DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
University of Hawaii Art Gallery director Tom Klobe, retiring after 29 years, poses in the gallery that has been his second home, amid the suspended art of Jonathan Sung Vongvcihai.
‘They called him Father Tom’
Quiet and thoughtful, passionate and a perfectionist, retiring art professor Tom Klobe has nurtured and inspired University of Hawaii art students for three decades
At the extremes of human experience, nothing fights fire like fire -- as when doctors prescribe amphetamines for hyperactive children. So it is with hyperactive art students worn out by the labor of mounting a big exhibition: Nothing will rouse them from the gallery floor at 5 a.m. like the sight of their 60-something professor, bounding with energy after a 15-minute nap.
UH Art Department loses 4 other staffers
Along with Tom Klobe, the UH Department of Art and Art History is losing five longtime staffers who have served a combined 158 years.
John Wisnosky, chairman for 15 years and a well-known Hawaii painter, died earlier this month; he had been ill for about six months. He taught painting at UH for nearly 40 years and had been expected to retire this year.
Patricia Hickman, who headed the fiber program for 16 years and served as graduate chairman from 1999 to 2002, was best known for her monumental bronze entrance gates commissioned for the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. She has exhibited internationally and twice received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Willa Tanabe, a professor of art history for 29 years, specialized in Buddhist art and helped raise $3 million for the university as dean of the School of Hawaiian, Asian and Pacific Studies for 10 years.
Amy Oshiro, secretary, helped hold the Art Department office together through 44 years of events, functions, art openings and organizational challenges.
"The older he got, the more energy he got," laughs Lisa Yoshihara of her mentor, University of Hawaii Art Gallery Director Tom Klobe. The wiry, white-haired Klobe, 65, retires next month after three decades of running the UH art galleries, teaching classes and making countless, often voluntary contributions to just about every museum and gallery in Hawaii.
Klobe was the main force behind the "Crossings" cultural exchanges with Japan in 1986, France in 1989 and 1997, and Korea in 2003. He helped establish the Hawaii State Art Museum and devoted at least 600 hours of volunteer labor to its design. Many a Friday night and on into the weekend, the bespectacled, cardigan-clad professor could be seen silhouetted in the glare of midnight oil in one of the UH art galleries, his slight frame perched on a ceiling-high ladder or rushing from a storage room with power tool, extension cord or what-have-you that absolutely could not be dispensed with for the perfect finishing detail.
Along the way, he designed scores of galleries and exhibits, won international awards for exhibition design and developed lasting relationships with dozens of adoring students whom he mentored to careers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum, Smithsonian, J. Paul Getty Museum, White House Collection and on and on.
This is not a lion of a man, brimming with pride and ambition. His quiet, thoughtful presence, immediately engaging and easily delighted, belies a deep passion that manifests clearest in the people who call him their mentor.
"He wasn't just the teacher," said Karen Thompsen, who worked with Klobe for 15 years as associate director of the UH Art Gallery before joining the Honolulu Academy of Arts as a curator. "They called him Father Tom. He was a perfectionist, and a lot of times that was the problem -- everything had to be done right. But that's why the kids liked him so much."
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Tom Klobe's natural inclination toward students has been not just to teach art, but to help them in life.
Known as a stickler for detail who will "push people to the nth degree," as he himself puts it, a professor who required an application to take his classes and demanded that his students do volunteer work, as well as give up Friday nights for a semester to mount exhibits, Klobe proved that it is asking much of people -- paradoxically -- that brings out their commitment and loyalty.
"You can always tell you're talking to his students by what they say -- their passion for the field, their value system," said Yoshihara, a curator at the Hawaii State Foundation on Culture and the Arts. "It's all about education, sharing the history behind the art. It's about telling the stories and reaching the general public, getting them to perceive. There's nothing like it."
"He still calls on us," said art consultant Anne Smoke, who also credits Klobe with inspiring her career path 10 years ago. "If you've ever been a student of his, you can always expect a call from him at some time in your life -- there's so much work that goes into exhibitions, and it requires volunteers."
