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Rasa Fournier

Satoru Abe: Godfather of Honolulu’s Art Scene

At the age of 86, he’s not slowing down and he lives by his own rules. He had given up smoking, but he now indulges in an occasional cigarette, a pastime he finds meditative. As for free time, he attends a weekly yoga class; otherwise every minute of his time is spent creating, even while watching TV. For Abe, TV is a time for absentmindedly doodling, and doodling for Satoru Abe means beautiful, intricate images fashioning themselves on the page. A full wall in his Moiliili art gallery is covered with a giant collage of 10 years’ worth of detailed sketches. A sun or moon sits juxtaposed against outstretched branches, roots reaching inward or leaves clustered together – all of his signature themes are present in those little sketches. The sketches germinate into ideas for his bigger works. His paintings crowd the walls of his gallery and his home, as do his twisting metal sculptures – inanimate, yet alive with motion – which have brought him such esteem while brightening public grounds, schools and museums throughout the state.

He points to several small metal sculptures, all models for giant works he did for Kaiser Permanente, Farrington High School and Hawaii Arts Alliance, among others. Also on display and in a chest of drawers is a collection of countless awards, honors and newspaper clippings detailing his rise to becoming one of Hawaii’s most distinguished artists.

At any given time, several different projects sit in his home, yard and garage, ready for Abe’s adept hands to hone them into, well, a work of art.

“Today, I finally found my direction,” he says. “After 65 years, I can see my work more clearly. I used to make things like there was no tomorrow. I didn’t get a chance to enjoy my work. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

His latest attention is focused on wooden engravings, several wood sculptures, and a painting splashed with color, including his favorite – yellow ochre.

Art seems to run in the family. Ruth has since passed on, but her presence is apparent throughout the house in her paintings of lifelike flowers in gorgeous colors adorning the walls. Daughter Gail Goto defers to dad while admitting to some skill in haiku and photography, but her knack for art is apparent in her 37-year career as an architect for the Coast Guard. Of Abe’s two grandsons, both in college, the eldest, Donovan Satoru Goto, has acquired his grandfather’s artistic penchant, occasionally helping Abe run the woodcarving machine. Abe’s more solemn side gives way to joviality when he talks about his grandsons.

“One day Donovan told his mother, ‘I want to be an artist.’ Mother asked why. He said, ‘So I can stay home,’” recalls Abe with amusement. “Donovan is relaxed. The other one, Dylan (Goto), is all challenge. He asked, ‘Grandpa, how come you don’t want me to be an artist?’ I told him, ‘Well, if you become an artist, if you become pretty good, it’s hard to compare with me. I don’t want you to get a complex.’ That didn’t quite convince him, so I said, ‘By the way, I’m a genius.’ That somewhat convinced him,” laughs Abe heartily.

“I don’t believe in children following the father’s footsteps,” he adds more seriously. “Go out on their own, find something of their own.”

Abe forged his destiny some 65 years ago when he set out on his own for New York, and his lifetime of artistic genius is being honored April 5 from 4:30 to 7 p.m. at the fifth annual Art at the Capitol in conjunction with the Hawaii State Art Museum’s First Friday festivities.

Legislators and executive offices at the State Capitol will open their doors for the public to browse more than 460 works by prominent local artists.

The artwork belongs to the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts and is being displayed as part of the Art in Public Places program.

For more on this free event, call 586-6460.

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