Down to the Details

At her studio on Maui, Abigail Romanchak carefully carves intricate lines for one her pieces (photo courtesy Romanchak, by Jyoti Mau).

Printmaker Abigail Romanchak imbues an ancient fabric (and most recently, volcanic activity) into her modern pieces.

Soaking and pounding the bark of the paper mulberry tree gets you a felt-like material hawaiians used for primarily for skirts and sleeping mats. Traditionally, patterns were stamped on by bamboo stamps soaked in natural dyes. This traditional practice is known as kapa to hawaiians.

For a modern example, think of aloha shirts. You might realize that aloha shirts are just collared button-downs printed with pretty things you might see in a day. There is no great symbolism or cultural gravity to them. You might wear one festooned with orchids or antique airplanes to signify to others that you appreciate those things. The same with everything from beach towels to place-mats—it’s probably human nature to decorate everyday items with fun, familiar patterns. That might be a bit too simplistic because there are nuances and a sort of spirit to it all.

You might get the same nuances and spirit from Abigail Lee Kahilikia Romanchak’s work in modern printmaking. This visual artist infuses the complexity of kapa in to the contemporary art scene. Her goal is to show hidden details of the art of kapa and perpetuate Hawaiian culture via grand displays. Romanchak is interested in exploring the boundaries between marking, claiming and making the unseen and overlooked ultimately visible.

She graduated with a Bachelors of Fine Arts and later stepped up to earn a Master of Fine Arts, both in printmaking from the University of Hawai’i, Manoa. Her arts career has been steady and impressive since then. Her works have been featured at Hawai’i State Art Museum, Bishop Museum and museums in Australia and Korea. Her prints can be found in businesses and hotels around Hawai’i such as the iconic Moana Surfrider and The Nature Conservancy office in downtown Honolulu. She took part in the Smithsonian’s ‘Ae Kai: A Culture Lab on Convergence, and there is even one of her prints displayed at the White House. Additionally, Romanchak taught elementary art at Punahou School and studied in Sydney, Australia.

“Converge,” is a collaboration between Charles Cohan and Romanchak. “Romanchak’s prints are influenced by the sustained release of seismic energy typically associated with the underground movement of magma, while Cohan’s prints reference a graphic reverb of the movement of ground.”

The hardwood i’e kuku, or pounding mallet used to pound out the soaked paper mulberry bark, creates a sort of embossed watermark.

It shows as a ghostly hidden fingerprint of the maker’s mallet and wooden anvil visible when backlit. Romanchak takes that distinction and blows it up for all to see. “I take hidden and unseen aspects of traditional kapa; the micro that I make macro,” she explains. Working with contemporary materials, she isn’t bound by traditional practice. Using plywood and a router, she makes large-scale woodcuts for her prints to emulate the i’e kuku watermark.

Romanchak incorporates patterns in her prints that are far out of the ordinary but no less evocative. Unafraid to work in monochrome, Taxed is a mosaic of 52 tax map keys that a city planner would instantly recognize. She cuts and splices the wavy lines from topographic maps for Wahine Po’amiku and shows the moon in various phases over 48 panels titled: Hua.

Wanting to incorporate conservationist efforts into a piece, she took it to a highly technical level. Her husband, Jordan Jokiel, led multiple conservation efforts in the Waikamoi Forest Preserve in the East Maui Watershed. Jordan recorded the tracks of fellow conservation workers and tracking dogs with GPS. Abigail transformed the tracks into ghostly red veins and enlarged them into three-foot square woodcuts. It’s a stunning, modern way of representing footprints across the landscape. She calls it Tracked, and it was shown at the then Contemporary Museum in Makiki Heights in 2010.

From December through March, her college printmaking professor and mentor, Charles Cohan has an exhibition at Honolulu Museum of Art. Cohan is showing off large-scale woodcuts during his Ground exhibition and invited Romanchak to include her latest work as well.

Perhaps one would expect Romanchak and Cohan to be applying modern symbols to represent an evocative concept. At first glance, it appears to be seismic readings—those diminutive (or sometimes not so) squiggles made by seismometers to measure vibrations from earthquakes. It’s in grayscale and overlapped, suggesting constant movement from different parts. “Those are actual seismic readings from the volcano observatory on Kilauea,” Abigail says. But, it’s not meant as a warning or a historical record. “It’s the earth breathing. It’s my way of showing the ‘aina is alive, which is a concept familiar in Hawaiian culture. When I [express] it in this contemporary way, my art is able to reach a broader global audience.”

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