Satoru Abe will deliver one of the artist talks at Showcase 2005 on Saturday. Behind him in his gallery is one of his latest sculptures, "Eighteen Figures in the Forest" ($28,500).

After a lifetime creating art,
Abe talks about his death

At age 79 and with only one secret remaining to be revealed, Satoru Abe is opening himself up to any and all questions during his Artist Talk at the Honolulu Academy of Arts' "Showcase 2005."

Showcase 2005

A benefit for the Honolulu Academy of Arts' children's art programs:

Place: Honolulu Academy of Arts, 900 S. Beretania St.

Preview art sale: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday in the Henry R. Luce Gallery. Free. Features more than 500 original works by well-known Hawaii artists, with pieces priced between $80 and $1,000.

Evening of food, wine and fine art: 6 to 8:30 p.m. Sunday in the Henry R. Luce Pavilion and surrounding courtyards, featuring food from 11 of Oahu restaurants, 18 wine purveyors and guests of honor including artists Satoru Abe, Alan Leitner and Hiroki Morinoue. Tickets are $85.

Call: 532-8746

Showcase 2005 Artist Talks

Inside the Doris Duke Theatre, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free:

11 a.m.: "How to Start Your Collection," Honolulu Academy of Arts Director Stephen Little

11:15 a.m.: "The Way That Can Be Spoken Is Not the Constant Way -- Why I'm a Painter, Not a Writer," Alan Leitner

11:30 a.m.: "Transparency," Hiroki Morinoue

11:45 a.m.: "How to Use Your Art Degree for Something More Than Covering the Holes in Your Drywall," Geoff Lee

12:30 p.m.: "My Diamond Head Series," Laura Ruby

12:45 p.m.: "Art on the Rocks Really Rocks," Lynn Cook

1 p.m.: "Starting an Art Collection? Talk to an Artist," Jodi Endicott

1:15 p.m.: "Another Live Nude Girls and Free Beer Production," Kandi Everett

1:30 p.m.: "The Visionary World of Symbolism and Abstraction," Dennis McGreary

1:45 p.m.: "In Search of the Profound," Karen Lucas

2 p.m.: "Video Bio," Paul Levitt

2:15 p.m.: "Questions and Answers," Satoru Abe

Eleven artists and academy Director Stephen Little will participate in the Saturday talks about their works and the art of collecting.

As the last speaker of the day, taking the podium at the Doris Duke Theatre at 2:15 p.m., Abe humbly says he doesn't expect the session to be too grueling.

"I think everybody will get tired and go home by then," he says while hoping for the opposite.

"For one time I want to get it all out, and therefore I can shut up after that. I hope they ask me anything, and I hope I will be able to give an answer. I hope somebody surprises me, because I have a feeling people will want to know, what is art? What is good?"

Abe has spent a lifetime pondering those questions and what it means to be an artist, but these days, death and the afterlife consume his thoughts. In recent years he's lost friends and his wife, and has thought about his own demise. If one of an artist's aims is to shock, Abe does just that when he bluntly says, "I'm planning to live nine more years."

This draws immediate empathy and concern over the well-being of a man who lost Ruth, his wife of 51 years, four years ago after a long illness.

But then, it all comes back to art. There is no logical explanation for the expiration date beyond the fact that Abe appreciates the aesthetics of the number 88.

The artist, whose gallery is at 888 N. King St., takes out a small notepad to draw and demonstrate. Like the number 1, he says, 88 looks the same right side up or upside down. It's a number that looks like the symbol for infinity. "There's no beginning, no end. It's a beautiful number."

"The ultimate is not to be born again, but to break the cycle of life, sickness, hardship. If you can fulfill all that you want to do in this life, there's no reason to come back. I think I'm going to end up at 90 percent. It's that 10 percent that's going to make me be born again."

Part of that 10 percent might include never having learned the art of tattoo, which he set out to do in Japan in 1952, only to find the art form banned there. "I think if I had learned that, my life would have been very different," he says.

Otherwise, few Hawaii artists are of greater renown than Abe, whose work has been shown extensively in Hawaii, nationally and internationally, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum.

"Satoru is one of, if not the most important living artist in Hawaii today," said David de la Torre, director of the Art in Public Places Program and the Hawaii State Art Museum, which houses many of the artist's works, as the showcase for works collected over 30 years by the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts. "His artistic contributions to the state and its cultural life should not be underestimated. He deserves our deepest respect and admiration for his ongoing dedication and commitment to enriching our lives with his work."

Satoru Abe's Kalihi gallery, above, is filled with his creations. To the right of the artist is his 2004 work "Leaves on the Fence" ($20,000).

At "Showcase 2005," themed "Passion," Abe joins Alan Leitner and Hiroki Morinoue as featured artists during a 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday preview art sale and during the highlighted gourmet food and wine-tasting event from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Sunday.

