A Hawaii Legacy – The Art of Herbert Kawainui Kane (1928-2011)

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BY CLAIRE K. BAJO RS – Famous Hawaii historian and artist Herbert Kawainui Kane will always be remembered for his highly detailed paintings of Hawaii life in historic times, preserving pieces of our island heritage in his works of art.

Revered as a Hawaii historian, Herb wrote books about the Polynesian’s voyage and discovery of the Hawaiian Islands from Tangaroa in the South Pacific, and his writings refer to the sacred Hawaiian teachings of living that were only passed down orally in ancient times.



Ancient Hawaii history has been portrayed in many ways, but the famous paintings of Herb Kane depict a million words that only a picture can portray.  Here’s a look at some pieces that have stirred me up inside as a native growing up in the Hawaiian Islands.


When I lived in Kaneohe, Oahu as a kid, we always went to Burger King at Windward City where there was a huge mural of the Polynesian Voyage to Hawaii that Herb had done masterfully. The faces of the people in the painting were so vivid and clear that I remember wondering if the painting was alive, their eyes seemed to watch me as I walked by.


In the early 90′s, when I came to live on the Big Island, I often went to what is now called King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel to look at their Hawaii murals and paintings of Hawaiian Royalty which lined the halls. This painting of King Kamehameha accepting the gift of fish from the wealth of his ahupua’a [landmark] was always a favorite of mine as it showed the abundance and prosperity of a culture.

Herb depicts King Kamehameha in his maturity as a very wise soul, having learned the life lessons needed to rule a thriving civilization that was rich in agricultural and marine seamanship without maps.


Herb also helped me in my teachings as a kid going to Kamehameha Schools Explorations and Liliu’okalani Hawaiian School. There we learned the different seasons of plants and animals, understanding the ripeness of a harvest time by looking at the leaves falling from a tree, or types of clouds in the sky and relate it to the maturity of the he’e [octopus], or certain fish running out at sea.

In this painting, Herb shows the types of food the Hawaiians grew from taro [for poi] to sweet potato, breadfruit, sugar cane, banana, and coconut. Herb shows the taro as a main staple of the Hawaiian culture as they used every part of the plant, and nurtured the taro patches as beloved keiki [children] of the gods who fed them.


And this painting gives me ‘chicken skin’ as I’ve visited this place at Punalu’u and the remaining wall that served as their community.

Author Pila Chiles writes about this area in ‘Secrets and Mysteries of Hawaii,’ and I was able to take Pila to this place where he showed us the huge terraced village and fresh water spring in the area, along with the pyramid hidden way up mauka [toward the mountain].


The paintings that Herb did of Pele the Volcano Goddess have been a long standing history lesson for children and tourists alike! The legends that we speak of when we point to the many paintings of Herb Kane will always be cherished as our Hawaii way of passing the knowledge down through the ages.

As we look into the past, and educate our children on the lifestyle of Old Hawaii, we are reminded here that Pele and the natural laws of hospitality and the Aloha Spirit are still alive and well, as her spirit lives on in the hearts of all who come in humility to the Big Island to see her.


My favorite goddess of Hawaii, Poliahu the Snow Goddess of Mauna Kea, is a secret that not very many artists know, but Herb was able to capture her loving essence here in the softness of the clouds as her hair, and the snow capped mountains of this ancient holy place.

Thank you so much, Herbert Kawainui Kane, for all of the Hawaiian history that we can pass down through your amazing works of Hawaii art, and preserve a culture through the stories and legends of Old Hawaii, and beyond…you will surely be missed by all!

Blessings to you and your ohana always.


Claire K. Bajo RS is with Hawaii Life Real Estate Services. See more at https://www.hawaiilife.com