The Life and Times of Herbert Kawainui Kāne

The cover

This is the cover for my next book in the series The Legends of Ḷainjin. The Forgotten Man is a prequel to Man Shark, and in my opinion, it’s best read after. I give you a long introduction to Ḷainjin in Man Shark before I tell the story of his search for his mother.

This article, however, is not about The Legends of Ḷainjin. It’s about the artist who painted the covers: Herb Kawainui Kāne. I bought permission to use his art from Herbert K. Kāne, LLC, and more of his art is available here: herbkanehawaii.com.

Kāne’s great-grandfather immigrated from China

Like many Hawaiians, Herb Kāne was of Chinese ancestry. His great-grandfather came from China to the Waipio Valley and built the first poi factory in the islands. Kāne’s father, also named Herbert, worked in the family poi business.

Regarding his parents, Kāne said,

“My father grew up in Waipio Valley…He had a map of the United States, and he decided he would see all 48 states…He ended up in Detroit, and worked at the Ford Motor Co. long enough to become an auto mechanic, and he’d go from town to town, working that trade.”[1]

That was how Kāne’s father met his mother, Dorothy Hansen, the daughter of Wisconsin farmers.

The younger Herb was born in Marshfield, Minnesota, in 1928, and his mother introduced him to art at an early age. He reported being “stunned, confronted with miracles”[2] at a showing of work by D. Howard Hitchcock, a well-known landscape painter born in Hawaii. He began to sketch, saying, “I just developed the itch…and the more I scratched it, the more it itched.”[3]

Raised in two worlds

In those days, Kāne traveled with his mom between Wisconsin and his father’s home on the big island of Hawai‘i. He was asked about his childhood in a 2011 interview. “‘I lived in both worlds,’ he [said], recalling trips to Hilo, learning to sail, fishing for aama crabs, shivering in a boat off Kona when the cold land breeze came off Mauna Kea.”[4] The experiences that were to shape Kāne’s life were these Hilo experiences, especially those with his father’s family, where he heard the oral literature of the islands. Life in Wisconsin, where “he delivered newspapers in the chill Midwestern winters and sold suits to farmers in the town’s clothing store,”[5] lacked the richness and diversity of that in Hawai‘i.

Kāne attended college after serving in the Navy and ultimately earned a master’s degree at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Not “enough soul in advertising”

After earning his degree, Kāne launched his own studio in Chicago, working in advertising, publishing, architecture, and television. “Anything,” he is quoted as saying, “to keep the brush moving.”[6] But advertising wasn’t emotionally satisfying. He said,

“There’s only so much you can do with dog food or tractors or whatever comes along. The end came when I won a Jolly Green Giant campaign, and for a year, did drawings and paintings of that big green fairy until I could no longer suffer it.”[7]

After sailing on Lake Michigan, he started learning about Polynesian canoes on a lark, spending time at the Field Museum of Natural History and the University of Chicago. Applying his artistic skills to his new knowledge of sailing canoes, he created a series of paintings that was purchased by the Hawai‘i State Foundation of Culture and the Arts. “That purchase [in 1969] enabled me to move back,” he said.[8] Just fourteen years after returning to the island state, the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii designated Herb Kāne a Living Treasure of Hawaii.[9]

Kāne’s art

What is it that we love about his art? Daniel Inouye, a former Senator from Hawai‘i, said, “[W]hen you saw a Herb Kāne painting, you were energized and motivated to learn about the past.”[10] The artist was an historian as well as a painter.

When I think of his paintings, I’m reminded of an island hull maker. After sacrificing a gigantic breadfruit tree that has produced thousands of pounds of food, he carves the hull with his adze carefully because one mistaken chop can dent its shape and affect its draft. Likewise, every stroke of Kāne’s brush was not only artistically perfect but well researched and historically correct.

Speaking about his art in 2006, Kāne said,

“My paintings are going to go on speaking to people long after I’m gone, so I feel a certain obligation to make sure that what I say is truthful as I can find it to be. If my work contributes to our comprehension of Hawaii’s past, that will ultimately become the greatest reward.

“Every culture romanticizes about its past. Hawaiians are no exceptions. You have Hawaiians who talk about the old days as some kind of utopia. What I try to do is avoid that kind of thing, because by stripping away those layers of fancy that obscure the past, when you get down to what really happened, what people were really thinking about, it’s always more interesting, and always much more rewarding because you know you’re getting close to the kernel of truth that lies in the center of every legend.”[11]

“Painting as time travel”

So, we love Kāne’s art because we hear him whispering to us, informing us as accurately as possible how life in the pre-contact Pacific might have been. His truth rings true to us not because it occurred exactly as he portrays it but because he convinces us that it’s the best vision we have.

For a 2006 article, he said,

“I’m in opposition to the mainstream of art today as it’s taught in the universities, which is that art should be a highly personal thing – highly distinctive to the personality and experience of the inner self. If the artist is concerned about his personality being expressed, there is no way he is ever going to be able to express the essence of the subject.…Representational art goes way back…Much of what we know of the past we get from artists who have documented their time and place, their people, their culture.” [12]

The article’s author, M.V. Harden, notes,

Since his school days at the Art Institute of Chicago, [Kāne] has been told that the type of art he prefers is not real “art,” it is mere illustration. Yet realism, or representational art, is all he ever wanted to do.[13]

Kāne also believed that the teaching of history shouldn’t be left to academics.

