A retrospective year for ceramist/painter Charles Higa

After spending five decades as a painter and ceramist more focused on creating and teaching than the limelight, Charles Higa seems genuinely surprised to be, at 72, at the center of a couple of major exhibitions this year.

His work was the subject of a summer retrospective at The Contemporary Museum at First Hawaiian Center, and he was among 16 invited artists chosen to take part in the 24th annual Commitment to Excellence exhibition at the Academy Art Center, where he offered dozens of his “jewels.” These are sensual, ceramic semi-orbs awash in color and highlighted by a single circle symbolizing the sun or moon.

Because of his prolific works in clay, casual arts observers would be most likely to identify Higa as a ceramist, but the artist considers himself a painter first.

“The thing about painting was, I love color, and one of the objects of ceramics was applying color, which in ceramics is limited,” he said. “Especially when I started; everything was brown!

“It was my application of fine arts to ceramics that became the basis of my work, and I found ceramics is like a disease. Once you start working in it, you can’t stop, and that’s what happened to me. The more I did, the more I learned, and the more I learned, the more I wanted to do.”

He had initially earned his BFA at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, intending to work as a graphic artist in the advertising industry. He enrolled in New York University in 1955, where he said, “I got interested in all kinds of art.”

After working in New York for a while, he returned home in 1958 to paint and teach, eventually turning to ceramics as a way of helping his students to become acquainted with six aspects of art: line, space, color, shape, size and the relationship between light and shadow.

“Drawing and painting on a flat surface is very abstract for students, so it was easier for me to work in clay with them so that they could feel and see what they were involved in, in three dimensions,” Higa said.

His work led to experimentation with colors, mixing the ash of trees with pigments, and studying their effects on his ceramic forms.

“Hawaii has no clay, so to put Hawaii into the final project, I used the ashes of trees that grow here,” he said. “Kiawe produces a nice white ash and it takes colors beautifully.”

He’s also used jacaranda and shower trees, as well as bagasse, the fibrous material left over from pressing sugar cane.

“The one that didn’t do anything is mosquito coil because it’s chemical. I know because when I was teaching there were always students who wanted to try it. You can’t make anything interesting out of charcoal briquettes either,” he said.

Higa is looking forward to some rest after his recent spate of shows.

“I don’t know why all these shows happened this year,” he said, although he considers it to be validation of his life’s work. “When I was young, I wasn’t liked by my teachers, by my peers. A lot of people didn’t like me because, I was in a way, outspoken. I always acted on an impulse. I was not conforming. I think that’s why I went into art.”