Stories of Faith: painting at Kauai sacred sites

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Pali at Ke'e Beach, Na Pali coast north shore Kauai watercolor painting by Emily MillerPali at Ke’e Beach, 12×18″ watercolor, © 2018. Aerial view of the “end of the road” on Kauai’s north shore, site of a hula heiau that is considered one of the most important in all Hawaii.

In the summer of 2014 I started a watercolor project on Kauai, just a few months before moving away to finish my art degree in Oregon. Looking back, I think it was a way for me to hold on to the island and promise myself to return.

I started painting at historic churches around Kauai with my friend Helen Turner, and managed to complete seven plein air paintings before I moved. In Oregon that autumn, I researched the different churches we had painted and I realized how much bigger the project could grow from our original intentions. The history of the many churches and temples on Kauai tells the story of colonization on the island, from the days of ancient Hawaiian heiau through the arrival of Christian missionaries in 1820, to the rise of sugar plantations and immigrants from Japan, the Philippines, and elsewhere, to the Hawaiian cultural renaissance at work today.

St Raphael's Church, Koloa Poipu Kauai Catholic church, south shore Kauai watercolor painting by Emily MillerSt Raphael’s Church, 8×10″ plein air watercolor, © 2014. Kauai’s oldest Catholic church, founded in 1841. The first site we painted, before I had any idea how big the project would become!

I flew back to Kauai that winter, painted seven more sites and took reference photos for even more. I started including places of worship from all faiths: Hawaiian heiau, Buddhist temples, and the island’s only Hindu monastery. Over 100 active churches exist on Kauai today, and dozens of heiau remain of the original 100+ that were constructed. The sheer number and variety of sacred sites on this small island led to the Hawaiian title of this project, La’a O Ke Akua (Dedicated to God), reflecting the incredible pull towards worship and dedication to a higher power throughout Kauai’s history.

Buddhist Shrine at Lawai International Center, south shore Kauai watercolor painting by Emily MillerBuddhist Shrine at Lawai International Center, 8×10″ watercolor, © 2017. One of 88 miniature Buddhist shrines constructed in the early 1900s, mirroring a 750-mile pilgrimage in Japan.

I started working on an art book of the sites and their histories, creating a sketch of overlapping cultures, uncovering stories of tolerance and prejudice. Now the book project is nearly finished, but I think the painting project may have no real end. Helen and I have painted at 24 sites, but there are so many more – and many worth returning to paint again! Click here to see the full collection.

Wai'oli Church, Hanalei Kauai north shore Kauai watercolor painting by Emily MillerWai’oli Church, Hanalei, 8×10″ plein air watercolor, © 2014. Wai’oli Mission Hall, behind the main church building, was completed in 1837 and is the oldest surviving church building on Kauai.

I was raised without religion, so I honestly surprised myself when this project held my interest so strongly for the past three years. It has taken time to understand why, but two central concepts are starting to emerge. This was the first project where I methodically explored the influence shared between human history and the environment, a theme that now seems to come up in everything I do. The other ongoing thread in my work has been joyful exploration and beauty in the unknown. Digging a little deeper into that idea led me straight to faith. What is faith, if not the release of control and the ability to step into the unknown with trust and joy?

I hope to have the book project published by the end of this year. In just a few days I’ll be back on Kauai again, with a little better understanding of what keeps pulling me back to honor the land, as it has for so many others.

Plein air painting at Kauai's Hindu monasteryPlein air painting with Helen at Kauai’s Hindu monastery.

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