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  • Writer's pictureSarah Taylor Ko

The Canoe is the World

Updated: May 27, 2021

I had an amazing opportunity to attend via Zoom the Imiloa Center's annual Wayfinding Celebration in October, 2020. I was able to listen to the original navigators of the Hokulea, the Hawai'ian ocean voyaging canoe, talk story about their journey to recreate an ancient Polynesian vessel and learn to sail it around the world using no instruments at all. Inspired by the conversation, I set to work on a series of paintings celebrating wayfinding.

The Canoe is the World began on the Hokulea itself when it docked in Hilo Bay in 2018, and I was able to stand on the deck and meet some of the current crew.

There was one shot in particular that I wanted to work with because of its simple and dramatic shapes, but I didn't count on the verticals being so strong or what a difficult composition it would be to resolve.

I wasn't interested in rendering the sails as much as I wanted to reference everything I could about celestial navigation.

When the moon is out it can be hard to see some of the star systems, but the navigators make use of the moon's phases and it's rising and setting points as well, so I included moons running across the work. In typical overlapping fashion, I couldn't resist adding some gold leaf to the moons and other areas. I included star charts, Mau's compass, and geometrical references.

Whales and all manner of marine life accompanied the vessel during various stages, and you can see them in the bottom of the painting and an almost invisible whale in the sails. The Hawai'ian white tern, the Manu-o-Ku, or bird of Ku played into navigating when terns led the canoe to land the final 120 miles. They appear as drawings in the lower center of the painting and at the top of the sails.

I included several interpretations of a petroglyph found carved in the Kona rocks which was instrumental in helping recreate the correct sail shape for the Hokulea. Most obviously, I painted in a giant earth to both resolve my technical problem of too many verticals and to honor the phrase of famous navigator Chad Baybayan's that stood out to me, "the canoe is the world."

In typical Hawai'ian fashion, a few words reference many things. The canoe is the world means at least this, that when you are on the Hokulea it becomes your whole world, that traveling across all the oceans gave the Hokulea and the ancient wayfinders access to the world, and that like our fragile and resilient planet, the Hokulea carries limited resources that must be used wisely.

My friend Lisa said the phrase comes from the Hawai'ian, HE WAʻA HE MOKU, HE MOKU HE WAʻA, the canoe is an island, and the island is a canoe. I realized this offered another layer of meaning; stewarded well, the island and the canoe alike have everything we need to thrive.

Come and see this painting and Manu-O-Ku Show Me the Way at the Wailoa Center's MidSummer Art Show opening June 4 from1pm-6pm and running until June 30th in Hilo, Hawai'i.

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