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'Extraordinary beauty'


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POSTED: Sunday, September 06, 2009

A three-week work project in the graveyards of Kalaupapa stimulated Hawaii-born artist Maria Lee to produce a series of images reflecting “;a place of extraordinary beauty that co-exists with a tragic past.”;

Lee, an art teacher in Tucson, Ariz., returned to Hawaii in August to seek a venue for her 20-piece collection. The show will open Oct. 3 in the Pauahi Tower at Bishop Square and will remain on display for the month in which Kalaupapa, and Father Damien De Veuster, will be a focus of international interest.

Father Damien will be declared a saint on Oct. 11 in Rome at a ceremony to be attended by several hundred island residents, including residents of Kalaupapa.

Damien is a recurring image in Lee's mixed-media works that combine silk-screen and woodblock printing, sketches and text on Japanese rice paper. With sparse details, she depicted beauty of place, abundance of fish and sadness of isolation at the remote Molokai peninsula where leprosy patients were quarantined.

The collection, “;Kalaupapa: Keep In, Keep Out,”; was exhibited at Pima Community College, where she works, and at the National Park Service conservation services headquarters in Tucson. Explanatory labels accompany each work.

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“;People told me that people in Hawaii would get it. Here, I don't have to do a lot of explaining. Everybody grows up knowing what Kalaupapa is about and who Father Damien is.”;

Lee learned earlier this year about the canonization and wants to “;ride the wave of this time when the art is relevant because of the canonization.”;

Lee hasn't focused on her island beginnings since she left Hawaii after graduating from University of Hawaii in 1984. She has studied art and worked in Pennsylvania, Arizona and France. She is the daughter of Patricia Lee of Waimea on the Big Island and the late Tom Lee, a graphic artist.

Lee, who had previously done conservatory work on Indian pottery for the National Park Service, went to Kalaupapa in 2003 with a NPS team assessing the condition of grave markers.

“;It was new to me, a place I knew about all my life, but I didn't know it.”;

Besides the daily project in “;wind-whipped cemeteries,”; she had three weeks of living in the community where residents include state and National Park Service employees and the few patients who choose to remain there.

She described one special memory, talking story with the late Catherine Puahala, a patient whose childhood memory of the Pearl Harbor attack is depicted in a somewhat whimsical piece combining Japanese planes and an origami boat.

She said: “;I knew the experience would work itself out in some kind of art. I'm an artist who incubates ideas for a long time.”;

She created the prints more than a year later, while on an artist-in-residence grant in California, “;unencumbered by distraction.”;

In one poignant but uncomfortable piece, faint outlines of disfigured hands are juxtaposed with a Damien image and the words

“;repel”; and “;leper”; - a word that is perceived as pejorative. The disease now is referred to as Hansen's disease, named for the scientist who identified its bacterial source.

“;I wasn't aware of the sensitivity of the word,”; said Lee. “;I'm not being negative; I don't feel I used it distastefully. I assume people will know the historical context of the word. Personally, I feel that to avoid using the word would be noticeable.”;

An explanatory label about the stigma attached will accompany it wherever it is shown, she said.