The island of Maui has six distinct regions, each with their own character and secret sauce. From Kaanapali and Lahaina in West Maui to Hana and Kipahulu in East Maui to Paia and Haiku on the North Shore to Kula on the western slopes of Haleakala National Park in Upcountry to Kihei and Wailea in South Maui, there’s something magical to explore. Keep reading for a deeper look into Central Maui, where the historic town of Wailuku sits. Snuggled against the West Maui Mountains, this is where you’ll find small businesses, locally made goods, delightful cafes and restaurants, and a mushrooming art scene.
With two decades of experience as an arts administrator and advocate for community development programs, Kelly McHugh-White, Public Art Specialist and Principal of Little Rhinoceros LLC, speaks about Wailuku, its art programming, and what the future holds for this community when it comes to beautification and public art storytelling. Kelly not only runs a public art initiative designed to revitalize Wailuku by celebrating its distinctive sense of place, history, and culture, but also, she is a Wailuku small business owner and homeowner.
What is your role in the Wailuku arts community and how did you get involved?
Ten years ago, I wrote a grant proposal to bring visiting artists from Mural Arts Philadelphia to Maui to learn more about their process of transforming public spaces and building community through art. In seeking out collaborators and ideas, I met County Planner Erin Wade, who was leading a project to develop and document the core values, beliefs, visuals and goals of the town of Wailuku in a process coined reWailuku.
Banding together, we helped to establish the space, team, and resources to produce Wailuku’s first work of public art, Nā Wai ʻEhā, painted by artist Eric Okdeh, alongside dozens of students of Hui Noʻeau Visual Arts Center and local volunteers. The impacts of this undertaking hit hard, personally and communally; I was hooked by this experience of connecting people, place, and story through the development of public art and have been working at it ever since.
From your perspective and experience, what is it about the town of Wailuku that makes it special and worth a visit for travelers?
Entering Wailuku, you feel an intensity or sense of specialness. You instinctively know that you are walking on sacred ground. The town marks the gateway to the enormously significant ʻĪao Valley and is framed by the green backdrop of Mauna Kahālāwai (the West Maui Mountains), which translates to "holding house of water." The town is situated about 250 feet above sea level and marks the meeting point of the four great waters, or Nā Wai ʻEhā, which are Waikapū, Wailuku, Waiʻehu, and Waiheʻe. This allowed the original population of this area to develop the expansive irrigation and agricultural systems that held the largest contiguously cultivated loʻi kalo growing region in all of Hawaiʻi.
For this reason, the area once served as the primary ritual, political, and population center of Maui and marks the final resting place of Maui’s highest ranking aliʻi, or chiefs. As you begin to learn these things, you think “a-ha! So that’s what it is,” that’s the feeling of presence and history that begins to envelope you in Wailuku.
Today, you’ll enjoy the fresh bustle of small businesses, restaurants, theaters, galleries, churches, and school kids from ʻĪao Intermediate, walking to and from class, and you’ll notice that everybody seems to know one another. It’s the kind of place where the coffee shop knows your order before you’ve arrived at the counter, and as you sit outside and take the first few sips, you’re interacting with this beautiful community that are all so proud to be Wailuku.
As a visitor, you can expect to park the car and get walking. There’s a free Wailuku shuttle called Da Bee that popped up during the revitalization process to get folks into town, with various stops named after native flowers, each lending themselves to interpretation for their various uses, nomenclature, and cultural significance.
I worked with the County, Maui Historical Society, and Maui Visitors Bureau last year to help develop a mobile app that features three self-guided walking tours: cultural, historic and public art, geared to celebrate the strong community and rich cultural heritage of historic Wailuku Town. The free app is called Hoʻokamaʻāina, which translates as “to become familiar with,” and serves as an educational tool where individuals can contribute their Wailuku manaʻo (knowledge, suggestions, and more) to continually create a space to revive and remember this special place.
Of course, I’m partial to the SMALL TOWN * BIG ART contribution to the visitor (and resident) experience, which is an ever-evolving collection of temporary, public artwork that is created through community input and stories, each inspired by a carefully selected proverb from Mary Kawena Pukui's ‘Ōlelo No‘eau: Hawaiian Proverbs and Poetical Sayings. The intention here is to prioritize place-based, visual, and performing arts as an instrument for revitalization that celebrates the history, culture, and sense of place of Wailuku. We want people to be asking questions about what they see, sharing stories or impressions with one another, feeling inspired to learn more, coming back each time there’s a new experience, and ultimately gleaning the many benefits that this work has to offer.
