The Order of Things

Artist Hiroki Morinoue finds inspiration in nature’s patterns and parallels
Story by Constance Hale. Photo by Wayne Levin.

This is a woodblock,” says Hiroki Morinoue as he lifts a thin, thirteen-by-nine-inch sheet of wood. We are standing in Studio 7 Fine Arts, a gallery in Hōlualoa on Hawai‘i Island, and Morinoue is explaining the Japanese art form.

He pulls out a box of the knives he uses to carve the blocks prior to making a print. Next he wraps his hands around a cardboard box, pulls it forward and lifts out eight glass pots of colored ink. There is a cool yellow and a warm yellow, a cool red and a warm red, a cool blue and a warm blue, a black and a white—the basic palette that will bring alive the images he makes. 

Morinoue is a pioneer in the blending of Western and Asian art, with a CV full of awards, art in major collections and a designation as a Living Treasure of Hawai‘i. We are surrounded by his watercolors, oil paintings, sculptures, photographs, ceramics and woodblock prints. The work shows him to be an astute observer of nature, rendering the rhythms of the ocean, the fluidity of lava, the movements of fish and the patterns of light on water. But the work is not merely poetic. It is also political in the way that it explores the infinite promise of nature and the hand of man upon it.

Hiroki Morinoue works in a wide range of media including painting, sculpture, photography, ceramics and, as seen above, woodblock prints. Morinoue’s style fuses the traditions of Western painting with the spare aesthetic of Japanese art.

In boardshorts, aloha shirt and rubber slippers, Morinoue is in an art gallery that used to be his father’s pool hall. His life as an artist started next door, in what was once his mother’s laundry shop; at the age of three he started drawing on sheets of paper used to wrap clean shirts. After graduating from art school in California, he studied with teachers in Japan and Maui, worked in Boston and exhibited internationally before returning to Hōlualoa, where he heads up a family of artists that includes his wife, Setsuko Watanabe, and their two daughters. He also continues to run the coffee farm his grandmother founded, and he is as proud of his Japanese-style garden as he is of his gallery.

No sooner do I arrive at that gallery than the artist is ushering me up Māmalahoa Highway. He points out the former Hayashi Hospital founded by Dr. Saburo Hayashi, the pink Kona Hotel, a dark-green house his grandmother once owned and a boarded-up building that once housed a Japanese-English newspaper. Hōlualoa may now be a quaint arts town, but in Morinoue’s narrative it is the home of hardworking farmers, enterprising merchants, heroic soldiers and the occasional gambler.

Morinoue’s own story begins with his maternal grandmother, Mitsuru Mizukami, who ran away from a job on a sugar plantation in 1908. In short order, she married her stepfather, bought a four-acre coffee farm and took over a hotel and bar. In 1944 she bought the Japanese Association Hall, the legacy of Dr. Hayashi, and constructed a modest building right in front of it, with two side-by-side shops. Her only daughter, Ayako, opened a laundry on the south side of the building while Ayako’s husband, Sakuichi Morinoue, operated a pool hall on the north side.

The two had five children; Hiroki, born in 1947, is the youngest. The family moved into the cavernous association hall and divided it into bedrooms. The laundry thrived, and Ayako added a dry cleaner in the basement. Sakuichi worked on the coffee farm, drove a taxi and played a mean game of pool. “He was very methodical,” remembers Morinoue. “Once his turn came, no one else played.” Morinoue has another enduring, and softer, memory of his father:“My father used to do line drawings—simple renderings of horses but very fluid.” If his mother had him draw to keep him busy while she worked, Morinoue says, his father “looked at my drawings and recognized I was a natural.” Although, he notes, “That word wasn’t used.”

Settling into the Holuakoa Gardens café, we are joined by Morinoue’s daughters. The younger, Maki, runs the gallery; her older sister, Miho, teaches dance and herself paints. Both enjoyed careers as dancers in New York City. Morinoue tells me that when he was in middle school, a homemaking teacher worked drawing and painting into the class. Another teacher was enthusiastic about his art. By high school, he recalls, he was drawing movie stars and then classmates, a quiet teenager who charmed others with his portraits.

After his father died during his senior year, Morinoue worked as a butcher and a bellhop while taking classes at the Kona Arts Center, where he was mentored by its founders, Bob and Carol Rogers. “They really pushed me,” he remembers. They also raised, from the community, a year’s tuition at California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and urged a friend to put up their protégé in her two-car garage. “I paid $25 a month,” Morinoue recalls, “and she cooked me two meals a day.”

Before he left for California, in 1968, Morinoue had met Setsuko Watanabe, a 20-year-old student from Kanagawa, Japan, who was studying Japanese immigrants in Hawai‘i. Setsuko got sick, went home, and Morinoue headed to art school. They stayed in touch. The Rogerses took Morinoue to Japan in 1970, ostensibly to attend the World’s Fair and introduce him to Japanese art. Another reason was to encourage the romance. “We came back together,” Morinoue says. The two married in Hōlualoa; he returned to school and after one year, she joined him in California.

Morinoue lives with his wife Setsuko Watanabe, their daughter Maki, son-in-law Geoff and grandson in his family home on Hawai‘i Island. The house, bought in 1944 by Morinoue’s grandmother, was at one time the Japanese Association Hall of Hōlualoa.

In 1973 Morinoue graduated with a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts. He and Setsuko drove a Datsun across the United States, visiting national parks and art museums. Then they returned to Hōlualoa. “I was young,” he says. “I could do three paintings a day. I entered all the competitions.” By the time their daughters were born, Miho in 1974 and Maki in 1977, he was supporting the family through his art and, on the side, the coffee farm.

