Kim Duffett's bronze sculpture of a kahiko dancer stands in front of the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Waikiki.


Sculptor's work reflects the
many cultures he has encountered

Kim Duffett has traveled worldwide but has never felt more comfortable than at home in Hawaii, surrounded by many different cultures.

Ku Makani Gallery

Blessing Ceremony: Begins at 6 p.m. Saturday at sculptures in front of Hilton Hawaiian Village; proceeds to gallery
On view: Duffett's works are on display through Aug. 30. Hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays; and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 6 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays.
Admission: Free
Call: 942-1416
Also: Duffett will sign posters following the blessing. Cost is $20, to benefit the Pa'i Foundation in support of hula.

"When traveling, I don't like to act like a tourist. I learn about the customs, culture and try to learn the language," he said. "It allows you to become another person."

Duffett grew up in Ohio, wanting to be a dutiful son. "For a long time, I wanted to follow in my father's footsteps. He was a plant geneticist, a flower breeder," he said.

But he couldn't deny his other influences. He was exposed to art early on by his mother, who was an artist, and his brother became an accomplished painter.

Duffett discovered at age 6 a passion for carving birds out of wood. By the time he was 8, he was selling his birds at craft fairs.

After graduating from high school, Duffett decided to take a job in the field of horticulture, working on a plantation in Kenya. While in East Africa, he had the opportunity to study with local African woodcarvers, which rekindled his passion for sculpting.

After one year on the plantation, he headed off to Europe, where he stayed for four years and saw firsthand the pervasiveness of art in daily life as he traveled the country by bicycle.

"Art was everywhere. Sculptures were in every courtyard and in the walls of houses," he said. "Art in these cultures is in the air one breathes."

Duffett also embarked on a three-year sailing voyage in the South Pacific in the early '80s. The journey provided a lot of interaction with woodcarvers in Fiji, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and New Guinea. After returning to Hawaii, he began working in bronze through the foundry at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

He tried his hand at carpentry but eventually made the decision to pursue art on a full-time basis. Some of Duffett's best-known pieces grace the entrance of the Hilton Hawaiian Village.

One of his first pieces for the Hilton was the bronze fountain of acclaimed kumu hula 'Iolani Luahine at the hotel's Tapa Tower, and in creating it, Duffett discovered a strong connection to kahiko, or ancient hula. "She brought the realization of the importance of the connection with the land and ancestors ... that certain sacredness that brought people back to the earth," he said.

His three newest are poised at the hotel's entry at the edge of the waterfall. They are all engaged in dances related to the wind. The piece is entitled "Kaha ka 'Io me na Makani," which means "the hawk soars with the winds."

The sculptures were created to capture the beauty of kahiko, explained Duffett, who believes in the Renaissance ideal.

"It all goes back to the Hawaiian culture," he said. "Culture needs to be reinforced through art, hula, language and immersion schools. In the '40s and '50s, the hapa-haole version of hula was being taught; they didn't focus on kahiko, the ancient style."

His pieces, even in their landscape-enhancing beauty, are meant to educate. Kaha ka 'Io is the male figure who represents the hawk, the amakua of the alii, who is about to take flight. The hawk expresses the highest aspirations of the Hawaiian people, said Duffett.

The standing dancer, Ku Makani, represents the rising wind. And, Ka Leo o Haukani is the voice of the wind. In a seated position, she invokes the voices of ancestors.

After an overwhelming amount of requests, Duffett has transformed the larger-than-life bronze kahiko dancers into limited-edition miniatures, at one-eighth and one-quarter scale, or approximately 23 inches for the former and 46 inches for the latter, that will be available at Ka Makani Gallery. The pieces cost about $6,000 and $18,000 respectively.

"I wanted to make it more affordable for people," said the artist, whose gallery works are priced up to $24,000. (Bronze maile or kukui nut leis will sell for $50.) Eventually, he hopes to cast even smaller sculpture miniatures to make them more accessible to the public.

Duffett spent a lot of time making sure that the dancers' hair and facial expressions were well-defined. "I wanted to create a feeling of energy and movement."

Movement is important to him because Duffett is also a drummer in the band Espiritu Libre, which performs a mix of salsa and Brazilian jazz. "Drumming gives me a sense of rhythm, and watching the dancers move has really helped me a lot, especially when creating the sculptures at Hilton," he said.

Duffett says he feels proudest when a kumu hula or hula dancer assures him that his sculptures have captured the essence of hula.

"Living in these soulful islands, I feel a sense of the aina at the core of my being, and this is the source of my inspiration in sculpture," he said.

Ideally, sculptures should seem to take on a life of their own. It is essential that a story be told, using symbolism, gesture, form or whatever means necessary to convey a message, according to Duffett. Pieces should also be mysterious and have a sense of the undefined. "People should learn something from it. ... It needs to have a message of meaning."

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