The town motto, "Small Town, Big Heart" has inspired the creative public art direction of "Small Town, Big Art". Please elaborate on the movement.
One notable outcome of the reWailuku research effort was the adoption of an official tagline for the town: “Small Town, Big Heart.” This sentiment was said to encompass the feedback of hundreds of community participants for a town termed “blighted” due to vacant lots and abandoned buildings remnant of the 1960s sugar industry decline. With reWailuku as the culmination of their collaborative vision, “Small Town, Big Heart'' represented the resolve of galleries, restaurants, performing arts organizations, small businesses, after-school programs, and residents to come forward to remember, reimagine and renew Wailuku.
As an extension of this groundwork, it only seemed fitting to name the town’s creative placemaking project SMALL TOWN * BIG ART. Working in partnership with Hale Hō‘ike‘ike at the Bailey House/ Maui Historical Society and the County of Maui, we invite established artists to submit a project proposal; identify stakeholders for each public artwork to gather community input; host workshops, talk-story sessions, live paint or play days and other engagement activities that contribute to the artwork blueprint; research Hawaiian proverbs to help set the intention of each piece and “to ensure that the thoughts of our kūpuna (“honored elders”) are being considered,” as Maui Historical Society Executive Director Sissy Lake-Farm describes it; present the final piece with a public unveiling or performance; and build out a project webpage with all of the process and product information that we can communicate in order to help spur a dialogue that — if we’re doing our job right — results in deeper learning about the people, places and stories that the artwork inspires or is inspired by.
This process has been cumulatively developed over the four years that we’ve exercised SMALL TOWN * BIG ART, and a lot of heart has been put into these collaborative pieces. In fact, it’s the focal point we all turn to when challenges, pivots and changes inevitably arise throughout each installment: how can we speak to the heart through this work?
Why is it important to develop Wailuku, Hawaii into a public arts district and how does the efforts of the County of Maui and Hale Ho'ike'ike at the Bailey House/Maui Historical Society influence a sense of place, history, and culture?
I’m just launching a new study to answer this question more specifically for Wailuku and the County of Maui through a grant by the National Endowment for the Arts, but what I have learned from experience, education and friends in the fields of public art and neighborhood revitalization is that the two are directly linked; small towns, cities, and states are increasingly combining the two governmental departments for arts and economic development.
Evidence that arts and culture boost local economies is exhibited through measurable outcomes relating to health and wellbeing, social ties, attracting visitors, creating jobs and developing skills and talent, attracting and retaining businesses, building community identity and pride, promoting neighborhood cultural diversity — the list goes on. Specifically for public, place-based art, we see that the right process inspires a sense of communal ownership over public space and empowers people to continue to work for positive change in their communities, in whatever capacity they feel called to contribute.
Wailuku is undergoing substantial capital improvements, and change can be extremely daunting. By moving towards a public arts district model, we can garner the support we need to present a distinguishing part of the town’s history and evolving culture, reflect and reveal our society, and highlight the community’s meaning and uniqueness. We can celebrate what must be preserved while creating something new and meaningful together.
According to our research, a key to the success of this creative placemaking work is involving the arts in partnership with committed governmental, cultural-based nonprofit, and private sector leadership. SMALL TOWN * BIG ART has followed this direction with a foundation of three partners represented by County of Maui Planning and Development Chief Erin Wade, Hale Hō‘ike‘ike at the Bailey House/ Maui Historical Society Executive Director Sissy Lake-Farm, and myself as a public art specialist.
Erin has spent nearly 25 years working to manage growth in a sustainable manner that balances Maui’s economy, culture and environment. As the point of contact overseeing all Wailuku Town Improvement Projects, her focus for Wailuku is to provide a process of inclusive participation in this moment of evolution while offering programs to support its cultural legacy and economic health.
Sissy traces her family roots back to her museum grounds through Chief Kahekili’s reign, the last ruling Chief of Maui. Hula has allowed her to travel the world, and she continues these traditions through her hula school Hālau Makana Aloha O Ka Lauaʻe. Her focus for Wailuku is to ensure that its cultural roots and history will continue to be here for future generations.
