“I want to pin each piece to the wall,” said artist Maya Lea Portner, holding a strip of white-painted board on which she had pinned organic shapes of paper, white on one side, red on the other so that they cast a shadow and also have a pinkish halo.

Portner plays with ways to execute her installation.

Portner plays with ways to execute her installation.

“That’s a lot of work!,” responded James Jensen the museum’s curator of contemporary art. The two batted suggestions back and forth until they arrived at a solution they agreed on.

Jensen paid a studio visit to Portner last month, to check on her progress for her upcoming Catharine E.B. Cox Award exhibition Urbanophilia/Urbanophobia: Love and Fear of the City.

Maya Lea Portner and James Jensen

Maya Lea Portner and James Jensen

Portner, who recently returned from an art residency at the Waaw Artists’ Residence Center for Art and Design in Saint-Louis, Senegal, works in her Punchbowl apartment, where she as been painstakingly cutting shapes out of a huge piece of painted paper, on which she had drawn outlines of Honolulu’s built environment, taken from Google Earth images. On one wall of her Urbanophilia/Urbanophobia installation will be the hundreds of cut-out shapes, forming an abstract depiction of the swath of Honolulu running from Blaisdell Center on Kapi‘olani Boulevard up to Tantalus. The shapes will be affixed to a wall with taxidermy pins.

“I’ll throw out a thought,” said Jensen. “Since you have black, red, and white going on, how about if the heads of the taxidermy pins were painted black?”

“That’s exactly along the lines I’m thinking,” responded Portner. “It’s called ‘Fear and Love,’ and I was worried I was loving it too much and didn’t have enough fear. I thought pinning them was a little violent to the paper.”

Rearranging elements in Portner's maquette of her gallery installation.

Rearranging elements in Portner’s maquette of her gallery installation.

Portner had created a maquette of the Arts of Hawai‘i Gallery, so she could work out exactly what would go where. She and Jensen pored over it, moving things around and making decisions.

Elements of 'Urbanophilia/Urbanophobia'

Elements of ‘Urbanophilia/Urbanophobia’

Meanwhile, the giant piece of paper, with the topography cut out of it, is now a pretty lacelike expanse, which will hang on a different wall of the gallery, along with grill-like constructions made of wire covered with paper soaked in a gel medium. It’s an intricate, physically layered work with intricate, layered meaning.

Portner likes to flip our perspective of Honolulu, going from aerial view to eye-level view. Her desire is to “create an image/object that emphasizes the maps’ abstract nature through a subjective personal contemplation” of her home city.


Maya Portner: Urbanophilia/Urbanophobia: Love and Fear of the City will be on view in the Arts of Hawai‘i Gallery June 11 to September 15.