Fujio Kaneko in 2005, preparing for the 88 temple pilgrimage in Shikoku, Japan.
Fujio Kaneko, former Honolulu Academy of Arts installations designer, passed away at home on April 4, 2019, at the age of 78.
Kaneko, originally from Yokohama, Japan, came to Hawai‘i in the 1960s to study travel industry management at UH. When that failed to sustain his interest, he took a class in commercial design, which led to an apprenticeship with HAA print curator Joe Feher. Kaneko began full-time work at HAA on April 1, 1970, and remained at the museum until his retirement on August 31, 2005.
Preperator Spenson Donre worked closely with Kaneko from 1987 to 2005. “He was really creative, a problem solver,” Donre said, adding that many people came to the Academy seeking Kaneko’s advice on installation design.
Among the many elaborate and complex projects that Kaneko worked on were building a replica Honolulu Trolley in the Art School gallery for the 1993 Garden Club exhibition Island Street Scenes, transforming the museum’s main entrance into an entrance to a pyramid for the 2000 exhibition Mystery of the Nile, building a massive wooden birthday cake on the front lawn for the museum’s 75th anniversary in 2002, and constructing a Korean house—complete with heated floor—in the education gallery for the 2003 exhibition Explore Korea: Grandfather’s House. In addition to designing major exhibitions, Kaneko and his team supported gallery rotations, built stage sets for events, and created displays for the window of Borders Ward Centre.
Kaneko would typically annotate his installation sketches in Japanese—his first language—then explain them in English. The language barrier, coupled with his gruff manner, sometimes led to tensions and misunderstandings with other staff. “They had to argue first, and then we worked,” Donre said. Nevertheless, museum staff had great respect for Kaneko’s talent, creativity, and work ethic, and his team always felt supported: “He really took care of us. He would really fight for us every time we needed something.”
One particularly memorable project was constructing a 17-foot-tall daruma (the world’s largest daruma, according to Calendar News) for the Luce Pavilion Complex groundbreaking ceremony in September 1999. Made of wire mesh and papier mache, the daruma took about 3 months to build. The night before the ceremony, Donre recalled that “it was raining and windy and so we had to cover it. So [Kaneko] climbed on top and I stayed on the bottom and we covered it. It was kind of sketchy, but you know him.”
Kaneko, who was also an artist, shared his thoughts on exhibition design with Asian Art Department Manager and Editor Sati Benes-Chock before he retired: “The designer sets feeling, or exhibition tone and mood,” he said. “This affects how the viewer sees and interprets the artwork.”
Looking over some of Kaneko’s old sketches, Donre reflected, “He designed it; we built it.”