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  • Writer's pictureSarah Taylor Ko


The challenge was to create artwork around the elements earth, fire, and water. Living on the islands, these are all close to use everyday in the form of black lava cliffs, the eruptions on Kilauea and Mauna Loa, and moana, the ocean. I decided to try a painting with all three elements as I contemplated how the islands were formed from a volcanic hotspot in the earth's crust.

I started with some charcoal sketches on my panels. My first thought was to make three slightly different paintings showing an imaginative cross section through the ocean of the island life cycle from first breaking the surface to atoll. However, when I started blocking in color, I realized that it was going to be too monotonous, so I focused on my favorite rough draft, the one on the left in the series.

It became clear early on that the orange colors representing the core were overpowering the entire composition. To design more balance I made the line to through the blue ocean very thin and cut the bottom almost in half. I continued to have problems with balance and tried a lot of different solutions, from the cloud coming out of the mountain being orange, to a sunset sky, to a rainbow arching over the island, but it wasn't working until I decided to make a night sky.

I chose February's night sky from the star charts in Stars Over Hawaii because the show this painting is going to be part of, Earth, Fire Water is in February. In a serendipitous coincidence, I painted the star system Cetus the Whale dipping into the horizon right over the whale on the right of the painting. Pegasus is on the left. At this stage I created an underwater mountain form, refined my darks and lights, took some artistic liberties with the star presentations, and added more gold leaf to the plume and the ocean creatures.

In painting, as in life, I think it's good to not try to control every aspect of the work, to problem solve one thing at a time, to allow space for happy surprises. I feel like each painting is a collaboration between me and the materials, helping each other become something new. Hotspot has all the dynamism and playfulness I had hoped for in my original sketches as well as elements I never anticipated.

Come to the opening to see Hotspot in person! Celebration of Hawaii 2023 Earth, Fire Water is Viewpoint Gallery's 18th annual exhibit. It opens Sunday, February 5, 2023, at 5pm. Viewpoint Gallery, 3620 Baldwin Ave, Makawao, Maui.

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