Hometown artist

Henry Nalaielua taps his rich memories
to render scenes of his Molokai village

by Mary Adamski

ONE OF THE FIRST Henry Nalaielua originals to be sold at the opening of his one-man show last week was a sketch of the vintage one-pump gas station in his hometown complete with a passing wild pig.

Former Kalaupapa resident Henry Nalaielua, 77, is having his first art exhibit at Native Books. Behind him hangs his painting of Kalawao.

The Kalaupapa resident has chronicled landmarks and lifestyle in the sleepy Molokai village with fondness and humor. Even a scene of the 2,000-foot pali that separates the tiny peninsula from topside Molokai has a lofty lightness from the perspective of the mature artist.

"Kalaupapa to Kapalama"

Works by Henry Nalaielua
Where: Aupuni Wall at Native Books, 1244 N. School St.
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays through March 28
Admission: Free
Call: 845-8949

But when Nalaielua was shipped to the remote place as a 16-year-old, the sheer mountain cliff and rocky coastline were the gloomy boundaries of an imprisonment that would last nearly 20 years. He was one of more than 8,000 people who were put into enforced quarantine there because they had contracted Hansen's disease, or leprosy.

The exhibit is a first for the 77-year-old artist, who says, "Since I was age 5 I started doodling already. It's my life hobby and I'll never quit."

A FULL-BLOODED Hawaiian, Nalaielua grew up in Ninole on the Hamakua coast of the Big Island where "I got encouragement from a teacher. I just keep doing it over and trying again. I'm a graduate of the school of experience."

His unframed sketches and a line of printed note cards have been on sale at the Kalaupapa Crafts Shop, but the sight of his work, professionally framed and displayed, he said, "is very, very exciting for me."

The show of 28 of his paintings and drawings will continue through March 28 at the Aupuni Wall at Native Books, 1244 N. School St. It came about through Kaohulani McGuire, who met the artist when she joined a National Park Service oral history project in Kalaupapa.

"We pulled them out of sketch books and had them framed," said Ellen Rycraft, operator of the Kalaupapa Craft Shop, who underwrote the cost of matting and framing Nalaielua's work in koa.

The artist has traveled far beyond those once formidable boundaries. With the advent of sulfone antibiotics to treat the disease, the quarantine was lifted in 1969. Nalaielua had been "paroled" 10 years earlier and worked on Oahu for Hawaiian Telephone Co. and as a carpenter. He eventually returned to Kalaupapa where he was a guide for Damien Tours, which carries day-trip visitors around the 10-mile-square historic site.

THE SMALL-TOWN BOY has traveled widely. A highlight was attendance, along with other Kalaupapa residents, at the 1995 ceremonies in Brussels, Belgium, at which Pope John Paul II beatified Father Damien DeVeuster, the second step toward sainthood.


Among the works on display at Henry Nalaielua's one-man show are "Villagers," above, and "Ananaluchine." Both are colored pencil sketches.


"I helped bring his bones back," recalls Nalaielua. Bones of Damien's right hand are now buried in a churchyard at the Kalawao end of the settlement.

Over the years, Nalaielua has drawn more than a dozen views of St. Philomena Church, built by the Catholic priest who served Kalaupapa residents until his death of the disease in 1889.

"That's the one I'm most proud of," said the artist of a 24-by-36-inch oil painting of the church. "I did it while I was in the hospital at Carville, flat on my back." He was in the federal Hansen's disease treatment center in Louisiana for surgery on his foot.

There's a lot more to that trip than the kolohe storyteller will explain except that, because of a girl he met there, he delayed his return to Hawaii for 10 years. Friends on opening night speculated that a small painting of a nude woman, entitled "Red Blanket," might tie to that chapter of his life.

The answer was an enigmatic smile and "no comment."

NALAIELUA SPENT a day in the Louvre art museum in Paris, France, on one of his five trips to Europe. "I could spend a year there and not come out," he said. "The art is beautiful, but it didn't really draw me to follow along those lines." But, he said, he has recently been inspired by artist Herb Kane's depictions of ancient Hawaii to produce some sketches of history and legends.

He will continue to focus on the Kalaupapa scenes he knows and loves best. The National Park Service is restoring and literally painting some of the landmark buildings that he likes to draw.

"They're preserving these memories," says Nalaielua, "but I'm doing it with more flair!"

Do It Electric
Click for online
calendars and events.

E-mail to Features Editor


Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Calendars]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
© 2003 Honolulu Star-Bulletin --