The Founders – Herb Kane
from Hawai’iki Rising – a book by Sam Low
Two men – Herb Kane and Ben Finney – share a vision of an ancient canoe
In 1968, an imposingly tall part-Hawaiian named Herb Kawainui Kane was working in Chicago as a commercial artist on an advertising campaign that featured a giant vegetable man – the Jolly Green Giant – who presided over a mythical Valley of Plenty. But as he sketched the affable Goliath, Kane found himself distracted by other visions swirling in his head – images of large ocean-going Polynesian canoes.
Herb was born in Garrison Keilor’s iconic American town – Lake Woebegone – to a Danish mother and Hawaiian-Chinese father. “My parents were on their way through Minnesota,” he recalls, “and roads and cars being what they were in nineteen twenty-eight, and my mother being in a state of advanced maternity, she delivered in Stearns County Minnesota which is the location that Garrison Keilor avers is Lake Woebegone.”
Herb grew up in both Hawaii and Wisconsin, the family moving back and forth. He finished high school and did a stint in the Navy. He then studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He took courses in anthropology at the University of Chicago, a hotbed of the discipline, and briefly considered a career in the field. He married, had kids and prospered. He bought a house in a little town called Glencoe on the shore of Lake Michigan “because they had a nice beach and a sailing club.” He learned to race catamarans and crewed on a yacht from Maui to Honolulu. He traveled often to the islands where he befriended the famous anthropologist Kenneth Emory of the Bishop Museum.
Herb read the journals of Cook and other early explorers. He studied the drawings of canoes they published. “I saw that some of them were very clumsy. What I read about the canoes did not correspond to them. In those days, people were trained to draw headlands and distinct landforms in the Navy Academies for recognition purposes. It was a part of cartography but that did not make them artists – their drawings were all out of proportion. The figures on the canoes, the sails, were out of whack. So I wondered ‘what did these damn things look like’? I got very curious and I started researching.”
Kane’s research took him to a famous book – Canoes of Oceania – reams of text and thousands of drawings, paintings and sketches of canoes gleaned from early European explorers by A. C. Haddon and James Hornell. Armed with a letter of introduction from Kenneth Emory, Herb sent queries to world famous museums. Responses poured into his Glencoe studio. He sat at his drafting board and redrew the canoes, smoothing their crude lines into seagoing shapes. “Having synthesized all these fragments into drawings, I was curious to see what they looked like on the sea with people on their decks.” He began to paint a series of illustrations that would inspire a stunning revival of interest in Polynesian origins and, more important, a search by Hawaiians themselves for their cultural roots.
Among Hawaiians today there’s a notion that a call has gone out to their mainland brothers and sisters. “Come home,” says the call, “we need you to help us reclaim our culture and our land.” No one is keeping track, but in the last generation or so, thousands of Hawaiians have heeded the call. Herb was one of them. Hawaiian artist and cultural practitioner Sam Ka’ai put it this way: “A man on Bear Island in Lake Michigan at the Chicago Institute of Art thought of the old songs. He started to paint pictures of waka (canoes). First they were Maori canoes, then Marquesan canoes – then more elaborate ones – then there were Hawaiian canoes. He was up there in Chicago. Why would he do that? Because he has this ma’a, this tattoo. It’s not a tattoo on his skin, it’s imprinted on his heart. His name is Herb Kawainui Kane. His spirit started to move.”
In 1970, this spiritual awakening caused Herb to move back to Hawaii where his canoe paintings were exhibited, reproduced as prints and on postcards and calendars. Their enthusiastic reception reinforced Herb’s curiosity – how did these canoes sail? Were they seaworthy? Could they carry large cargoes of people and goods? “What I really wanted to do was build one and take it out and find out. A lot of people didn’t get it. They thought I was going to build a canoe as some kind of monument. They were rather appalled when I explained ‘no this is something I want to take out and actually sail.’
One of the few people who knew precisely what Herb had in mind was Ben Finney.