Story by Rita Goldman |Photography by Mieko Horikoshi
This was going to be a story about Village Galleries, which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary in December 2020. But as Lynn Shue reminisced about the artists she has represented over those years, it became as much a tale of Lahaina, back when most people didn’t even know Maui was one of the Hawaiian Islands.
“It started out not to be a living, just something to keep me busy,” Lynn Shue recalls. “I’d just moved to Maui from O‘ahu, and took an art class at Lahaina Arts Society that Skip Helling taught. We became friends. My husband, Doug, was the comptroller for Whalers Village. One evening he came home and said there was a space. He suggested that Skip and I put a gallery there. ‘You’ll have fun,’ he said.
“I had no idea how to run a business. I had three little kids! But I’ve always loved art. When I was nine, I went to the Art Institute of Chicago with my mother. I saw John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X, and said, ‘I have to be a part of that.’”
On December 20, 1970, Lynn and Skip opened Village Galleries in Whalers Village. Back then, she says, Lahaina was a sleepy place. “Maui wasn’t known for tourism, let alone as an arts center.”
There weren’t even many artists.
“Skip and I took a trip to Honolulu, got a car and a hotel room, and looked up artists in the phone book. We’d call and say, ‘Hello. I’m starting a gallery on Maui, and would like to handle your work.’ I didn’t even have a business card, but every one of them said yes. We picked up about $20,000 worth of art. But how to get it home? We went to an art supply store on Beretania and asked whether they had any cardboard. They said there was some in the dumpster in the back. So we bought some tape, drove the car around, took out the cardboard and wrapped the paintings. We got to the airport — that was when puddle jumpers flew to Maui — checked in our boxes and flew home. We were so excited! We get back to Maui, and . . . ‘Where’s John Young’s paintings?’ We called the airlines; we had left them leaning against a post. The airlines got them back to us.”
After Skip left Hawai‘i in 1972, Lynn became the gallery’s sole proprietor. In 1971, a visitor arrived with a small portfolio of paintings by his friend, a California artist named Fred KenKnight. Lynn took one look . . . and has carried Fred’s work ever since. She gained not only an artist, but a colleague: when Fred and his wife, Anne, moved to Maui in 1976, Anne became an integral part of the business.
They were still in Whalers Village two years later when the artist Helen Byron called Lynn. “She said, ‘I have a gallery on Dickenson. I want to sell it.’”
Built in the 1930s, the modest structure had housed a kindergarten early on (a class picture still hangs outside). During World War II, it became a makeshift movie house.
Helen’s asking price for the lease was $50,000. “Nobody had that kind of money in those days,” says Lynn, “but Anne suggested having all the artists chip in. Sixteen of them each put in $2,500 — David Warren even took out a mortgage on his house!”
“Fred wrote the first check,” Anne adds with a smile.
“Within ten days,” says Lynn, “I had money in the bank.”
The Whalers Village location was roughly 900 square feet, room for a dozen artists at most. Opening a second space on Dickenson allowed Lynn to represent more artists’ work, and give more room to those who had been with her from the start. In exchange, each artist who had invested in the gallery had an annual show, and would be the only artists represented in that gallery for five years. The list included artists well known in Hawai‘i today: George Allan, Joyce Clark, Betty Hay Freeland, Fred KenKnight, David Warren, Lowell Mapes, Hiroshi Tagami and Lau Chun.
Lynn kept the Whalers Village gallery and put Anne in charge. For several years, she had a third gallery, on Front Street, in a building that’s now Frida’s Mexican Beach House Restaurant.
“George had a studio there,” says Lynn. “Janet, his wife, had a little antique store on the side, but didn’t want it. She said, ‘Put a gallery there. You’ll have George working next door.’ We did, with Janet as manager. There was a terrible orange-and-green-flecked carpet, but we were on a very tight shoestring. We were painting the walls, and this guy walks in and says, ‘Is this the Village Gallery? I’ve got some carpet to lay.’ We hadn’t ordered it. It was from Joyce Clark.”
Lynn and Anne closed the Whalers Village gallery in 1983. Three years later, they were offered a space in Lahaina Cannery Mall during its renovation. An architect estimated that building interior walls, installing air-conditioning, and so forth would cost $100,000. Lynn almost declined the offer. “Joyce Clark, my art angel, put her condo up on a loan and gave me the money.
“So many people have touched my life. The artists have been so generous. From my beginnings to now, art has raised me up.”
As tourism grew, hotels started commissioning Lynn and Anne, earning the gallery a reputation for being able to produce and install large bodies of work.
“That got us into The Ritz-Carlton, which had never used local artists in their hotels,” Lynn says. “But Colin Cameron owned the land the Ritz was being built on. His wife Pam Andelin was one of my artists; both of them were dear friends. Colin told the Ritz, ‘You can use my land, but you have to use local artists.’”
Frank Nicholson was the decorator for all the Ritz hotels. He said he wanted to see whether the artwork had the caliber to be in the one on Maui.
“Lynn and I put together a portfolio, and Colin hand-carried it to Boston,” says Anne. “Frank picked out four artists for the public areas: George Allan, Betty Hay, Joyce Clark and Fred.”
“He says, ‘This artist, George Allan, this Betty Hay, can they do 50×60?’” Lynn adds. “They hadn’t painted anything that big, but I told him, ‘Oh, yes. Any size you want.’”
The Ritz also invited Lynn to open a gallery of work by the artists displayed at the hotel. “We’ve been there twenty-eight years,” she smiles.
Village Galleries now represents 120 artists in its Ritz-Carlton and Dickenson Street locations. That’s just the current roster.
“This guy comes in the other day,” Lynn recalls, “and says, ‘Do you remember me?’ I had once put a few of his pieces in the gallery. He told me, ‘You gave me such encouragement. I went to Honolulu and became an illustrator. Every time I think that I can’t deal with a problem, I think of you, who said, ‘Go do it.’”