Morinoue was still a realist in those days, working in the style of Andrew Wyeth. But he had always admired Monet (for his subject matter), late Matisse (for his relaxed line) and Diebenkorn (for what Morinoue calls his “intellectual division of space”). His own style started to evolve, becoming more abstract as he encountered fellow artists, including the Maui colorist Richard Nelson. By then he was in what he calls his Mark Rothko period, in which he studied the fields of color and light preferred by the abstract expressionist. “I really loved Rothko,” Morinoue says, not just for the simplicity of horizontal lines, but for the palette. “I got rid of all my colors—the ochers, the four greens, the three browns. I think of all my work as Rothko, with the ocean added in.”

Born in Japan, Setsuko took up ceramics after moving to Hawai‘i. A set of her bowls can be seen at left. A passionate and dedicated advocate for arts education, she is the program director at the Donkey Mill Arts Center, the site of the art exhibit seen at right.

In 1976 Morinoue was sponsored for a return to Japan to study sumi-e, or Japanese brush painting. Another grant allowed the family to return to Japan in 1982 so that Morinoue could study moku-hanga, or Japanese woodblock printing. This set off another aesthetic shift. “When you are a painter, you balance the graphic, linear sensibility with color and atmosphere,” he notes. “The graphic sensibility changes when you do printmaking.” Setsuko, the daughter of musicians, had dabbled in photography before taking an interest in ceramics and painting with natural dyes. She developed as an artist alongside her husband. Today her work is dominated by ceramic sculpture, but she also works in mixed media, applying acrylic and clay to squares of wood, or wrapping her sculptures in ink-painted paper.

By now we are on to coffee and a wedge of flourless chocolate torte. The daughters tell me they spent their earliest years in Hawai‘i and studied ballet in Japan and the Islands. Miho danced with Ballet Hawaii and Marin Ballet before moving to New York City and performing for ten years. She designed costumes and sets for various companies, and she started to paint large canvases in acrylic, oil and watercolors. Maki taught jazz and hip-hop at Parker High School when she was 15, attended SUNY Purchase and ran her own dance company in New York.

Maki returned to Hōlualoa in 2011. She works in the Studio 7 gallery and is starting to take over the family coffee farm. She and her husband and son live with her parents in the family home. Miho returned in 2005. She now teaches dance and is the youth program coordinator for the Donkey Mill Art Center.

The floor of Studio 7 Fine Arts is covered in small rocks with groupings of “stepping blocks” designed to slow the visitor’s pace. Daughter Maki now works in the gallery.

Donkey Mill, three miles south of Hōlualoa, is a family affair, but Setsuko has been the driving force behind it. Her true passion is arts education. “So many people have come to me and expressed unhappiness with their lives,” she says. “I tell them,‘Pick up a paper and pencil and start drawing.’” In 1995 she started thinking about a permanent arts center to train amateur artists. Setsuko articulates the family philosophy: Bring arts into the community, not just as a culturally enriching project, but as a way to promote peace. “We want to reach into people’s hearts,” she says. “It is the pure idea that anyone can find themselves through creativity.” With Morinoue, she raised grant money and scraped together the down payment to buy a defunct coffee mill. Donkey Mill now offers workshops for children and adults, holds exhibitions and sponsors artists-in-residence.

After lunch Morinoue and I roam through Studio 7, now one of the oldest galleries in the state. He and Setsuko opened the gallery in November 1979 with an exhibition that included works by thirty Hawai‘i Island artists. It is a charming space, and not just because of its plantation-era architecture. Some of its floors are the original pine, but others are covered in small gray rocks, with groupings of short planks, or “stepping blocks.” The effect is that of a Zen garden: The stepping blocks slow you down and allow you to take in the art, architecture and interior design.

The circle in “Coastline,” seen above in Studio 7, represents the Pacific Rim. The piece is a commentary on ocean pollution and a memorial for all in Japan who suffered in the 2011 earthquake and resulting disasters.

Hiroki’s canvases, woodblocks and sculptures dominate the gallery, and ceramics by Setsuko and canvases by Miho are scattered throughout. Certain threads are common to all three Morinoue artists: repeated use of grid patterns, the soft tones of a muted color palette and delicate compositional balance. Morinoue and I spend some time looking at a series of his that takes up an entire wall. Thirty-six Views of Water consists of three dozen prints, each made from one or more of forty-four woodblocks, all inked slightly differently. Like much of Morinoue’s work, the series focuses on water, color and repetition of form. The sublime natural imagery of ripples and pines is superimposed on black-ink line drawings of banal, man-made creations such as a faucet, a beaker or a funnel. Its title gives a nod to Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.

When Morinoue takes me to his house behind the gallery, the themes that tie together his art and life—family, history, memory, nature—become clear. Traces of the original 1923 association hall remain: the barnlike shape, the carved eaves. Renovated many times over three generations, the building today has an open floor plan and a high ceiling traversed by darkly stained wood, reminiscent of an open-beam Japanese house. The living room is filled with work by family, friends and colleagues.“We are practicing living with art,” Morinoue says as he narrates the stories behind various sculptures and canvases.

At his mother’s old laundry table, where the family now takes meals, Morinoue strokes the cat in his lap and muses about the cross-connections in his life. “When we were growing up, a lot of customs weren’t explained,” he says. His parents worked a lot and philosophized little. “Then I went to Japan and a lot of things became clear. The way we rake the coffee—it is in the same pattern that rock gardens are raked. The same ripples of water.” HH