The mural, located at UH Hilo’s Hawai‘i Innovation Center in downtown Hilo, brightens a large wall facing the street with Hawaiian landscapes, historical figures, and cultural symbols.
A colorful mural debuted at the Hawai‘i Innovation Center in downtown Hilo last month. The artwork, by Allen Russell, was donated to the center with the goal of sharing Hawaiian culture and values with the community.
The Hawai‘i Innovation Center, opened in 2004 in the former downtown Bank of Hawai‘i building at 117 Keawe Street, is owned and operated by the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo and managed by the High Technology Development Corporation, a state agency that uses the building as a business incubator.
The mural, entitled Pillars, is 16 by 58.5 feet in size brightening a large wall facing the street with Hawaiian landscapes, historical figures, and cultural symbols. The artist says the piece embodies the history and restoration of Hawaiian culture while inspiring innovation and growth.
“The surrealistic imagery is supposed to get viewers to consider things from multiple points of view and imagine how we can break down barriers to find innovative ways to do things,” says Mr. Russell.
Mr. Russell reached out to the university in August, and after approval, began his creative process. He completed the piece in just under three months, finishing in October.
As with all his pieces, Mr. Russell consulted with members of the local community to ensure Pillars would have deep connections to the people of Hilo. He consulted with a number of native Hawaiians, lifetime local residents, and university faculty, staff, and administrators.
After coming up with a solid plan, Mr. Russell got to work on the estimated $33,000 piece.
The mural includes four pillars with one Hawaiian word “etched” into each of them. Russell explains that he chose words he felt embodied core Hawaiian values and the Hilo community. The words ‘Ohana, Malama, Kuleana, and Aloha are seen in the forefront of the piece, with the rest of the mural depicting Hawaiian practices, symbols, and icons.
The mural is the 10th in a series of murals painted by Mr. Russell and donated throughout local communities by the artist and his wife Kimberly Russell. Mrs. Russell, an English instructor at UH Hilo for the past five years, explains that her husband came up with the concept in hopes of brightening up the community through art. All materials and time are donated.
“We never take anything for any of the murals, as this project of creating and donating art in public spaces is something we feel strongly about,” says Mrs. Russell.
Mr. Russell, a musician, began teaching himself how to paint seven years ago. He has created 28 spray-paint pieces across the northwest in the continental United States. The couple moved to Hilo in 2014. Since arriving to the island, Mr. Russell has painted and donated the murals to local schools, businesses, and neighborhoods the Russells have a connection with in the community.
Among the murals Mr. Russell has done, the Vulcan community may recognize some well-known pieces both current and retired. Before changing locations, local business Basically Books was home to Mr. Russell’s mural entitled No Problem Too Great. The mural depicted the Hōkūleʻa voyaging canoe on a stormy sea with the crew overcoming the rough weather.
This popular piece was retired when Basically Books moved downtown. Although retiring pieces is a sad event, Mrs. Russell explains they are happy they were given the opportunity to give to the business when they could.
Aside from local businesses, schools are a major focus of the Russells’ efforts. The mural Kuhio: Dreamweaver is located at the Prince Jonah Kūhiō Kalaniana‘ole Elementary and Intermediate School in Pāpaʻikou. It is 14.5 by 18 feet in size and depicts educational and Hawaiian symbols, emphasizing the theme of academia in Hawaiian culture.
Mrs. Russell shares that since launching the non-profit in 2016, she and her husband have felt nothing but support from the Hilo community. Although it is rare for Mr. Russell to receive personal recognition for his work, Mrs. Russell says it is the impact of the work that matters most to them.
“We see people looking at the murals, taking photos and selfies with them, posting on social media, looking up the Hawaiian words, or discussing the meaning of the mural,” she says. “We know that people have taken the art into their hearts.”
By Elena Espinoza, an English major also earning a certificate in teaching English as a second language.
Photos of mural by Kirsten Aoyagi, a communication major.