Face to Face

Conceived to invigorate the art of portraiture, the triennial Schaefer Portrait Challenge has become a compelling exhibition of the Island's people.


Story by Rita Goldman | Art Photographed by Mitchell Silver

We’re born with an attraction to the human face—a fascination that endures far longer than our need to identify the people we belong to. Faces tell stories at once intimate and universal, which is why the Schaefer Portrait Challenge is so intriguing.

Why “challenge”? For one thing, this is a statewide, juried competition whose judges traveled to five major Hawaiian Islands to view submitted works in person. And there is also this: that while the features of the human face are easy to convey—what is Charlie Brown, after all, but a circle, two dots, and a few squiggly lines?—capturing the story, revealing the soul, is a task far more daunting.

We asked a handful of artists whose work appears in the show to talk about that process of storytelling. Often as not, what they told us said as much about themselves as it did about their subjects—and in vastly different ways. Stephen Niles poured his grief over a loved one’s death into a larger-than-life self-portrait that demanded his unflinching honesty. Nitya Brighente’s self-portrait turns the tables on viewers’ expectations as it explores inner and outer vision, and the meaning of reflection. In Five Studies for a Portrait of Jamie, ceramist Stephen Freedman makes an alchemical leap—transforming his elemental medium into metaphor. Robert Suzuki’s mixed-media portrait of his good friend Ivan Komoda becomes, as well, a study in the meeting of East and West; while Thailand-born Sanit Khewhok creates a self-portrait that’s literally one for the book. Charlie Lyon’s three-dimensional painting of surfboard shaper Bob “Ole” Olson was a quintessential collaboration: his subject created the “canvas.” And Judy Kerstetter, painting “holoholo” from her truck, uses light itself to convey the irrepressible impishness of her nonagenarian subject.

Take a look.

Stephan Niles’ arresting 48″x36″ self-portrait. Working from natural light with a hand-held mirror, and mentally reversing the features to be true to life, the artist sought to capture the emotions following the loss of the grandmother who helped raise him.

The Eyes Have It

The first thing you notice about Stephen Niles’s self-portrait is its imposing scale: his face is depicted three feet wide and four feet high. What you notice next is those eyes so realistically glazed with tears.

“I had just returned from Tahiti, where I’d gone to be with my grandmother before she passed away,” says Niles. “I grew up with her; we were really close.”

Niles had declined to have his photograph taken with his grandmother, though friends encouraged him. By the time of his visit, he says, “She didn’t look the way I remembered her.” The Kailua artist chose instead to focus on what losing her did to him.

“This was the first time I lost someone close to me, and I wanted to record an honest appraisal of where I was. I used only natural light, and worked from a hand-held mirror, reversing the image in my mind so that left and right are true.”

The scale of the painting, and his process, changed his attitude about his art. “Things may come out you’re not aware of, when you put yourself through so much scrutiny.”

Past Midnight by Nitya Brighenti.
Past Midnight by Nitya Brighenti.

Through a Glass Darkly

Nitya Brighenti is an Italian-born artist who arrived in Honolulu by way of New York. His oil-on-canvas painting presents viewers with a visual enigma: What are we to make of the string of lights laid in staccato illumination across those exhausted features?

“This is me,” says Brighenti, “at my art table, which faces Waialua Beach. You see the lights from the beach, and one of them almost blinds me. Often my painting is a matter of vision. I’m interested in reversing perception from the outside to the inner view.”

The perspective places the viewer inside Brighenti’s head, looking through the artist’s eyes at his own reflection in the glass. It’s the facial expression that gives “reflection” a meaning both literal and symbolic.

An architect by profession, Brighente says that, for him, painting has to do with struggle. “Angst is the first material the painter needs, before color.”

Three of Five Studies for a Portrait of Jamie by Stephan Freedman
Three of Five Studies for a Portrait of Jamie by Stephan Freedman

Deconstructing Pygmalion

A juror for the 2006 Schaefer Portrait Challenge, Stephen Freedman had been an accomplished artist for nearly four decades when he fell in love with a woman many years his junior. She became the subject of the only ceramic “portrait” in this year’s show.

“I’d been working with deconstructed vessel pieces for a while, working with the vessel as ‘body,’” he says. “Trying to find a way to relate to this much younger person, to integrate our differences, was challenging. But as I worked, I became intrigued with the dry vessel that cracks, the beauty that comes out of age.”

