The Isaacs Art Center is proud to unveil one of the largest and most expansive surveys of women artists of Hawaiʻi in state history, covering more than a century of diverse interpretations of the islands’ places and people. The exhibition includes works spanning the Center’s permanent collection, recent acquisitions, and loans from individual artists and major private collections. At its core, this show celebrates the 90th anniversary of The Seven, a coalition of Honolulu-based women painters who first exhibited together in 1929. Several of the group’s inaugural members — namely, Juliette May Fraser, Genevieve Springston Lynch, Madge Tennent (founder and president), and Juanita Vitousek — would subsequently devote the bulk of their careers to Hawaiʻi. Simultaneously, Marguerite Blasingame and Shirley Russell established themselves as leading exponents of sculpture and floral painting, respectively, and frequently appeared in shows alongside members of The Seven.
Yet the story of women artists in Hawaiʻi extends well before and beyond The Seven’s two-year existence. As early as 1880, Helen Whitney Kelley and Helen Thomas Dranga began turning out highly cherished depictions of the islands’ scenery, subtly challenging the monopoly set by their renowned male contemporaries, such as D. Howard Hitchcock and Lionel Walden. By the early 20th century, kamaʻaina artists Blasingame, Fraser, and Cornelia MacIntyre Foley had trained on the United States mainland and in Europe, returned to Hawaiʻi, and taken on pupils there, all the while cultivating personal styles that would accelerate the advent of a localized modernism movement. Working alongside other women who traveled to the islands in the early 20th century, including Lynch, Russell, Tennent, and Vitousek, these artists transformed the very concept of “island art” from male-dominated, conservative landscape imagery of old into a more nuanced domain that reflected various modernist trends unfolding across the European cultural hotbeds at that time. Several would also play instrumental roles in the war effort, designing camouflage for local artillery units and creating large-scale murals at local military bases to encourage the soldiers deployed in the Pacific.
In the later 20th century, several other figures of note emerged to continue the tradition of women artists’ propelling Hawaiian art forward. Betty Hay Freeland and Martha Greenwell, for example, pursued seascape and landscape painting in Hawaiʻi on their own terms, while the batik specialist Yvonne Cheng and graphic artist Pegge Hopper expanded upon Tennent’s genre of the Hawaiian wahine (woman). Susan McGovney Hansen, too, recalled elements of Tennent and Foley in her scenes of dynamic wahine engaged in time-honored customs of Old Hawaiʻi. Meanwhile, Mayumi Oda, one of today’s most prolific and distinguished artists, has honed a highly individualized approach to both the nature and the female figure that is at once mesmerizing and quite unlike anything seen before. Oda represents the promise of women artists’ continuing to play a central role in the evolution of the unique artistic heritage of Hawaiʻi.
Ultimately, this is an exhibition about women, about their relationship to artistic production as prescribed within the societal structures of “women artists,” and about their invaluable contributions to the trajectory of Hawaiian art — contributions unique among women cultural producers who have worked elsewhere in the world over the last two centuries. From Helen Kelley’s serene watercolors of Hawaiian flora, to Madge Tennent’s world-famous murals of voluptuous native women, to Mayumi Oda’s diverse portfolio forged in response to the islands in their enchanting totality, these women have indelibly shaped art in Hawaiʻi on an unprecedented scale.
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by Catherine Tarleton
Waimea All-School Student Exhibition