His helpers always show up, though, she said, because "he really, truly loves what he's doing. You get caught up in the enthusiasm."
Weeks after teaching his final class this month, Klobe was still swallowing a lump in his throat at the thought of leaving the classroom. "All of these students that I've had over the years," he said, "I just find them -- even the ones who are not the stars, some of them are so complex and could be very frustrating -- just like, gosh, is there some way I can reach this person and help them in their career or their life? I think I like the challenge of that.
"It is a challenge sometimes," he laughed.
A self-professed child of the '60s -- he joined the Peace Corps the week after Kennedy was assassinated -- Klobe says he feels a connection to people at the threshold of adulthood.
"I think you have to challenge people," he says. "When I'm working on them, I'm going, 'Why am I doing this to myself?' But then I think, 'Well, no, this is ultimately what Hawaii needs.'"
Part of it, he admits, is a drive to show the world that the islands he has called home since his family moved here in the late 1950s can match or beat any place with the quality of its cultural products. He has been disgusted, he says, with the attitude people have about Hawaii, the "provincial attitude that they have about us."
"I love Hawaii," Klobe says simply. "I love something about what this place stands for -- the multicultural aspect, the fact that people are more accepting of one another here."
As an art student at UH in the early '60s, Klobe volunteered at the student art gallery, then in George Hall, where he learned his craft -- there would be no courses offered in museum design until a decade later. But it is the Peace Corps experience that proved to be "the most significant, the most meaningful two years of my life," he said.
Assigned to "community development work" in five villages in northern Iran, he soon realized that his mission was not about what he wanted to accomplish there, but how he could empower people to accomplish what they wanted.
The same principle still guides his exhibition philosophy.
"I have always said an exhibition is best when no one knows I did anything. It should look just like it's natural, like it needs to be that way, and that the artist's work looks the very best it could," he said.
Museum directors who have worked with Klobe say his exhibits reveal nothing of the labor and care that goes into them.
"His work has a timeless quality about it. There is nothing strained and overstated about what he does," said Momi Cazimero, an award-winning designer who studied under the man both she and Klobe point to as a mentor, the late UH design teacher Kenneth Kingrey. "It looks so simple, you think you could do it yourself."
Yet Klobe at work is "compulsive and intense," said Cazimero, a longtime friend.
Searching for a particular word to describe an exhibit, he will dig relentlessly until he comes upon it, she said. "He can see something (hanging on a wall) that's a quarter of an inch off. He can see the difference in a color tone. The placement, word, color tone -- everything has to be right."
Is such intensity out of step with Hawaii?
Klobe shrugs. Someone once described him as Tom Sawyer, he says. "Painting the fence looks so exciting that you want to do it, and the next thing you know, Tom Sawyer is off doing something else."
The impish metaphor seems to fit, for Klobe's boyish enthusiasm, like his priestly sagacity, shows up as an effortless sincerity that exerts magnetic appeal in a cynical age.
With retirement, Klobe hopes to take on projects that present more of a challenge, such as an exhibit in 2008 of textiles from the minorities of southwestern China, as well as future "Crossings." He plans to finish his book on exhibition design and spend time traveling with his wife, an under- graduate friend who also joined the Peace Corps and whom he married many years later.
"Tom's talent will always be in demand," said retired Honolulu Academy of Arts Director George Ellis, who calls Klobe "probably the best designer in Hawaii, one of the best in the U.S., and he has a rightful place as a great designer in the world."
Klobe could have landed a job anywhere, Ellis says, but his engagement with Hawaii allowed for what Smoke calls a "reciprocal admiration club."
Besides which, "Tom is an incredibly nice man," added Ellis, jumping at the chance -- like everyone interviewed for this article -- to extend a tribute to Tom Klobe. "There are a lot of people with considerable talent, but they're not all nice."
"I had a real pleasure in working with him," Ellis mused. "There is always an excitement about him, and that is transmitted to everyone around him."