Abe's struggle these days is to return to the state of innocence with which he set out to become an artist.

"I knew very little about it. All I wanted to do was paint like Rembrandt. You have to be young, naive, innocent to pursue art. Now, I have too much junk in my head. I've seen too many art, analyzed too many art.

"Being creative is anti-nature because you're distorting nature. If you keep going anti-nature, it's hard to find peace of mind, right?"

Just so art fans don't become overly concerned about his pronouncements, Abe says: "I made an out for myself. If I can make my mind mentally clean and return to innocence before I turn 88, then I will live.

"It's the best way to create. That way, you don't have somebody influencing you, saying that's good or bad, sellable or un-sellable. If you can cultivate that, you've got the freedom to create."

FREEDOM WAS in the air in Hawaii, 1950. After graduating from McKinley High School in 1945, Abe took a series of painting classes at the YMCA with Hon Chew Hee in 1947 and a year later decided to become an artist, not knowing what that entailed but certain that this would cause many women to fall in love with him.

He moved to New York to study painting at the Art Students League, and spent much time at the museums studying paintings. He laughs when he recalls saying of Vincent Van Gogh, "He's no painter."

In New York he met textile designer and fellow art student Ruth Tanji, a Wahiawa girl with "the face of an angel." The two married after a six-month courtship and returned to Hawaii in 1950.

At the same time, others destined to change Hawaii's art landscape were returning home from art studies from Chicago to Milan.

"In 1950 we all met for the first time in Hawaii," Abe said of his peers, including Tadashi Sato, Bumpei Akagi, Jerry Okimoto and Bob Ochikubo.

"We really built a camaraderie because we were considered outcasts by society. It was after the war, and everybody else was so busy trying to make a living. Art was the farthest thing on their minds, even to look at it for free.

"There were no galleries, only Gima's Gallery in Waikiki, which did framing and sold art supplies. And the interest in art at that time was zero. We all knew who bought what because only three people bought art.

"So we had the chance to be ourselves and develop our own style. For Bumpei and I, there was no art teacher to teach welding, so we started from scratch, trial and error."

Twenty years later, without commercial pressures, "We became quite original," he said, adding that to this day he doesn't like working on commissioned pieces.

"It's too limiting. You always have to think, 'Are they going to like it?' I want to feel free to change things as I go along."

Abe's "Branches from an Ashen Tree" is also a 2004 creation ($17,500), which will be one of the works available for purchase at "Showcase 2005."

The circumstances of the 1950s were so unique that Abe feels his achievements would not have been possible in any other time or place.

"Art today is kind of professionalism. If I were starting today, I wouldn't pursue it. If I had some urge to create, I might go into some kind of creative career, but I wouldn't want to have been born in this era.

"Today, if you're an art student, you go to university. You learn everything there is to know about art history and contemporary art, to what's going on in New York. When you graduate, where you gonna start? From the last thing you saw in New York. You're not original. You're a byproduct of your education.

"To be a great artist, you have to put in full-time effort, but today there's a conflict between creating and wanting security. Full-time artists have to worry about selling something.

"I think if there were six or 10 sponsors who could each pick one young artist and give them the freedom to create for one year, maybe in exchange for a couple of artworks, then we might have some great artists. Per capita we have the most talent in the world, but most don't have the means to pursue art full time. So right now we have many good artists, but great is another thing."

PART OF the aim of "Showcase" is to bring budding collectors and artists together. Abe understands the value of encouragement and does his part to nurture the next generation of artists.

His home is full of art of his mentor Isami Doi; peers like Akaji, Sato, Harry Tsuchidana and Toshiko Takaezu; and some of the new guard, including Jason Teraoka, John Koga, Jodi Endicott, Sanit Khewhok and Kandi Everett.

One of his recent prizes was one of his own mid-1950s post-Japan "white" or "romantic" paintings, named for his use of a modulated white ground that isolated male and female figures at the center.

He bought the painting for $3,000 after contacting the person selling it through a classified ad, but he doesn't intend to keep it. "I bought it for the kids. That's my legacy."

Standing in front of the painting and analyzing it 50 years after its creation, he's critical of the work but says, "I don't have too much ego already. I don't need possessions. If you can eliminate all that, life is easy."

As for learning to recognize art, Abe says all a person has to do is to "look at as many work as possible, without prejudice. After you look enough and see enough, you know instinctively, if not intellectually."

Making art selections based on sentiment, familiarity and comfort level is what keeps collectors from developing their eye. If buying art, he recommends asking an artist one respects which piece he or she would buy. If you hate it, so much the better.

"Probably you're not going to agree, but commit yourself to buy it and see where the artist is coming from."

| | |
E-mail to Features Desk


© Honolulu Star-Bulletin -- https://archives.starbulletin.com