View from the Pew
Sculptor Sooriya Kumar recently changed his focus to creating religious works of art
Many of those flashy metal gates that became a status symbol for the latest generation of homeowners in high-end neighborhoods are the work of sculptor Sooriya Kumar.
Kumar's artist scrapbook includes images that have been seen by thousands of people, depicting tropical leaves and flowers, Hawaiian legends, and dolphins, turtles and other sea creatures that grace the Hale Koa Hotel, Mauna Kea Resort on the Big Island, Honolulu Airport and island homes.
Lately his focus has changed. "I want to concentrate on religious art," said Kumar, 58, who has been in Hawaii for 23 years. "I want to do it for service at this time of my life."
For him, religion and art are inextricably linked: "My work is my temple, my meditation and my prayer." The artist said that before he begins any work, religious or secular, "I bless the piece of copper. While I work, I chant mantras." Every year, "I hold a ceremony to bless the tools."
A very small audience sees his recent work at the small chapel of the Oratarian priests, a religious order that staffs Holy Trinity Church in East Honolulu. The sanctuary glows with Kumar's copper wall and altar panels combined with gilded icons of Jesus, Mary and saints made by the Rev. Damian Higgins, a monk in Mendocino, Calif., who is a master iconographer. The small church, St. Sophia's Mission, is the place of worship for members of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the only eastern rite Catholic congregation in Hawaii.
He recently completed a copper wall panel of St. Clare of Assisi for a Benedictine monastery, Christ in the Desert, in New Mexico. It is another church that combines the art of Kumar and Higgins. "Father Damian has opened many ways for me; he has been a big blessing to me."
This week, Kumar sat on the ground outside the Honolulu chapel, pounding with wooden mallets to raise a sculpted image of Christ out of a flat copper sheet.
"To do the face of Christ, I have to feel the presence of Christ in myself," Kumar said. "I go through the consciousness of Christ so my feelings are in the metal. In order to finish the eyes, I pray to open the eyes, to give them life.
"When I pray, I am very focused. When I'm working, I don't know where I am."
Kumar was born in Sri Lanka and raised in a Hindu family who were Hindu temple artists. His earliest work was done in granite and concrete, chipping the legends of Hindu gods into temple wall panels in Sri Lanka.
"Prayers help me to know myself better. I am always praying when I work. When I walk home, I have a prayer to say. This is a practice I learned from my father, my grandparents. They prayed whatever the did, when they put a seed in the ground ... when they buried a dead cat. I am grateful for the people who guided me."
He is producing Christian images now, and he is very fond of the little Catholic church where he meditates and practices yoga when it is empty. But Kumar is not a convert.
"The paths are many ... and we all arrive at the same place," he said, describing his spiritual belief. "Truth is one. If we go on with devotion, love and compassion, if we go with all our hearts, we are on the path."
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Artist Sooriya Kumar sits beside the ornate altar he decorated in St. Sophia's Mission at Holy Trinity Church in Aina Haina. Using homemade tools, he fashions copper into works of art.
He credits his father for setting him on the open-minded path. "My father accepted each and every one. We had a Hindu life at home. My parents took me to St. Mary's to light candles; they sent me to a Catholic school. My family were god-fearing; that's the first way I was blessed.
"I was blessed again as a young man, when I walked the Himalayas, Persia, Europe." Kumar said he followed the tradition of the "saddhus," who travel without possessions, accepting whatever friendship and help is offered along the way. He said he has hitchhiked on eight different journeys from India to western Europe, where he visited every church he found in Rome, France and Germany. In Afghanistan he was fed and befriended by people who taught him Muslim prayers.
"God blessed me again with money," he said of his successful career. Kumar is investing money from his spiritual artwork in a small meditation center in Arunachala, India. He said it is near an area called "healing hill" because of the medicinal plants that grow there.
"We will buy medicinal trees and distribute them for planting." That is something he has been doing for his 23 years in Hawaii. One monument to that tradition is a hearty bodhi tree, sacred to Buddhists, that he planted at Kahumana, a Waianae transitional housing complex.
Kumar will spend three months in India next year with plans to spend a month in an ashram to meditate. "I want to be very focused to follow this path I see for myself. I am longing for a place where there is only nature and myself."
On his return to Hawaii, the artist plans to work on his dream project: He wants to present a Honolulu exhibit of art from the world's religious traditions. Some of what would be shown would be existing treasures or the work of other artists. But Kumar is already picturing himself as using the various spiritual traditions as new paths for his journey as an artist.
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Sooriya Kumar points out details in Holy Trinity Church's oratory gate, which shows the heart of Jesus.