Hana Yoshihata screenprint.
Between Ocean and Sky

Artist and voyager Hana Yoshihata explores the mystique of nature’s vastness in her dazzling works.

Text By
Eunica Escalante
Portrait Images By
Jonas Maon and courtesy of Polynesian Voyaging Society

For months, Hana Yoshihata has been experimenting. Hunched over her desk, she is surrounded by palettes of acrylic pigments in a range of blues. Scattered throughout her studio, in jars and buckets, is water collected from various points throughout the Pacific. Some of it is crystal clear and fresh, while some is hazy with salt. She mixes this array with the pigments, playing with ratios. She has produced almost every combination possible, and meticulously records her findings on a chart, dotting color samples and scribbling notes. In the end, she will pour resulting mixtures onto a canvas, the paints weaving and spreading atop one another like water lapping the coast. For Yoshihata, the act of combining freshwater and saltwater with color to create art is a symbolic merging of her two halves, a metaphorical marriage between her existence as an artist and as an ocean voyager.

The ocean is a natural inspiration for Yoshihata, who was born in Kealakekua on Hawai‘i Island. When she was 3 years old, her family moved to Oregon, and later, they relocated to Florida. No matter where she was, Yoshihata always returned to the ocean. Her parents spent their free time surfing at breaks all along the mainland, and her father, a surfboard shaper, urged her onto a surfboard before she learned to ride a bike. Yoshihata returned to Hawai‘i when she was 18. After she witnessed a paddling canoe racing down Maunalua Bay, the crew’s smooth, synced motions leaving her awed, she picked up a paddle and began competing in canoe races. Soon, her aspirations swelled.

“Even when I was younger, I’ve always had a penchant for ships and voyaging. But growing up on the mainland, I was only familiar with Western vessels,” Yoshihata says. “So when I saw Hōkūle‘a, I immediately fell in love. It just became this amazing intersection between sailing vessels and my love for adventure.” In 2015, at the behest of a fellow paddler, she began volunteering at the Polynesian Voyaging Society, training to become a crewmember.

In 2016, the 21-year-old found herself aboard the historic Hōkūle‘a, sailing the Atlantic Ocean from New York to Virginia. It was part of the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage, an epic trip stretching 42,000 miles and stopping at ports around the globe using only traditional Polynesian tools and methods of voyaging. A year later, Yoshihata was at sea again, this time aboard Hōkūle‘a’s sister canoe, Hikianalia, as the vessels sailed from Tahiti to Hawai‘i. Most nights, standing on the deck and looking out over the horizon, Yoshihata found herself immersed in the glittering expanse of Wākea, the sky father. “On a canoe with the sky and the stars surrounding you, it’s an experience that’s humbling,” she says. “It’s a combination of feeling small, but also infinite and connected to it all.”

After her first trip, Yoshihata continued to experiment with saltwater as a medium, a style she developed while obtaining a bachelor’s of fine arts degree at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. “I had this realization that I wanted to work with ocean water,” she says. “It’s always been a part of my life, and I wanted see if it was something I could develop into my work.”

Yoshihata expanded on this concept for her exhibition, Between Ocean and Sky, on display from November 16 through February 9, 2018 at the Honolulu Museum of Art at First Hawaiian Center. The pieces were made with combinations of pigment and water—including water she collected while crossing the equator aboard Hikianalia—which have dried and crystalized atop one another, revealing abstract images akin to a cloudy night sky or a Hawai‘i coastline from above. Yoshihata urges viewers of her work to embrace the vastness of the world, rather than be afraid of it, as she herself learned to do during her voyages. “Look at the stars, look at the ocean, and think about your place within their vastness, rather than being isolated or feeling insignificant compared to them,” she says. “The ocean, and even stars, are something that connects us rather than separates us.”

It’s hard to explain to others, of course, as one’s oeuvre is wont to be. But for that, Nunes has found another tool in the medium of flowers. As the floral director at Paiko, a botanical boutique in Kaka‘ako, she does everything from order the blooms to design arrangements to arrange the wares for sale.

“Painting is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Flowers are a more universal language,” she says, as she brings out a vase of cut stems and fingers the petals of a droopy variegated tulip affectionately. “I enjoy the placement and levels and flow, and the way there’s a rhythm. That’s what’s going on in the painting, space coming in front, space going in back. There’s negative space, just as important as the positive space. If I can use this as a bridge to the things that are important to me within the world of the painting, then it’s nice. It’s refreshing.”

She’s found that bridge in her flower-arranging group workshops, during which she invites visitors to her space, serves tea, shows her paintings, and then leads the ensemble in a collaborative floral design session. Participants select a single vase together, and then one at a time, different members add elements to the arrangement from buckets of botanicals. “It becomes the sum of its parts,” Nunes says. “It’s like a game. There’s an element of performance to it, but it’s definitely playful.”

The flower-arranging sessions have been successful, both as part of her workshop series, and as the focus of a collaborative film capturing the poetic group-arranging experience in a palm forest in Pālolo. This film is the seed for a larger artistic endeavor down the line. In the meantime, though, Nunes has that summer show and, of course, that fascinating king protea to keep her occupied.

That is, “Until I get bored with it,” she says with a grin. “Then, I’ll do something else.” For now, it’s the season of flowers.

Between Ocean and Sky is on display from November 16–February 9, 2018 at First Hawaiian Center, 999 Bishop St. For more information, visit honolulumuseum.org.

Hana Yoshihata screenprint.

Yoshihata’s screenprint in progress.

Hana Yoshihata aboard in yellow jacket

Hana Yoshihata gazing at inspiration.

Hana Yoshihata screenprint

Hana Yoshihata’s screenprint in progress.

Hana Yoshihata. "Hoʻohōkūkalani"

“On a canoe with the sky and the stars surrounding you, it’s an experience that’s humbling. It’s a combination of feeling small, but also infinite and connected to it all.” —Hana Yoshihata, whose “Hoʻohōkūkalani” screenprint is shown here.

Hana Yoshihata "Ka Iwikuamoʻo" 2015.

Created with ocean water, acrylic pigments, and pastels, “Ka Iwikuamoʻo” can be seen in Between Ocean and Sky, on display at the HonoluluMuseum of Art at First Hawaiian Center, located at 999 Bishop Street.

Hana Yoshihata "Ka Piko o Wākea II" 2017.

While on the Hōkūleʻa Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage, Yoshihata gathered water at the Earthʻs equator to create “Ka Piko o Wākea II.”

Hana Yoshihata in studio

Yoshihata in her studio space at the Honolulu Printmakers Studio at the Honolulu Museum of Art School.

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