Committing to Aquarius


POSTED: Sunday, July 05, 2009

There are many ways to consider “;Aquarius,”; the 36-foot circular mosaic that graces the state Capitol. The piece, by iconic Hawaii artist Tadashi Sato, is situated at the building's atrium, where sun and sky serve as a spotlight for the artist's depiction of ocean reflections.

Exposure to the elements has taken its toll on the piece, and over the past seven years, the state has worked on reconstructing the weather-beaten mural, to the tune of $1.4 million. It is the second such endeavor since the original was installed in 1969. (The first, in 1988, cost approximately $200,000.) Certainly, during these times of economic trial, discussion of the whys and wherefores of such a project is necessary. (See accompanying box.)

“;It's important to say that the commitment to this project was made long before the consideration of furloughs, etc.,”; says Teri Gorman, commissioner for the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts. “;Appropriations were made ... when the economy was rocking and rolling. For the state to call an end to this project at this point would be wasteful because so much of the funds have already been expended.”;

The new version of “;Aquarius”; will be open to the public on July 16.

Financial responsibility aside, there are few creative works that symbolize our identity as a state the way this one does.

IN EXPLORING the relevance of “;Aquarius,”; a good place to start is with the artist. Sato was important to Hawaii as part of a group of post-World War II Japanese-American artists who participated in New York's abstract expressionism movement of the mid-20th century and brought it home.

Sato possessed an artistic lineage. His paternal grandfather was a village calligrapher in Fukushima whose restored silk scrolls are now part of the Honolulu Academy of Arts collection. His father was also a calligrapher and designer of Japanese gardens, and his mother wrote poetry and practiced the art of flower arranging.

Sato moved back and forth from Hawaii to New York a number of times before returning to the islands permanently in 1960. Settling on Maui, his childhood home, he continued to produce art that reflected an appreciation of nature and its elemental forces.

Sato's works have been shown in New York's Willard Gallery, Guggenheim Museum and Whitney Museum of American Art. He died in 2005 at age 82.

“;His work does represent a spirit of what is Hawaii,”; says the artist's sister, Keiko, who has devoted herself to nurturing his legacy. “;He embraced Hawaii's environment. The colors he used exuded from his environment. It was a natural part of him.”;

“;Aquarius,”; originally a painting, is a prime illustration of how the islands' natural beauty informs Sato's art, and building planners decided that interpretation would also serve well as a visual representation of our state.

“;The mural is a major contributor to the symbolic themes of our unique Capitol design, which reflect our natural heritage,”; said Frank S. Haines, a member of the design team for the Capitol.

Keiko Sato recalls that it was “;miraculous”; that her brother already had the completed painting when the opportunity for the commission arose. “;He was exuberant when it was selected, of course,”; she says.

She calls the work of sea forms, comprising overlapping blue hues of submerged rocks and reflections of water, “;a magnificent piece of work.”;

Satoru Abe, a contemporary of Sato and renowned local artist himself, agrees.

“;It's beautiful, a masterpiece,”; he says. “;It's most ideal because it's circular—there's no beginning or end, so you can admire it from every side.”;

Visitors to the Capitol building after July 16 will see a mural that's the closest replication yet of Sato's painting, says Jonathan Johnson, from the Art in Public Places Program, who served as project manager.

Johnson says that German company Franz Mayer was selected in 2002 by a committee, which included Sato, to create the new mosaic. The company worked from a full-scale scan of the painting.

“;There's a lot more flow to this mural based on Tadashi's brush strokes,”; says Johnson. “;For me the most exciting part is that we're closer to his vision.”;

Gorman calls Sato's artistic expression of the Hawaii experience “;unique.”; At the same time, she says, the artist represented the brightest promise of an entire community.

“;We all know how important the ocean is to our lives here, and this internationally renowned artist from Hawaii depicts that,”; she says. “;Tadashi Sato's life tells the story of local people here in Hawaii.”;




Replacing the 'Aquarius' mural



        » Extensive cracking, buckling and crumbling of some of the approximately 6 million glass tiles, due to expansion and contraction

» Insufficient drainage of water; after rains, water pooled around the mural


» Cracks allowed water to seep into the work; when heated during daylight, water rose back to the surface, causing efflorescence (powdery deposits)





        » Local materials were weather-tested, and some were replaced for better resiliency

» Trench drain along perimeter of mosaic removes surface water


» Sloped waterproofing membrane encompasses trench drain and entire mortar bed under mosaic


» Use of 10 millimeter-thick glass tiles for durability (as compared to previous 4-millimeter tiles)


» Expansion joints that run through work as well as along perimeter





        » $525,000 to glass mosaic vendor Franz Mayer of Germany

» $880,000 to Index Builders, a local general contractor, for removal of existing tile, providing improved substrate for new tiles and installation of new drainage system





        » Franz Mayer was selected among three companies submitting seven proposals. Consideration was given to quality of work as well as price. The German firm, alongside companies from Italy and Mexico, was recommended because of past experience in mosaic projects. The selection was made by a committee comprising “;Aquarius”; artist Tadashi Sato, a member of the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts and a local architect contracted by the state. Reasons for selection: Five-year guarantee of work, best interpretation of Sato's art, experience (the company has specialized in architectural glass and mosaics since 1847) and fair pricing. Franz Mayer's bid was the middle bid.

» Index Builders was selected via a “;low bid”; process.





        » 2002: Legislature mandates mural replacement for $200,000 (based on 1988 cost)

» 2004: Project bid for $960,000 was not funded


» 2005: Tadashi Sato dies


» 2006: Legislature again mandates replacement, this time for $1.5 million


» 2007: Glass mosaic ordered; fabrication of glass begins


» 2008: Mosaic assembly begins in Germany; old mural removed, concrete cut and plumbing installed in November; drains, mortar bed and waterproofing installed in December


» March 2009: Mosaic completed


» April 2009: Mosaic shipped to Hawaii


» May 2009: Mosaic installed


» July 2009: Project completed and mural to open to the public