Honoring Ancestors Through Art
Leonardo da Vinci, the Italian Renaissance artist known for his painting of “The Last Supper,” managed to resurrect one of the most revered biblical scenes of all times through his artwork.
For Brook Parker, the legacy of his ancestors, the war battles and stories of the Hawaiian people are etched in his heart, making it easy for the local artist to preserve history through every brushstroke that he swipes on his canvasses. The stories he shares through his portraits bring inspiration and a clearer understanding of what Hawaiians and their royalty lived through. His work covers the era before Captain Cook, through the Hawaiian Monarchy, and includes the modern-day challenges the Hawaiian people face today. Brook’s goal is to serve as an invaluable resource on Hawaiian culture and Hawaiian art.
David Parker, Brook’s father, also was an artist and played a key role in the younger Parker’s passion for honoring the stories of his ancestors through illustrations. As a child, he observed his dad intently, as the elder Parker created pieces that are considered treasures today.
A popular painting by David Parker is one of Maui’s ali‘i, Kahekilinuiahumanu. Brook would go to great lengths to copy his dad. Brown paper grocery bags served as Brook’s canvases and color crayons were his tools.
“I enjoyed seeing my father create his own art and never bothered him. I just watched quietly and mimicked,” he says.
Though he received earlier inspirations from his Conan comic books, where he learned how to draw anatomy, the great battles of old Hawaii enthralled him.
“As a Hawaiian historian, Dad talked about our kupuna a lot,” he recalls. “He had a vast library that included books about art, the world and Hawaiian history.”
Samuel Kamakau’s The Ruling Chiefs of Hawaii, which was first published in 1961, solidified Brook’s great love for his native people. Kamakau is noted by scholars as one of Hawaii’s greatest historians.
Brook is deeply honored to have been commissioned by Kamehameha Schools/Bishop Estate to do a revised edition of Ruling Chiefs. He recently completed 24 new illustrations. One in particular pulled at his heartstrings and welled up his eyes when reflecting on what he had just created. It was in the spring of 2009, when he was unwinding in his Wailupe Valley home late into the night. He had just finished the piece portraying Liloa and his son Umi, along with Umi’s hanai (adopted) sons Piimaiwaa, Omaokamau and Koi. Liloa was a benevolent king of Hawaii island.
“I felt strongly that these kupuna were happy with the portraits that I created. It was as if they were telling me, ‘Brook, don’t let the little ones forget about our stories, now. Don’t let ’em forget.’ I was overwhelmed,” he says. At that moment, he felt a strong connection to Hawaii’s past and the importance of preserving their stories for posterity.
Brook says Kamehameha Schools was so touched by his work that it invited him to Kona to address its board of directors during their retreat. He was especially thrilled about flying to Hawaii island because one of his art idols, Herb Kawainui Kane, lived in Honaunau. Kane, who died in 2011, was a legendary artist, author and cultural historian who happened to have been David Parker’s longtime friend. Brook was beaming with pride and was so elated over his upcoming trip that he immediately phoned his father.
“I asked my dad if there was a way I would be able to meet Mr. Kane. My father replied, ‘I dunno, brah, you don’t niele (keep questioning) him, he don’t give interviews anymore, doesn’t let anybody to his house. But since you my son, I’ll call.’ So he called Mr. Kane,” explains Brook.
A few days later, Brook’s father called back with great news. “Dad said to me, ‘Brah, you in luck. He’s agreed to see you … but remember, ah? Shut your mouth, let him do the talking, listen when you get up there, don’t take any pictures without asking first.’ I promised that I would be on my best behavior,” explains Brook.
He and wife Drena drove to Honauanu and met the 80-year-old icon.
“Our meeting was amazing,” he says. He had four more illustrations to complete on the Ruling Chiefs project that covered from Liloa’s days in the 1400s until the rule of Kamehameha III through the mid-1800s.
“I could only do two dozen and had three more to go. I told Mr. Kane we stayed away from all the stuff he already painted because nothing could get any better than his work,” says Brook.
Then, the younger artist popped the burning question, and asked, “Of all the stories in Ruling Chiefs, which scene would you illustrate?” Kane’s response was that he would paint all of them because they were all equally important.
The book currently is pending approval for publication. Brook’s latest collaboration with Kamehameha Schools was last year, providing illustrations for David Kawika Eyre’s Kamehameha: The Rise Of A King. This chapter book currently is part of the curriculum at Kamehameha School’s Kapalama campus and is in its third printing.
Brook Parker, by the way, is the great-grandson of Robert Parker Waipa, a captain of the royal household guard under King David Kalakaua. His great-grandfather was charged by the king to hold the palace at all costs. Brook vows to do anything and everything to preserve the legacy of the Hawaiian people. We are so fortunate he is passionate about his responsibility to show, through his works of art, inspired images of the great battles and lifestyles of his ancestors for us and future generations of Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians to appreciate, admire and enjoy.