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  • Writer's pictureSarah Taylor Ko


I was recently asked how much of my work is planned and how much is spontaneous. In order to answer that question, I thought I would bring you through the process of creating this 30" x 48" mixed media painting about the Manu-o-ku, or Hawai'ian White Fairy Tern.

After attending a conference in October 2020 with the original navigators of the Hokulea, I started a series based on wayfinding and celestial navigation.

It has been several years since I worked in a larger format, but I felt this topic deserved some epic space. I began with a big board, the 2 red sails and the smaller white sail of the Hokulea, and the idea of breaking the space with triangles just as the sails intersect the sky and sea.

I really liked the patchwork and the dynamism of my first efforts, but I felt like the geometry was too rigid and needed more organic shapes. I decided to feature the white tern.

One of the aspects of wayfinding I had not yet highlighted in my art was the last stage of the journey across the ocean. Celestial navigation is not an exact science, so the Pacific wayfinders looked for a "screen" which is the general group of islands. Hawai'i stretches over 1000 miles, and there are lots of open ocean gaps between the screen, so the navigators look for other signs to get them closer to land like drifting vegetation, piles of clouds, and the ocean terns. Noddy terns fly about 40 miles from land, and the white terns as many as 120 miles before heading home in the late afternoon.

I imagine sighting the white terns was a cause for great celebration, and meant landfall was very close. The canoe would follow the birds home.

My next move was to block in 2 terns while keeping the patchwork I had started with, and the 3 sails. I wasn't too worried about the colors because I knew that I would be adjusting them many times.

I wanted the birds to be more visible, but I didn't want to lose the red sails, so I tried everything in shades of red. I also added a lot of drawing inspired by the petroglyphs of the early Polynesians that included many circle, dot, and half circle patterns.

On a painting this large changing the colors completely requires a lot of effort and a lot of paint!

This was a big jump because I had been pretty happy with the earlier version, but I wanted to see what adding more contrast would do. I liked where it was headed, but it stayed in this stage for a long time because I wasn't sure how to complete the painting.

For me, this is the most difficult stage, and I very often paint over the entire image and start over. This time, I asked for some help from a few artist friends who pointed out the empty left hand side and the monotony of the horizontal blocking.

In the final stage, I added a tern on the left and a tail on the right. I further increased the value contrast, brought the darkest blue down, made some turquoise wave shapes, and then it felt complete.

My original intentions of portraying the sails of the Hokulea, honoring wayfinding, and breaking up space with overlapping geometry are all still in the final painting, but I never knew exactly what would happen next in the process as I was making it. This is the case in nearly all my work, and in my life as well. I head in a general direction, but remain open to intuitive nudges which, like the terns guide the navigators, escort me to the new home I knew was there even though I hadn't yet seen it.

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