Story by Julia Steele
Photos by Sue Hudelson
The back roads of our Islands are full of surprises: Travel down a slim, rutted lane between coconut palms and cane stalks or papaya and banana trees, and you are not, frankly, expecting to find a primate sanctuary or a Beatles museum or a garden planted in the shape of the Milky Way or any of the other winsome incongruities that are out there in Hawai‘i’s boonies. Now comes Atelier Maui, one of our newest rural curiosities, which gives all of the others a run for their money. It sits on a bucolic patch of land in Ha‘iku, a collection of buildings surrounded by tropical greenery—not a place you expect to find artistic training drawn from the Russian Imperial Academy. Open the door to what looks like the barn, though, and prepare for a perestroika of perception:
On a slightly raised stage stands a tall woman who appears to be in her 30s. Her body is strong and lean with a small tattoo on its upper right thigh. Her left arm is bent to her neck, her right leg thrust forward at an angle. She is completely naked. Every two minutes the faint “beep, beep, beep” of a gentle alarm sounds, and she strikes a new pose. In front of the stage six people stand behind easels, all drawing furiously. Every time the model moves, they begin a new sketch. The walls that surround them are covered with studies of the human form—drawings and paintings of nudes and faces, like something out of Leonardo’s sketchbooks. The sense that you have been transported to the days of the Renaissance is only magnified by the sculpted busts arrayed throughout the room. In the midst of it all, moving with absolute authority, is a man with a face just as chiseled and intense as any of those in plaster: an ardent, eloquent Azerbaijani named Semyon Bilmes.