When Hawai’i Island artist Keith Tallett was notified he was to be awarded a national grant to support his work, it could not have come at a better time. “I was in shock actually, ” the multimedia artist says of receiving a Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant, an annual award named in honor of the influential New York abstract expressionist. “I’m surprised by how many people know about it now too. I’ve been working as a skills trainer for kids with Autism, and when I was in the school cafeteria last week, a guy said, ‘That’s you ah, in da pepah. nice ah your art.”
From Hilo public schools to national contemporary art circles, Tallett’s art has been getting attention everywhere. Like many Hawai’i artists, Tallett has made personal sacrifices for his calling. He spent years as an instructor at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, and, along with his wife and fellow contemporary artist Sally Lundburg, organizes and works with a cooperative of artists called AGGROCulture.
“I’m a maker,” Tallett says of his process. “That’s my roots, growing up outside of Hilo. My mother’s side was plantation workers. They made all sorts of crazy items like quilts – anything they couldn’t buy, they made. My dad makes surfboards. That’s how I got into painting. I picked up creativity through osmosis.” For a series titled “Tattooed Williams” (named after a type of banana that is ubiquitous in the islands), Tallett took organic items that would ordinarily start rotting in the tropical understory of his Pa‘auilo home, spent hours tattooing them with local phrases, and then photographed the work at their moment of decay. The resulting images are works of staggering beauty. “It’s about assimilating into a culture with tattoos you see everywhere now,” he says of the series. “But it’s also about the ephemeral nature of everything. We put all this baggage on ourselves and on others. In the end, it goes away, but it was still worth it.”
With the Joan Mitchell award, Tallett will be able to continue to interrogate the motifs of himelf and his community, underwritten for at least another year. “Right now I’m working on a series on camouflage,” he says. “I see it everywhere out here in the country. I go to the gas station, and there’s a guy wearing four types of camouflage, and his buddy has three types. I’m like, ‘Wow that’s a piece right there.’” He is also working on images of Hawaiian flags, both the present state flag, which has been in use since 1845, and the Kanaka Maoli flag, which has become a symbol of the Native Hawaiian sovereignty movement.
For Tallett and his family, getting national recognition validates a life of creativity. “The biggest struggle for Hawai‘i artists is, ‘How do we get out of Hawai‘i?’ For me, to get this national nod feels amazing. It confirmed my decision to make art in Hawai‘i. It gave me the confidence to take a chance with my materials and ideas.”
“Mobile Homeland” is Tallett’s response to the current situation of the Hawaiian Homelands. Indigenous families can wait for years on a long list before finally being granted a tiny plot of land in areas the state government has designated for Hawaiian settlement under the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920. Many are denied access, and this current series provides a tongue-in-cheek, customizable, and portable solution, albeit a poor substitute to the real thing.
Info: Commercially produced carts with a variety of custom modifications that currently include unique fiberglass panels, lifted wheel units and mobile taro farming capabilities.
The series “Tattooed” documents the permanent residue that results from the act of tattooing directly on the fresh skin of highly perishable imports – fruit, flowers and vegetables.
Imported plants and animals, (as well as native plants impacted by invasive species), developed a fitness to adapt and to assimilate in our environment over time. But humans change and acclimate to their environment more quickly, adopting customs, appearance, rituals and language in order to fit in or stand out. Tattooing the food/produce gives it a kind of protective banner, marks it as toxic, or allows it to assimilate.
Info: Tattooed fruit, flowers and vetables – documented and presented as archival ink-jet photographs, dimensions variable.
His photography project “Poi Dogs” capture hand gestures associated with expressions of friendship, power, rebellion, and insult, and they are inspired by Hawaiian comedian Rap Reiplinger and his 1978 album of the same name.
Poi is a Hawaiian word for the primary Polynesian staple food made from the corm of the taro plant (known in Hawaiian as kalo). Depending on its consistency, poi can be known as two-finger orthree-finger, alluding to how many fingers one would have to use to eat it.
Info: Archival ink-jet prints, dimensions variable – 2013.
The Flying Hawaiian mixed media paintings incorporate vinyl tire-tread patterns and utilize enamel paint and surfboard materials to produce pristinely finished, highly polished surfaces. By exhibiting the tire-tread patterns in a two-dimensional format, they begin to reference Polynesian tattoo patterns, a traditional art full of distinctive signs to express identity and personality. Tattoos would indicate status in a hierarchy society: sexual maturity, genealogy and one’s rank within society and nearly everyone in ancient Polynesian society was tattooed. Likewise, there is a high value placed on car culture in contemporary Hawaii, where it becomes cultural capitol that enables one to fit in, belong, or elevate one’s social status.
Info: Each painting is 48″ x 72″