story by Mike Markrich
photo by Kyle Rothenborg
Gallery staffer Jo Ann Ta'a
and ceramic artist Stephan Wong
The days Clint Helenihi spends working with Native Hawaiian and other artists at the Pacific-American Gallery in downtown Honolulu remind him of his time in the U.S. Navy. "Artists are like the programmers I used to command," says Helenihi, a former master chief in anti-submarine warfare who is now a professional musician. "They look at the world a little differently." Along with his colleagues Alvin Pauole (a retired Navy captain who was the first Native Hawaiian to command a nuclear attack-submarine squadron), Jo Ann Ta‘a and Marilyn Burge, Helenihi operates the gallery to promote Pacific Island artists.
Many of the gallery’s artists lead dual lives. By day, Stephen Wong is an accountant; after work, he becomes a potter creating finely turned bowls with patterns of taro leaves and bamboo. Likewise, Jerry Vasconcellos, who does free-form kinetic sculptures of wood and rope with Hawaiian spiritual themes, works for the city as an ocean-recreation specialist during the week. Rocky Jensen, a well-known Hawaiian painter and sculptor, is one of the few full-time artists whose work is displayed at the gallery, alongside vivid photos of waves by John Mozo, sketches of hula dancers, scenic oils of island vistas and wooden sculptures of canoes.
Helenihi, who divides his time between the gallery and playing Hawaiian music gigs in California, says managing artists is really no different than commanding servicemen and women in the military. "They all need the same thing," he says with a smile. "Encouragement and a gentle touch."