Sky Barnhart | Photography by Jason Moore | Quincy Dein
If Jac and Susan Keans’ Wailea home was any more connected to its beach environment, you’d have to roll back the Persian rug when the tide came in.
The house sits on a rise at the south end of Wailea’s postcard-perfect Polo Beach. A hedge and a World War II pillbox are the only things separating the Keans’ property from the sand and waves. The Keans actually stood on top of the concrete bunker when they said their marriage vows in 2001.
Today, the pillbox is adorned with two sturdy, wooden lounge chairs. A rusted iron ladder leads down one side onto the sand. Here, a nest of colorful kayaks is tied up within easy dragging distance of the surf, awaiting the next early-morning whale sighting.
“I might be sitting out here having a bowl of cereal as Kegan gets ready for school,” Susan says, “and suddenly the whales are right out front, and we just have to put everything down and jump in the kayaks and paddle out.”
Whales aren’t the only sight that can elicit a Kean family kayak excursion—it might also be a huge ray, a school of dolphin, or a flotilla of turtles (a favorite of Kula, the Keans’ 16-year-old seagoing golden retriever). Or it might just be the turquoise waters of another perfect Maui afternoon.
It doesn’t take much to get the Keans outside and active. In their early 50s, Jac and Susan have the vigorous physiques and tanned faces of lives spent doing, not just watching. Jac, who’s lived on Maui for the last 32 years, designed their four-bedroom, three-bath home in 2000. No sooner had they moved in, than Susan began to add her own creative touch to the space.
An established ceramic-tile artist, the petite blond draws designs on plain clay tiles with wax, then fills in the outlines with colorful ceramic glaze, creating fanciful murals displayed throughout Maui. From the bright Maui Tacos logo, to the beautiful Lurline-style paintings adorning the Queen Ka‘ahumanu Center sign, to private bathrooms, kitchens, furniture and pools, her tile paintings lend a colorful energy to every surface they decorate.
In the center of the Keans’ living room is a 100-year-old walnut piano recently revived by Susan’s paintbrush. Banana leaves arc gracefully, bent across the lid; red ginger splays across the bench. Beneath the piano, a coconut-wood dog is curled up with a baleful stare—“That dog gave me a start when I first saw it at the top of a staircase in Bali,” Jac says.
Looking up, you’ll see more of Susan’s artistry: sheafs of hala, banana and coconut fronds fan along the sculpted 12-foot ceilings. Susan painted them lying flat on her back on a rolling scaffold.
Maui’s natural charms are already very much a presence through huge sliding glass doors open to the elements, yet Susan’s artwork helps to bring in the outdoors even more. Soft trade winds blow through the rooms, although if the weather shifts, the breezes can turn into knickknack-knocking gusts.
It’s all part of living on the beach, as is the ever-present flow of family and friends. “Everyone loves a beach house!” Susan says. “Sundays here, it’s pretty much ‘Open House.’”
“If we forget to take the phone off the hook, they’re calling here at 5:30 in the morning to see if the surf is good,” Jac says.
If it is good, the sloping back lawn quickly disappears under an armada of surfboards. The rest of the time, the boards live in the side yard—dozens of them piled on racks: long and short, yellowed and dinged, along with boogie boards, stand-up boards, skimboards and paddles.
Everyone in the family surfs. Two daughters, Chelsea and Ali, are both in college on the Mainland. Son Robin lives in Kihei with his wife, Jennifer. Kegan, a senior at King Kekaulike High School, is a sponsored skimboarder and may enjoy the beach out front more than anyone. He and his friends have gotten pretty good at doing backflips into the family’s black-bottomed swimming pool.
Many a Christmas will find the Kean ‘ohana snowboarding at their cabin in Idaho. Summer vacation might find them heading off on adventure, as they are this year. “First, we run the Zambezi River; then we go on safari in Botswana; then we cruise the Kalahari Desert on quad bikes,” Susan says.
Signposts of their adventures are everywhere throughout the house. The stairwell with cream-carpeted stairs is adorned with big wooden lamps from Phuket—“made from part of an ox cart,” Jac explains. Just inside the tall, glass front door is an antique canoe from Java, hung with lei from various special occasions.
Susan paddled for Hawaiian Canoe Club for eight years, completing the Na Wahine O Ke Kai race from Moloka‘i to O‘ahu twice. A reminder of her efforts graces their bedroom lanai: a ceramic-tile painting of a canoe with the words: A‘ohe hana a Kauhikoa; ua kau ka wa‘a i ke ‘aki (a Mary Kawena Pukui saying that translates to, “Kauhikoa has nothing more to do; his canoe is resting on the block”; i.e., the work is done). Susan misses paddling, however—she says a one-man canoe may be in her future.
In the meantime, she and Jac play tennis in Makena, ride horses at Kaupo, hike and bike at La Perouse, and swim and snorkel right out in front of their house.
“My knowledge and love of the ocean has really increased, living here,” Susan says. “Everything gives me ideas for painting. I try to ID a new fish every time I go out; I just saw my first lionfish.”
In the master bedroom, one wall of the shower is adorned with an elaborate marine-life tile mural, and marine tiles run along the countertop behind celadon bowl sinks from Thailand. The kids’ bathroom has a life-size pair of slippers painted on the floor, just out of reach of a foamy painted wave slipping out from the bathtub.
The downstairs guest bathroom hosts one of Susan’s favorite murals: a tall, lovely native woman filling a basket with bananas. A door in the bathroom’s back wall opens in from the side yard, allowing for easy rinsing of sandy feet—another way the house blends with the Keans’ inside/outside lifestyle.
Not that anyone would be too upset if there were tracks through the living room; sand is all a part of life by the beach. “Many of the houses around us are second homes, but we truly live here!” Susan says.
Jac also works here—his office in the front half of the master bedroom looks out at the golden curve of beach. (Susan says she tried to work at home, but found the ocean too much of a temptation; now her studio is off of Ohukai Street in Kïhei.)
No matter what they are doing the rest of the day, sunset means show time. Lounges on the flagstone patio face the ocean, and the Keans, for once, sit down and just watch.