Puʻukoholā Heiau

Part VI Wisconsin Boys in Hawaii— Puukohola Heiau

Puʻukoholā Heiau
Puʻukoholā Heiau

Day 4 —Puukohola Heiau

Over the first few days traveling to the Kohala Coast and back I noticed what appeared to be an ancient structure on one of the hills just above the ocean near Spencers Beach. I asked my brother what it was and he told me it was the heiue or temple and that it was a national park. According to the park’s website, “Pu’ukohola Heiau was built by Kamehameha the Great in 1791 to honor his family’s war god Kukailimoku. He believed that by building this temple, he would gain the mana (spiritual power) to unite all the warring islands into a peaceful kingdom. In 1810, he became the first person to rule over all Hawaii.” I had a fascination for this massive structure built into the side of the slope with massive angled walls that rise from the top. We decided it would be a good place to paint, so we drove over to check it out the next day.

The park has a small welcome center below the ruins. We parked and wandered around the site, looking for a good view. I had an idea in my head of the temple to one side with the ocean in the background. As we toured around, I was struck by the massive effort it must have taken to build. I found that it’s not ancient at all and has two structures. The older one was built below, and the upper structure was built in 1789. The boulders it’s made from are not from the nearby lava fields, but from a quarry 14 miles away, and were moved by workers who passed them from one to the next in a long human chain! This is pretty impressive itself, as the amount of workers involved must have been huge. Hawaiian society at that time was organized into a caste-like system, not unlike the Hindu culture of India. If you were of the lower castes, life was pretty tough. Up until Kamehameha, each island had its chief, and on the Big Island they had two, one on the Kona side and one on the Hilo side. The population was large and not peaceful either—having violent battles for control throughout their history. Kamehameha finally defeated all the other chiefs and became the one true king. Hawaiian religion, like a lot of Polynesian societies, had a bit of sacrificial tendencies. Vanquished enemies, criminals, and, to some extent, lower caste individuals were sacrificed to the gods, of which there were many. In the lagoon below the heiue is the Hale o Kapuni, an underwater stone post structure dedicated to sharks. It marks a spot where victims were offered as sacrifice. To this day, the lagoon is the regular haunt of sharks—perhaps still looking for a literal ”handout”. Although I didn’t know much about it until after, I think the look of both paintings has a kind of dark power to them.

As we walked the grounds, I became obsessed with the idea of a view at eye level or above, looking past the structure to the sea. A lot of the site was closed to the public, so we could not get up behind it like I envisioned. We walked into the welcome center and talked to one of the park rangers whom Scott had met before. We asked him if we could set up behind the heiau on the hill, but according to him, they would not allow visitors up in the area because of graves and remains still there. Unsatisfied with the view from below, we decided to go to the highway and see if we could set up close enough that still gave us the temple up front with the Pacific behind.

We looked around and found a spot across the highway on a short rise. Anywhere off the road in this western or leeward side of the island can be almost desert-like. The big island is the youngest of all the islands, and has much more lava unexposed than those older—some by tens of thousands of years. Much of this lava-covered area is uninhabitable unless a lot of work clearing, covering it with soil, and irrigating it is done. It’s also hot and very rugged. I was fortunate that I had my boots with me on this trip. They ended up being very useful.

I decided to do a 12″ x 24” panoramic view. I started with a dark grisaille in brown and red as an underpainting. As we worked, it got hotter and windy, and this was the only day I got a bit of a sunburn the entire trip. The foreground shows the rugged landscape with mesquite trees and the famous pili grass that has a shocking yellow straw look. Behind the slopes, the coast fades into the mist, with the sun glinting off the ocean. This work, above all, is Hawaii—nowhere else. It was my goal to make each painting unmistakably about this wonderful place.

Scott’s painting is in a 12″ x 18″ format, and it’s a much richer color and, as is his style, thicker and more expressive. He captures the feel of the area very well, and it has a primitive power that is very effective in this instance. Both are large for plein air, plus we spent a lot of time touring the grounds, so after six hours, we were ready for a swim and a beer. Spencer Beach was just next door, and in half an hour we were swimming in the cool Pacific. The World Series was being played in Boston and St. Louis all the week I visited. We are both big baseball fans—my father played professionally for the Brooklyn Dodgers! We made it a habit to be somewhere we could get in the game or at least a few innings. With the time difference, 2 PM worked out to be game time, so we made a special effort to be somewhere we could enjoy it. Scott has a few favorite haunts, and we visited his favorite bar for a cold beer, lunch, and the game. The life of an artist can be very demanding.

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