In his book Voyagers, he writes,

Historians of scholarly mien have informed me that history is a science, implying that artists would be well advised to stay out of their tower. But history has no value to society if its findings are not communicated, and many historians have difficulty communicating, except among themselves. Writing in private jargon, scientific historians may succeed in putting lay readers to sleep in their first paragraphs. But the great historical writers, knowing that the historian’s task clearly includes both a high quality of research and the art of communication, have regarded telling the story of history as an art. Although this is conventionally done with words, I believe that painting has the power to create a sense of history beyond words.[14]

Kāne’s knowledge of Polynesian sailing canoes informed his art. He likened this process to that of actors embodying the characters they portray:

Within a few seconds after going on stage, a skilled actor can disappear, transforming himself into the character of his role. His own personality becomes invisible….Similarly, a painter can empathize with his subject only by opening himself to it, striving to keep his own personality out of the way, and allowing the subject to speak to him about how it should be painted.[15]

Kāne’s books, stamp designs and special projects

Kāne published six books — including Voyagers and Ancient Hawai‘i, a history of Hawai‘i illustrated with many of his famous paintings — and created stamps for the U.S. Postal Service and for several Pacific nations. He also helped to design resorts and tourist centers in Hawai‘i and a number of Pacific nations, as well as a Fijian artistic and educational center. And several local corporations commissioned Kāne to create large pieces for public and business spaces. For example, he created Opening of the Pacific to Man, a 1973 mural made of wool, for the entrance of the Pacific Trade Center. Its dimensions are eleven by forty-three feet.[16]

The Hōkūle‘a

Yet Kāne is perhaps best known for his role in the design, construction and early voyages of the Hōkūle‘a and for cofounding the Polynesian Voyaging Society, as well as for the renaissance of Hawaiian culture that followed.

The name of the boat originated in a dream; “Hōkūle‘a” is the Hawaiian word for Arcturus, the zenith star that rotates directly above the Hawaiian islands.[1] This star travels at this latitude from east to west. Thus, by sailing north from Polynesia until east of the star, early voyagers could turn west and follow the star to their destination.

His intent had been to encourage a reawakening

The reawakening succeeded for the people of Hawai‘i and other Pacific islanders — of their cultural identity:

“What intrigued me was to see, if by building this canoe and putting it to active use and taking it out on a cruise throughout the Hawaiian islands, introducing it to the Hawaiian people, training Hawaiians to sail it, if this would not stimulate shock waves or ripple effect throughout the culture – in music and dance and the crafts.”[18]

Kāne achieved his objective. His colleague, Nainoa Thompson, the Hōkūle‘a’s navigator, said that he was

“the visionary, the dreamer, and he was the architect and the engineer. He’s the one who carried the burden of building and constructing and sailing Hōkūle‘a. When you look at Herb’s legacy, it is transforming Hawai‘i’s society because he brought pride and culture and inspiration back through the canoe…He is the father of the Hawaiian Renaissance.”[19]

The track record of the Hōkūle‘a is impressive, and Kāne itemizes its early expeditions in Voyagers:

Navigated without charts or instruments, this replica of an ancient Eastern Polynesian voyaging canoe made two 5,500 mile round trips between Hawai‘i and Tahiti in 1976 and 1980. Another very successful voyage in 1985–87 took it from Hawaii to Tahiti, Mo‘orea, Huahine, Ra‘iatea, the Cook Islands, New Zealand, Tonga, Samoa, then back to Hawai‘i by way of the Cook Islands and Tahiti—a round trip of 16,000 miles between the northern and southern points of the Polynesian triangle.[20]


[1] John Heckathorn, “Herb Kane: The Last Interview” June 2011https://www.honolulumagazine.com/herb-kane-the-last-interview

[2] Voyagers: Herb Kawainui Kāne; WhaleSong, Incorporated; 1991

[3] http://www.coffeetimes.com/herbkane.html

[4]//www.honolulumagazine.com/herb-kane-the-last-interview/

[5] Heckathorn, Op. cit. https://www.honolulumagazine.com/herb-kane-the-last-interview/

[6] Ibid.

[7] Harden, Op. cit. http://www.coffeetimes.com/herbkane.html

[8] Heckathorn. https://www.honolulumagazine.com/herb-kane-the-last-interview/

[9] https://hongwanjihawaii.com/living-treasures/list-of-honorees/

[10] https://www.staradvertiser.com/2011/03/10/hawaii-news/hawaiian-artist-herb-kane-dies-at-82/

[11] Harden, Op. cit.

[12] Harden http://www.coffeetimes.com/herbkane.html

[13 Harden http://www.coffeetimes.com/herbkane.html

[14] Voyagers: Herb Kawainui Kāne; WhaleSong, Incorporated; 1991

[15] Voyagers: Herb Kawainui Kāne; WhaleSong, Incorporated; 1991

[16] Herb Kawainui Kāne, Wikipedia, last modified October 20, 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herb_Kawainui_K%C4%81ne#Site-specific_works.Wikipedia

[17] Harden http://www.coffeetimes.com/herbkane.html

[18] Harden http://www.coffeetimes.com/herbkane.html

[19] https://keolamagazine.com/kupuna/herb-kawainui-kane-2/

[20] Herb Kawainui Kāne, Voyagers (Bellevue: WhaleSong, 1991), 11.

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