While SMALL TOWN * BIG ART has partnered with hundreds of individuals and organizations to integrate Wailuku’s sense of place, history and culture into each artwork, it is the fundamental balance and skillsets of these powerful women that sustains the initiative’s vision to develop the public arts district.
Tell me about a few of your favorite art installations, created through community input by professional local artists.
Lost & Found: Following four months of project development, artist Andy Behrle worked with dozens of community members to research, re-imagine and refine a light installation depicting a stained-glass window from St. Anthony Church before it was lost to a devastating fire in 1977. Through hours of footage collected at different points of the Wailuku River, panes of glass were replaced with visions of water. Inspired by ʻōlelo no‘eau: Ma ka hana ka ‘ike (in working, one learns), the piece was on view for one night only, projected onto ʻĪao Theater during the September 2019 Wailuku First Friday event.
The Wailuku Dance Crawl: Choreographed and performed by contemporary dance company Adaptations Dance Theater, a set of three free, half-hour performances led small groups of pre-registered audience members through outdoor locations along Market Street — much in the spirit of a treasure hunt or pub crawl — to encourage (re)engagement with these spaces and create the opportunity to make new memories and shared experiences. Working with SMALL TOWN * BIG ART, dancers spent time scouting performance sites, workshopping their idea with community members, choreographing and rehearsing, and selecting ‘ōlelo no‘eau: E kūlia i ka nu‘u (strive to reach the summit) in partnership with the Maui Historical Society to further root the artwork in a sense of place.
Up! Together! Join hands!: Inspired by ʻōlelo no‘eau: E ala! E alu! E kuilima! (Up! Together! Join hands!), visiting artist Lori Hepner worked with ʻĪao Intermediate School, Hālau Makana Aloha O Ka Lauaʻe and the band Kūikawā during a weeklong educational Light Painting residency. Using LEDs for individuals to light paint together and to create silhouette portraits of one another on the grounds of both the school and the Bailey House Museum, local musicians and performers provided the inspiration for each resulting artwork that Hepner captured with her real‑time, light painting system that is used to draw with light using the body.
Hoʻomau: Inspired by 300 sketches created by ʻĪao Intermediate School and by conversations with those working to develop the Maui County Children’s Peace Center, artist Kirk Kurokawa completed this mural in acknowledgment of April 2021’s Child Abuse Prevention Month. For its unveiling, the surrounding space was adorned with Pinwheels for Prevention by Girl Scout Troop 162 from St. Anthony Church. The artist selected two proverbs to connect his mural to a sense of place, ʻōlelo noʻeau: He lei poina ‘ole ke keiki (A lei never forgotten is the beloved child), and a proverb which originates from the Japanese community: Nana korobi ya oki (fall down seven times stand up eight). We were able to bring in the Department of Land & Natural Resources' Division of Forestry & Wildlife and Native Nursery to talk with us about the endemic species found in the composition and to help educate others about their importance.
How are the artists vetted and what has the community reception been like?
The program currently caters to established artists, for several reasons that include experience creating budgets, being open and flexible to pivots and changes necessitated by revitalization work or key community consultants, limited human resources, and understanding of the approval process associated with public art and accountability in translating complex themes or issues into a final composition.
Selection criteria is aimed at quality, style, experience in creating communal or public art, significance to Wailuku and a proven track record of successful collaboration work, evidenced by the artist’s resume, calls to references and the feedback of our panelists. Based on their recommendations of the most promising projects for Wailuku, SMALL TOWN * BIG ART workshops the proposals to determine a fit as well as possible activities for broad engagement, mentors, and opportunities to connect to a sense of place. Only after this point are artists invited, contracted and connected to project collaborators.
This strategy of building accountability into each stage of the public art-making process is what’s made the program so effective. Through surveys, social media, email newsletters, web analytics, direct participation, the presence and growth of partnerships and economic indicators at each worksite, it’s clear that community reception is positive. Generally, we find that the more creative we can get with designing accessible opportunities to get involved, the better we all feel about the end result. People need that sense of inclusivity and belonging, they’re not just going to show up because you posted a flyer on their community bulletin board.
What's new or on the horizon in the public art space for Wailuku?
