They’re built according to the same body plan — tall, strong, hair thick and dark as a moonless night, eyes brilliant under dark brows, voices calm but bell-clear, the same physique, born to wear hiking boots. Mother and daughter, they are both artists, neighbors as well. Male relationships are rarely this close.

Betty Hay
Betty Hay’s studio is the next best thing to being outdoors. It’s no coincidence that daughter Denby has worked extensively in environmental education, which requires her and her students to unplug and go outdoors.

She was born in Kohala, on the Big Island, well before Kohala was much more than a sugar plantation. After college on the Mainland, she came home, married, lived on O‘ahu, and took an art class for purely practical reasons. “I signed up for a free workshop because my walls were blank. It didn’t occur to me to buy anything. I always made everything I needed. I refinished furniture. I sewed upholstery and drapes. Keoki [her husband] complained once, ‘Why can’t we buy anything new?’”

As luck would have it, her early art teachers were masters. Lloyd Sexton was an eminent landscape artist of plantation-era Hawai‘i. Then “Peter Hayward showed me how to work with a palette knife. That became my primary tool.” She found herself in a klatch of older women who kept a regular schedule of open-air painting excursions. (“‘Plein air’ is just painting on location,” she says, “being surrounded by air. That’s how I learned. I finish things in the studio.”) The klatch held home showings every three months. Then Betty Hay’s mother-in-law took one of her paintings to a gallery on Front Street in Lahaina and sold it. “I was so excited I forgot to sign it. That was ’67 or ’68.” Since then Betty Hay has been single-minded and prolific.

Her way with oils is distinctive. Even more at-a-glance recognizable is Betty Hay’s choice of subject matter — wild, unpeopled landscapes, often with dizzying vistas. As a consequence, Freeland family vacations never involved urban places. The family photo albums feature crags and canyons with minuscule humans waving in the corners. When the kids were young, she hired a nanny so that she could head out into the wilds with her VW van and easel. After her three children were grown, she contemplated getting a job. “But this is what I do.”



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