In The Garden
Friday, January 25, 2002

By Suzanne Tswei

Nancy and George Ellis in their home in Waialae Nui. The painting is by George Ellis.

Living with Art

John Hara's renovations result in
an ideal ridge-top retreat for
George and Nancy Ellis

If you see Hawaii's natural beauty not only as image on a postcard, but also as an abstract painting of brilliant juxtaposition of colors, shapes, light and lines ...

If you preside over a world-class museum and possess a superb personal collection of folk art from across the globe ...

If you are in search of a dwelling suitable for post-retirement living and lucky to have an omniscient spouse who knows before you do that you'd never be happy living in an apartment ...

If you are a high-profile couple whose house and garden set the standard for good taste and style among Honolulu's social circle ...

Then you'd end up with a home just like the one belonging to George Ellis, director of the Honolulu Academy of Arts, and his wife, Nancy, vice president and dean of student support services at Hawaii Pacific University.

Folk art from Mexico.

High up on Waialae Nui ridge, the house has a panoramic view that indulges the artist in Ellis, who after all was a painter before he became a museum administrator. The setting encompasses misty mountain peaks and lush valleys, sparkling city lights, luminous sunsets, blue sky and water, and endless cloud formations -- all of which add up to a full palette of ever-changing colors and shapes.

"The view is really incredible up here," Ellis said during a recent tour of the home. "I can sit here and watch the weather change, everything from up on high in the mountains down to the sunset into the ocean. The rain literally comes down in sheets, and the rainbows are wonderful."

As beautiful as it is on the outside, the inside is just as impressive, thanks to an eclectic folk art collection, Ellis' uncompromising attention to details and architect John Hara's restrained design.

"The architecture is fairly simple," said Hara, who drew up plans to transform a nondescript 1950s house into a contemporary home that provides ample space for art and entertaining.

Folk art from Mexico.

"What makes this house special on the inside is his great art collection. Architecture should be a backdrop for art anyway; that's why we didn't want to do anything to interfere with that," Hara said.

Colorful Mexican "tree of life" sculptures, as well as other three-dimensional pieces that began as candelabras but lost their functionality and evolved into folk art, occupy the living room. They are not relegated merely to table tops but are thoughtfully featured on build-in shelves on the central wall and along a wraparound bench.

Contemporary pottery.

Equally colorfully pottery -- old dishes from Chinese restaurants that the Ellises find in California antique stores, and blue-and-white platters from Portugal and elsewhere -- is featured in the kitchen.

A couple hundred ema, painted wood tablets with good-luck blessings collected from temples throughout Japan, take up an entire guest-room wall.

Even the bedroom linens reflect the Ellis' artful lifestyle.

Nigerian barber shop signs, which are watercolors depicting various hairstyles and looking more like brightly colored Andy Warhol prints, are hung in a bathroom.

Contemporary art by Hawaii and mainland artists are mixed in with antique Japanese hand-dyed and -painted futon covers, hand-woven rugs and other folk art. There are, of course, a few pieces of artwork by Ellis himself: a watercolor painted when he was 15, and two large paintings completed decades ago when he had time to create.

Nancy and George Ellis' home high atop Waialae Nui overlooks an inspirational view of the ocean, sunsets and city lights, which they can enjoy from their living room.

WHEN THE Ellises bought the home about two years ago, it was a typical 1950s abode with boxy rooms and jalousie windows. The renovation took about a year, and the project won a merit award last year from the Building Industry Association of Hawaii.

"This is a house of geometric forms," Ellis said. "There is a purity of line, a wonderful balance of shapes and forms. What it's not is a series of boxes, like most houses. This house is like playing with cubism in a way."

Nancy Ellis shows a piece from the couple's Mexican folk art collection.

The original structure was gutted to include three bedrooms, three baths and a study. The house now features a large, open vaulted-ceiling living space where the kitchen, dining area, living room and a big deck flow together. (It is ideal for entertaining, as George's position often requires.)

The Ellises' previous home was an arts-and-crafts house in Manoa built in the early 1900s. They knew they'd continue to live in Hawaii after retirement (he plans to retire next year, but she will continue working) and began searching for another home.

An apartment, though convenient, isn't to her liking, Nancy Ellis said. So she dragged her husband around to a few "ugly condos" at the beginning to convince him that a house would be a better choice.

Their adjoining deck.

They liked the house when it came on the market for its view and its potential to become a contemporary home with a "quasi-Japanese feeling." They enlisted Hara, known for his discreet designs, to make sure that their home would not end up being pretentious or ostentatious, they said.

THE ELLISES are pleased with the result but continue to tinker with a few minor details. And the garden has yet to be planted. The Ellises hope for an overhaul of the sloping landscape. The front yard -- with palms, tropical irises, an assortment of bushes and a few large boulders -- look like a well-established kamaaina garden requiring little care. The back yard bordering the ridge, however, is unruly, especially after the recent downpours.

"The weeds just came up overnight," Ellis said, adding that the weeds brought a pleasant surprise: flocks of hungry wild birds. Eventually, the couple intend to create a backyard herb garden (to give him fresh ingredients for his cooking) and to also fill it with colorful crotons to add to the colors and abstract forms outdoors.

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Suzanne Tswei's gardening column runs Saturdays in Today.
You can write her at the Star-Bulletin,
500 Ala Moana, Suite 7-210, Honolulu, HI, 96813
or email

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