Step out of the busy shuffle of King Street into the relatively tranquil lobby of First Hawaiian Center on a weekday now through Feb. 5, and you’ll find yourself in a crash course on contemporary local art. On view are Dropping In: Recent Work by Tom Lieber, Drawing a Bead: Recent Sculpture by George Woollard, and Dreaming of Nature: Works by Hannah Day, Nelson Flack, Chenta Laury, and Carl Jennings.
Glistening in the midst of mixed-media works are George Woollard’s lacquered wood sculptures. Woollard, a leading light in Honolulu’s art world and a favorite instructor at the Honolulu Museum of Art School, has spent five years “drawing a bead”—or taking aim—on the trees in his backyard, often with a chainsaw, to produce a range of pieces. “He carves forms that are organic and whimsical,” says Allison Wong, the museum’s deputy director of administration and operations and curator of the exhibition, “but could also reference functional objects or forms in nature, thereby heightening their intriguing ambiguity.”
“I was particularly drawn to the velvety surfaces and rich textures of his sculptural work,” Wong says about her selections, made with the help of curatorial assistant Katherine Love. “[The] multiple layers of cashew lacquer create the sort of slick, vibrant and colorful surfaces more associated with ceramic or glass, than with wood sculpture.”
The prolific working artist also has work on view in Luxury Row’s annual art showcase Hawai‘i’s Modern Masters through Dec. 1. Woollard, a Massachusetts-born O‘ahu transplant, took time from his busy schedule to discuss his relationship with the museum, the artistic necessity of teaching, and what working in sculpture means to him.
How long have you been involved with the Honolulu Museum of Art?
I made an exhibition with my wife, Jinja Kim, in the graphics gallery in 1987. We were both making prints at the time. I had participated in several Artists of Hawai‘i shows even earlier. I began teaching at the museum in 1984 with Vi Scott before [the Art School] was remodeled. But it was really Carol Khewhok that invited me to teach when [the school] opened up. She needed someone to teach a painting class and I was really a printmaker and watercolorist. But I said, “Sure, I can teach whatever you need me to teach.” It was a great fit and I have been teaching there ever since—mostly printmaking, watercolor painting and mixed media painting.
What has kept you committed to teaching at the Art School all these years? Any memorable teaching experiences stand out?
The Art School is a godsend. I can create classes as I do art. My students are fellow voyagers and sometimes they become life-long friends. Teaching has become the message of my work. There need to be lessons learned, and what better way to learn something than to teach it? I have come to understand that artists need to see themselves as teachers, to be masters and investigators of hidden truths. There is no one memory that stands out; it is an accumulation of countless encounters with people, and ideas that stir me.
What went into the works on display in Drawing a Bead?
About five years of work are represented. Although I have been known as a printmaker and painter for most of my career, sculpture has pretty much always been my goal. The inspiration to make things in the round goes back to my childhood and early trips abroad that exposed me to Greek and Roman statuary, as well as more recent masters. Every thing else I have done seems like a warm up to making sculptures. But now, I look at sculpture as a form of painting and painting as a form of sculpture.
What themes have you been able to explore by making that shift into homegrown sculpture?
Actually, the title, Drawing a Bead, says it all. These are drawings in three dimensions. I am literally and figuratively drawing, making lines, telling a story and composing. Drawing is at the foundation of all art, not just what I am doing and not just visual art. There must be a movement—a hand, an eye and a mind in motion. These objects are meant to suggest movement and a thought process. They are discoveries, games and invitations to engage physically with touch and emotionally with color. I am trying my best to get focused on what matters most to me. The idea is to meet my materials and my tools half way, to bring as much to the product as they do but no more. The artwork is a bridge between what existed before in the tree and what I have to offer as the maker. This is a place of ambiguity and possibility. It is the most interesting place to be because it will always be a surprise and can never be predicted. The themes are play, fun, surprise, excitement and inspiration.
What led you to use wood as a primary sculpting material?
These works are taken from fallen or cut trees on my property, worked over with a chainsaw and then painted with multiple layers of cashew lacquer that I import from Korea. These were a lot of work, and a lot of fun to make.
First Hawaiian Bank is a longtime museum partner, and the First Hawaiian Center lobby has been a satellite museum gallery since 1996. Learn more about the exhibitions at First Hawaiian Center here.