The Big Island artist began combining dry shards with moist clay—metaphorically melding his age and experience with his subject’s youth and malleability. “The dry clay created the structure and strength,” he says. “The moist gave the flexibility. I love the edginess of the fractured shards, but the moist clay gives it a soft, easy look.”

Reflect and Remember by Robert Suzuki.
Reflect and Remember by Robert Suzuki.

East Meets West

Born in Yokohama, Robert Suzuki moved to Maui several years ago, and became friends with orchid-grower Ivan Komoda. Suzuki’s mixed-media portrait combines an almost monochromatic painting of Komoda’s face with six block-printed orchids—juxtaposing a Western tradition of portraiture with stylized Japanese prints.

“I wanted to carry forth an image that is Asian,” says Suzuki, “Japanese in particular, and incorporate it with a portrait that is not very Japanese. It’s two cultures colliding in one project”—just as Japanese and American cultures combine in the two friends.

“Ivan suggested the title, Reflect and Remember, because he names the orchids he hybridizes after people he admires. It’s his handprint, too. At the last minute, I took some red acrylic paint and asked him to do an imprint as the finishing touch to the piece. We were both nervous. The whole piece was done, and Ivan didn’t want to ruin it. I thought it would enhance the portrait. He thought about it, slept on it, and the next day he made the handprint.”

The White Chair by Sanit Khewhak.
The White Chair by Sanit Khewhak.

One for the Book

Sanit Khewhok has been an artist most of his life. He studied in his native Thailand and gleaned Western influences as an art student in Rome. His paintings are in the collections of the Honolulu Academy, the Hawai‘i State Art Museum, and the Contemporary Museum of Honolulu—where for nineteen years he worked as collections manager, until the recent staff layoffs.

Khewhok captures that passion for art in a self-portrait set inside a cutout corner of a volume of Sir Herbert Edward Read’s Concise History of Modern Art. The book by the prolific English poet, critic and essayist supplies both composition and context for Khewhok’s oil-on-panel painting.

“I’ve done portraits of people in the form of book covers before,” Khewhok says. “But when you do portraits of other people, you can have a hard time. What people expect and what I see is very different. I want to be honest, so I painted myself.”

Hideo Ishigo, Honomu Baker by Judy Kerstetter.
Hideo Ishigo, Honomu Baker by Judy Kerstetter.

The Lightness of Being

Judy Kerstetter’s mission is to capture the faces that have been with us a long time, before they disappear. She’s painted tribal elders in Washington State, kumu hula (hula teachers) in Hawai‘i. But it hasn’t always been easy. Kerstetter has no permanent studio, and often paints  “holoholo” (on the road) out of an old truck.

Her subject, Hideo Ishigo, was born twelve miles up the Hamakua Coast from Hilo. “His dad bought a bakery there in 1910, and used to supply all the plantation camps with bakery goods, delivering them by horse and buggy,” says Kerstetter. “Hideo’s ninety-five years old, a community treasure.

“Hideo sat for me for three sessions. The third time, I took his photo just as a busload of Japanese tourists pulled up. He grabbed the photo and said, ‘I propose to one Japanese lady with this photo!’”

Kerstetter has a degree in art, but taught herself the transparent watercolor she used for Ishigo’s portrait.

“I wanted to show his energy and impishness,” she says, and for that, she needed the luminosity of the medium. “Light is the sine qua non of transparent watercolor. The light passes through the layer of pigment, bounces off the paper and comes back at you.”

Timing by Charlie Lyon.
Timing by Charlie Lyon.

The Medium Is the Message

Charlie Lyon became friends with long-time surfboard shaper Bob “Ole” Olson soon after the young artist moved to Maui. Choosing Ole as a portrait subject was easy; choosing the medium was not.

“I like Annie Liebowitz’s work,” says Lyon, “the portrait she did of Willie Nelson that emphasized the heavy denim, the lines in his face like the grain of wood in a tree. I started envisioning Ole that way. Like Willie, Ole’s face tells the story of his life.

“I didn’t want to use canvas. I’m thinking wood, and Ole is known for his skill as a woodworker. He’s made a good living building replicas of various eras of surfboards.

“Ole called me up and said, ‘I have this board that I hate.’ He said he’d finish the board and give it to me to use. I had him do the inlay, as well. It’s a functional object; you could ride waves on it. But just as the sculptor pulls the shape from stone, I wanted to pull his form out of the wood.”

Lyon depicted Olson realistically, right down to his shadow, but Ole’s hands and feet disappear into the wood grain, becoming one with the board. Lyon calls the portrait Timing. “Timing’s everything,” he says. “Ole’s always been at the right place at the right time.”


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