Following two years of planning, research and pandemic-prompted pivoting, artist Leilehua Yuen presented a collaborative series of virtual Edutainment workshops this summer exploring the purposes of storytelling, the value of the search for knowledge, and encoding that knowledge in moʻolelo (translated as story, myth, legend and history). Working with StoryCorps DIY and Akakū Maui Community Media, we paired up Leilehua’s workshop participants with community kūpuna to engage in a recorded “talk story” session, and are now working with professional artists to translate this pilot collection of stories into works of visual or performing public art.
Concurrently, we’ve partnered with Ball State University’s Center for Emerging Media Design and Development (EMDD) of Muncie, Indiana for a yearlong collaborative project in trans-media journalism. As the Masters Thesis project of eight international EMDD graduate students, this group has been analyzing the "problem-space" of building the Wailuku story, creating a story bank, making that bank publicly accessible, and inspiring/ motivating usage, practice and application — with the longer-term vision of creating an oral histories archive by and for the larger community.
This direction for the public art program is kind of blowing my mind it’s so perfect. Each component is taking on a life of its own and creating an organic, community building experience for everyone involved. It further demystifies the common experience of not feeling invited to the party, where an artist statement is a vague representation of a hyper subjective moment of inspiration rather than a translation of a collective moment of story building.
Community members convene to share a conversation about the place where they live, work or play. Professional artists adopt an excerpt to translate into a work of art. Members of the public are invited to share visuals, sounds, or experiences that the excerpt inspires in them. Maui Historical Society identifies a collection of Hawaiian proverbs to draw connections to the artistic process. Everyone has a feeling of co-ownership over the outcome before it disappears and makes room for the next experience. And we’re all left with these new feelings of catharsis, connection or discovery. With a feeling that we’ve been included and that we, too, belong.
Thanks to the support of this community, and by popular demand, we’ll continue to do this work not only in Wailuku but in a handful of additional neighborhoods throughout the County through the newly formed nonprofit: Maui Public Art Corps. I just received my tax exemption letter from the IRS and am gearing up for a board meeting where we’ll be strategizing on our mission to connect people, place and story through the development of exceptional public art, with the long-term goal of establishing a percent for art program through a public-private partnership with the County.
Hawaiian proverbs and sayings that have influenced some of the public art in Wailuku:
- Ma ka hana ka ‘ike (In working, one learns)
- ‘Ike aku, ‘ike mai. Kōkua aku, kōkua mai. Pēlā ka nohona ‘ohana (Watch, observe. Help others and accept help. That is the family way)
- ‘A‘ohe hana nui ke alu ‘ia (No task is too big when done together by all)
- O ke aloha ke kuleana o kahi malihini (Love is the host in strange lands)
- E aloha kekahi i kekahi (Love one another)
- Ma kāhi o ka hana he ola malaila (Where work is, there is life)
- Hoʻolaukanaka i ka leo o nā manu (The voices of birds give the place a feeling of being inhabited)
- He lei poina 'ole ke keiki (A lei never forgotten is the beloved child)
- Ka i'a mili i ka poho o ka lima (The fish fondled by the palm of the hand)
- E noho iho i ke ōpū weuweu, mai hoʻokiʻekiʻe (Remain among the clumps of grasses and do not elevate yourself)
- Mōhala I ka wai ka maka o ka pua (Unfolded by the water are the faces of the flowers)
- Wailuku i ka malu he kuawa (Wailuku, in the shelter of the valley)
- E kūlia i ka nu‘u (Strive to reach the summit)
- E ala! E alu! E kuilima! (Up! Together! Join hands!)
Ten ways that public art can shape a community and make it a better place to not only live, but also, to visit:
- By creating a tangible sense of place and destination, resulting in increased foot traffic while adding color, vibrancy, and character to built environments
- By fostering the community’s sense of spirit, pride, and values
- By reflecting the diversity of a place, its citizens, history, and story
- By offering a stronger sense of place and identity
- By bolstering cultural and economic growth while developing healthy, socially connected citizens
- By helping local leaders navigate complex issues, increase capacity, and build trust in their communities
- By attracting diverse talent, innovation, and economic vitality
- By providing an intersection between past, present and future, between disciplines, and between ideas
- By humanizing the built environment and invigorating public spaces
- By developing and practicing deeply collaborative approaches to creativity that generate social capital, inspire a sense of communal ownership over public space, and empower people to continue to work for positive change in their own communities