Kristie Fujiyama Kosmides, a wonderfully gifted painter on Hawai‘i Island, received a commission in 2019 to portray her island, the place she was born, in five panels to be installed at the airport in Hilo. It was a daunting task at the very least given the size—a 990-square-foot oil painting installation—and the rich diversity of an island, which is bigger than all the other main Hawaiian Islands combined. How would it be possible to give representation to such an awesome place with so many distinctive elements lending to the extraordinary landscape? Kristie knew she wanted to collaborate on the project, realizing the value of enlisting another artistic perspective. She told her friend, Tracey Niimi, a videographer, about her idea. He immediately put her together in his mind with his old friend—world-renowned and Honolulu-born ‘ukulele artist Jake Shimabukuro—and soon arranged a zoom call between them, which turned out to be the start of their collaboration. Kristie and Jake had an instant connection. They continued to connect long-distance as the pandemic began to separate people. The collaborative spirit was thoroughly present. As Kristie put it, they had a “blast.”
The creative process of any artist is mysterious, not only to the observer of the art, but also to the creator. Art, itself, goes from the invisible, the inspiration leading to the concept, then to the artistic process. It becomes visible, or material, only when the art manifests itself in a form. Artists often consider they are inspired by a muse, a divine force, a dream, as the source of their art is less than concrete, alternative to day-to-day reality, not yielding to description or identification by language.
When Jake and Kristie began their collaboration, they discovered they had a lot in common when it came to their creative processes. Both felt their inspiration was coming from an invisible place and that it was possible to tap into that force, that energy, by looking for it within themselves. They also shared the conviction that every person possesses that internal source of creativity. They realized the process they went through to create was even more important than the product that emerged as an artistic work. For both artists, the creative process supplied a sense of purpose and a feeling of euphoria. When they were able to get together in person and create side-by-side, they realized even more commonalities in what they experienced. Amazingly, working together they experienced an exchange of energy—Kristie found herself discovering images in the music Jake was making, and he found her painting suggested sounds to him. He describes being able to hear the tools she used on the canvas that translated to him as a kind of percussion. Jake completed a song during the collaboration, which was the only one he composed for the first year of the Covid pandemic, and he reproduced with the ‘ukulele the scraping sound of the tool Kristie used on her canvas, in his words, “a certain timbre against the canvas.” For her part, Kristie says that she heard in the music he created the song of whales.
“For her, Hawai‘i Island is a very spiritual place, leading her to use elements of “steam, splash, and white mist to connect to the spiritual tone.”
They both attest enthusiastically to the inspiration they received from each other. That inspiration reached beyond Kristie’s studio. In fact, when Kristie was en route from Hawai‘i Island to Honolulu, she looked out the window of the plane to see clearly a whale breaching. She had never seen such before from the window of a plane and was touched deeply enough by the connection to tell Jake about it. As if some external force were making sure their experience was shared, Jake was on the opposite route from Honolulu to Kona, and as the plane approached the airport, he had his own mysterious whale sighting. He said it was as if the whale were looking at him, waving and saying, “Welcome to the Big Island.”
The last wall panel Kristie painted for the airport installation became the first collaborative session they decided to video and share with a wider group tuning into their interactions. It was the launch of a project they called Abstract Collab (abstractcollab.com) to share with others their creative process. In the video, Kristie applies blue tape to a canvas while Jake creates music. By the end of the session, the blue tape reveals the space allotted for a whale eventually to be filled in with paint. The session ends with the whale existing only so far as blue tape.
Jake describes to me the “layering” he uses to build his compositions and points out a parallel with Kristie’s painting. As Kristie works with oil on canvas, she makes an application and then has to allow several days to pass for the paint to dry before applying the next layer. Jake goes through a similar layering, but very little time is required from layer to layer for additional measures, refrains and musical themes. His favorite tool these days is a “looper” which records the music he selects and automatically repeats it. Jake continues to overlay other musical pieces. The richness and complexity build just as it does with Kristie’s canvas treatments.
Looking back on their careers, the “soul-artists” realized their efforts had been “about sharing an end result,” according to Jake. Their collaboration made them realize they wanted to share the process of creating with other people. Jake reflects that through collaboration it is possible “to achieve this euphoric feeling that you can’t get by yourself.” Kristie adds, “Ideally, collaboration would create the conditions for making that time to allow yourself to create as if you were a little kid.” That’s exactly how Jake said he felt when Kristie asked him to paint on her canvas. He picked up the paint brush, then thought to himself, “Oh my gosh, I don’t know what I am doing.” He remembered, “When you are a kid, you are not afraid of anything.” Jake also reassured himself that if he made a mistake, Kristie could paint over it. Then, it all came together for him. He decided, “Once I got over the fear, I had so much fun and even got paint all over me.” He continued, “That’s what we want people to feel, the joy of creating.”
Kristie, in talking about the idea behind Abstract Collab says, “The creative process is something most people do not get to see.” They really started out with the strong feeling that the most important thing they could share with other people was, in her words, “the mess.” The session they did is especially insightful because the process is so piecemeal; one could never take from the snatches of the blue tape appended to almost empty canvas that it would turn out to be a whale on its back, or from the first loop of sound that it will serve as a foundation for a highly evolved musical piece—both in their final forms incredibly refined works of art that started from nothing.
The collaboration of the two artists began with a sort of quandary on Kristie’s part—how to reflect the diversity of the Island of Hawai‘i in five panels—and inspired a resolution of embracing another artist’s perspective and energy. When one first scans the five panels, the art will appear to be representational with a waterfall, native plants, including parts of a large hibiscus and the ‘ōhi‘a lehua, a tree that is sacred to islanders, the ‘i‘iwi (scarlet Hawaiian honecreeper), and the crescendo, a whale on its back in the last panel. Kristie was most fascinated to include abstract elements to infuse the pieces with spirit and feeling suggestive of certain tones. For example, she points out that the ‘i‘iwi birds are an endangered species. Their perilous and uncertain future is told by the fact they are unfinished in the painting and depicted with wild brushstrokes. She describes that panel as a “very wild piece.”
For her, Hawai‘i Island is a very spiritual place, leading her to use elements of “steam, splash, and white mist to connect to the spiritual tone.” It is not at all surprising given the energetic back and forth between Jake and Kristie that his composition communes in sound with the peacefulness and wildness of her images. Jake says, “We just spent all day in the studio playing and creating,” noting the “amazing energy there that is different than in a recording studio.” In the final analysis, Jake summarizes the experience as “letting your body, your mind, your heart open up to the whole universe of creativity, spontaneity, and inspiration.” This is the invisible gift they realized together and intend to share through future sessions of Abstract Collab.
You can check out more about Kristie's art at kristiekosmides.com or tiffanysartagency.com, and learn more about Jake's music at jakeshimabukuro.com.