kurokawa said he is using good-quality exterior latex house paint for the mural.
On a recent day, he held in his hand a cupcake pan with black and white paint and variations of gray paint, as all of the figures appear colorless. A closer look, however, reveals thin red, white and blue highlights that can be seen on portions of the figures. Kurokawa explained that it adds some dimension to the figures.
Compared to his earlier works, the mural shows more detail — intricate lines and shadows — that make the paintings look like photographs.
“It also adds history to it,” Kurokawa said, pointing to an old military jeep he painted.
“I hope people will be able to see the emotion and strength of these men, especially being that they were away from home and in unfamiliar environments. Maybe even recognizing the sacrifices they made for all of us and the tremendous contributions they have made to shape our community as it is today,” Kurokawa said.
During spring and throughout the summer months, Kurokawa spent about eight hours a day and generally four days a week working on the mural at the center. He initially had a large golf umbrella to shade him, but it broke in no time. He also put up a tarp. That, too, did not work, with the gusty winds blowing in from Kahului Harbor at times.
An NVMC volunteer then set up a tent-like contraption with PVC pipe and sturdy black netting for Kurokawa. He stood under it recently as he worked on the final portion of the mural.
The last section depicts Kurokawa’s own family — a way of showing a younger generation looking back at the elders and their sacrifices. Kurokawa explained that it is meant to show that the center is for everyone — not just for veterans.
The center is indeed attracting visitors’ attention.
Kurokawa said he met several Japanese American visitors from the Mainland, who, as youngsters, were incarcerated as during the war.
In one instance, a man, his wife and a friend stopped by to view the mural. The man held his hand out.
“I thought he was going to shake my hand. But he gave me 20 bucks,” Kurokawa recalled.
He quickly refused, but the man, who was Japanese American, grunted and urged him to take it. His wife then stepped up to Kurokawa and told him that her husband truly appreciated his artwork. The money, she said, was his way of showing his appreciation.
Kurokawa is amazed by the reaction to his work and the support he has received.
“This is [like] nothing I ever painted that has [had an] impact on people I never met [before],” he said. They don’t even live here . . .”
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.