Molokai on My Mind

Posted on December 10, 2017 by Yoshiko Yamamoto

My planning for the Molokai illustration project for Patagonia Press is shaping up as I write this. The assignment is to create a dozen woodblock print illustrations for the book Paddling My Own Canoe, written by Audrey Sutherland decades ago. 

I really like the book personally.  Each page comes alive with her amazing adventure stories, her unbelievable stamina and resolve, her keen observations, and her yearnings as one woman to make these dangerous swimming and canoeing voyages to hula'ana (a Hawaiian term for a place where it is necessary to swim past a cliff that blocks passage along the coast, a sheer cliff where the sea beats), all alone in the 1960s.  

This morning I finished re-reading and highlighting all the locations where she traveled and the keywords in her book. I've been making notes of the Hawaiian names of trees, flowers, and birds that I've never heard before I started working on this book project.

Putting the book down, I called up and talked with Mr. Walter Naki, the native local fisherman who is said to be the only person that can take me to the impenetrable northeast coast of Molokai. I've been staring  at his name for a few weeks now. 

"I realize that the ocean is really rough and wind fierce, it's not safe to go there in winter, but the deadline for the illustration project is March or April, so I need to ask you if you can take me to the northeast coast in January," I asked Mr. Naki over the phone in one breath. Most of the charter boats and fishermen won't take you to the north coast during winter month. 

All my hope was in this man saying yes this morning. 

I quickly added, "I'll be in Molokai for a week and won't schedule anything else with the hope that one of the days will be sunny or the ocean calmer. . ."

"Yes we can do that," Mr. Naki answered simply. “You have a week? From 12th through 18th. . .that's really 6 days. But yes, I think so. We can do that." He was matter of fact and reassuring.

Then I started worrying. I love to swim, but I'm more of an urban swimmer. . . And Molokai's north coast is no tropical paradise that one might expect from all other Hawaian islands with sunny sandy beaches, turquoise ocean, and palm trees. I'm nothing like Audrey Sutherland or Mr. Naki who is comfortable swimming in the rough ocean like the north coast of Molokai. I love the ocean, but at the same time the idea of the infinite depth of dark Molokai ocean scares me.

In just a few weeks with Mr. Naki at the stern on his boat, I'll be witnessing and seeing what Audrey saw over 50 years ago. It's an assignment of rare opportunity.

But let's rewind and face the reality. I might get seasick on Mr. Naki's boat. My sketch book might get wet and ruined by the sea sprays. I might drop my cellphone (my camera devise) into the deep ocean. . . We may not get a clear calm day and may not be able to venture out to the sea while I’m in Molokai. Many unspoken fears are circling in my head. 

Then there’s excitement  I'm craving to be there, to feel the breeze of the trade winds from the north. I want to feel the water and the mist from the legendary tall waterfalls. I want to see the tallest sea cliffs in Hawaii and figure out the best ways to convey its grandeur.  I want to smell the sweet fragrance of wild ginger flowers, to see the colors of the sunset and examine the intense ultramarine blue of the ocean in Molokai.  

After all it has to start with the experiences. My woodblock printing is a very slow, measured work process, unlike the fast-paced adventures on Molokai.  From sketching, carving blocks, to printing with inks, it's simply slow and laborious. But all this slow studio work has to start with a real experience - sometimes short, ephemeral and fleeting - whether it be the warm sunlight over the sycamore trees or the milky fog over a canyon. 

As Audrey Sutherland sought for the authentic experiences in Molokai half a century ago, I'll be searching for "the authentic" as artist and block printer. I know that the challenges are ahead and so the excitement and worries are whirling in my head. 

It's December 10th, 2017 today, one month until I fly to Molokai. I am sitting here at my cozy house in Tacoma, Washington, with Molokai on my mind.

Yoshiko Yamamoto

Posted in Illustration, Molokai, Patagonia, Sutherland, woodblock print