Hawaii’s Doodling Cop and Other Artists

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BY J. ARTHUR RATH III – Excellent English skills were admittance requirements to classy Roosevelt Public High School when the three persons in the next paragraph were admitted. Thanks to a one of them, a punished gifted artist, generations of teenagers were surrounded with superlative art at mealtime.

“The art provided an atmospheric experience, as do alfresco luncheons,” recalls indubitable newspaper columnist Ben Wood. Years later, when I saw world-famous Jean Charlot’s work, it evoked an association with Joe Dawson‚s cafeteria murals. A younger alum, Arlene Lum, who became a newspaper publisher, summarizes Joe’s artistry in two words: “Simply beautiful.”


Wood and Lum were of that epochal and charming RHS time when good grammar helped students write well and gave them a head start at going some where!

Then some dolt ordered Dawson’s murals obliterated–covered with banal beige paint. (Did this Philistine have a beef with Joe, who was in law enforcement after graduation?  We’ll never know what caused this barbaric decision.) Thank goodness Joe didn’t stop painting though!

Cruising toward the century-age mark, Dawson grew up during The Depression when times were tough, A kindly person noticed how Joe was always doodling, drawing in notepads.  Joe explains, “Otto M. Degner showed me lots of artistic techniques and tuned me in to nature. (Botany scientist Degner, authored and illustrated the seminal “Flora Hawaiianensis,” the reference of what plants grew here (some now gone).

Joe explains, “Roosevelt’s creative administration ordered me to paint the cafeteria as a punishment. Think
I used some Hawaii words on campus.  Hawaiian was forbidden in our English Standard School—unless it was a nouns designating a place—“Nuuanu” Avenue, for instance.  I drew trees and made the cafeteria resemble a Hawaiian rainforest. Professor Degner liked it when he came to the unveiling.”

Joe was a policeman for 32 years, he served as a special investigator.  But Joe always remained an artist. “Drawing and painting is a habit, not a hobby for me.  I don’t drink or smoke–I doodle.”

He sketched and water colored after high school. Along came acrylic paint in The Fifties, a bonanza for weekend artists!  Oil painting is a long-drawn-out process, oil paint has to dry before an artist can paint over it. Acrylics bring the process up to water-coloring speed. Dawson won local awards, his paintings were featured in local galleries. Joe’s opportunity to reach people who don’t enter art galleries came when Pearl City Tavern offered him display space on the side of its building.

Joe smiles, “I sold enough paintings to pay for a family trip to Europe.  Seeing what was in all the galleries there was like being in art school for me.”

Back in the Fifties, while Hawaii was still a Territory, Chaminade University professor Bob Snyder received permission from the City and County of Honolulu to have local artists display paintings on the Zoo fence at Monsarrat Avenue on Saturdays.  Since he worked Saturdays, Dawson asked Snyder for permission to do the same thing on Sundays.  He talked to the political honchos about it. As a result, Joe has become known for fathering “Weekend Art On The Zoo Fence.”

For over 50 years this has enabled local artists bring their work to public view.   Richard Smart of Parker Ranch, film and television star Jack Lord, and many other perceptive collectors acquired Dawson’s paintings.  Joe and his wife Iris are both cancer survivors, proceeds from some of his art events have been shared with the American Cancer Society.

This talented native Hawaiian painter inspires others to
learn to paint each Tuesday at 12:00 to 2:00 at the Elks Club.  Sitting at the head of the table, Joe offers wisdom, inspiration, and hands-on one-on-one advice about painting beautiful things in Hawaii.  He teaches at other places as well, current students filled the large banquet room for the 201l Christmas Party and to celebrate Joe’s ability to inspire others.





  1. Wow Wonderful article!!

    If this requirement “Excellent English skills were admittance requirements” was in California 98% of them would fail… Come on America re-elect obama!!!! Were on a role to regain America back… let the roits begin!!!

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