Waikiki’s Gaza Strip

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Joe Dowson

BY J. ARTHUR RATH III – A tiny sliver of Waikiki simulates Gaza Strip border where Palestinian artists created new concepts of contemporary art for which the world is richer.

Hawaii’s artistic strip starts where Kalakaua Avenue splits into Monsarrat Avenue near the Zoo’s entrance.  Spacious Kapiolani Park encompasses much of Waikiki from that point.


Shady branches of huge old trees cover the strip of land between the zoo’s chain metal fence and the city’s sidewalk adjacent to Monsarrat.  On Saturdays and Sundays local artists turn the fence into an art gallery

Looking at art on the Zoo Fence is unlike being in a museum or gallery.  You’re outdoors where you may hear monkeys screeching. You don’t have to whisper or pretend you understand what’s exhibited.  Just walk up and ask the nearby artist.

The Zoo Fence is the islands’ only place where every weekend you can talk to lots of local artists.  Some, like Paul Forney, will be working on a painting until someone walks by an looks.  Paul happily strikes up a conversation.

Sometime he asks “What do you think?”  Have an idea? It may become an on-the-spot immediate  detail in one of his humoresque paintings.  (A Mexican visitor suggested Paul put a smile on the worm in the bottle of Tequila as he listened to the Rock Band play in the main part of the painting.)

Painting, like writing, is solitary work.  Creative people tend to be shy.  They express themselves best by what they do.

Art On The Zoo Fence is a display experience where you can buy and take things home.  Art adds atmosphere to homes, usually it appreciates in value.  Sometimes quite dramatically!

The creators sit quietly, wanting to be friendly.  Catch their eye as you stroll by, be rewarded with a smile.  Asking questions is a form of courteousness that everyone appreciates.  Talking with artists helps you understand their creative process–this can be very stimulating.

Large shade trees cover the area by the Zoo Fence where artists exhibit. The ground surface is plain dirt and muddy when wet.  Simple landscaping could create a beautiful Hawaiian setting.  It’s an eyesore when paintings aren’t hanging. Paintings draw attention from the ugly, ignored packed dirt.

Why is this strip of land ignored?  Visitors to Fort DeRussy Park a few miles up the road have a model for what this strip could be.  Add some red cinders and create a pathway. Madam Pele won’t mind releasing some rocks from Hawaii Island as long as they’re not leaving the Hawaiian Islands. Ferns could hide tree roots.  This could be a pretty little setting.  Instead, it’s a place where people walk past quickly when paintings aren’t hanging.

Kapiolani Park was left for local use after Hawaiians lost traditional access to beaches and the sea.  In 1848, King Kamehameha III, hoping to keep land out of the hands of foreigners should he be overthrown, had initiated The Great Mahele system of land distribution.  We know how that turned out.

In the 1870’s King Kalakaua dedicated the present park and named it after his wife.  It became the first Hawaiian public space. Horseracing, baseball, and other recreations were part of its beginnings. It was a center for Hawaiians and other local hoi polloi.

Luxury high rise buildings leading to and adjacent to the park mark the transition.

King Kalakaua’s gift now is in the hands of the Kapiolani Park Preservation Society.  It states on the world wide web so all will know:  “Its preservation mission is to preserve and protect the beauty of the Park, its green open spaces and magnificent trees, and to keep the Park free and open to all.”

Maybe these missionaries could pretty the strip?  If maintenance is not part of their “mission,” how about inviting another organization. Here’s one with the perfect name:  The Waikiki Improvement Association?

…Or maybe some day we’ll have a mayor who looks at fixing what’s on the ground and under instead of imagining rail tracks in the air? …Or maybe the City should surrender this little strip to the Army to make pretty like their park in the heart of Waikiki? …Or maybe the high rise neighbors can formulate a men’s garden group who might enjoy helping.  Guys don’t have a chance to dig in the dirt once they’re in those complexes.

Art on the Zoo Fence is approaching its 60th year. Joe Dowson, former Honolulu Policeman, was among the exhibiting artists almost from the beginning.  Shown here is Dowson’s painting of a typical old-time Hawaiian home that was torn down recently for a grand complex.  Advertising for it encourages potential buyers here and on the mainland: “Invest in Paradise, all comforts including central air conditioning.”

Joe painted this scene to preserve another time.  Evoking memories of long-ago scenes, depicting beautiful moments, appealing to nostalgia and emotions are things artists do.  That’s why we’re lucky Art on the Zoo Fence is in view.  Vita brevis, ars longa. (Life is brief, art endures.)