Into the Wild Life


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Speak with people who really know Hawai‘i’s native forests, and you’ll often be told they just feel different, contrasting sharply with other places in the Islands now dominated by introduced trees, plants and flowers.

“If you go hiking in a nonnative forest, there’s a certain messiness about it,” explains O‘ahu artist Michael Furuya. “There are certain smells that come out, and some are a little bit sour, but when you’re in a Hawaiian forest, there’s just a different feel. Everything feels clean, and everything feels in its right place.”

Furuya has spent a fair amount of time in native forests on Hawai‘i Island and Kaua‘i, often populated by old koa or ‘ohi‘a lehua trees, in search of native Hawaiian birds, the vibrant stars of many of his paintings.

“When you see a native bird in its natural habitat, it feels like a gift,” he tells me in the kitchen of his Kane‘ohe home. “You’re experiencing something that is special that unfortunately not everyone will experience.”

Hawai‘i’s colorful, often curve-beaked native birds have been a major theme of Furuya’s work since his art school days in California’s Bay Area, where he stumbled upon a magazine cover featuring birds that looked similar to those he’d first learned about during his grade four Hawaiiana studies at He‘eia Elementary in Kane‘ohe.

“When I saw the magazine cover had these birds with these long bills, I thought, ‘That really looks familiar,’ so, I walked over and picked it up,” he remembers. “And sure enough, it talked about Hawai‘i and how it had so many endangered species, and that was something I felt really needed more attention.”

So dependent on Hawai‘i’s native trees, like the koa or ‘ohi‘a lehua, Hawai‘i’s native birds suffered dramatically, as many of the Islands’ original forests were cleared for pasture land or choked out by introduced plant and tree species. Avian diseases, arriving with birds originating from elsewhere around the planet, also had a devastating impact, leading a number of endemic Hawaiian species to extinction.

“The native birds and plants didn’t really have a lot of defenses,” Furuya tells me. “So once all the diseases came in, and we started clearing the land, birds couldn’t adapt to that rapid change.”

Furuya hopes his work not only captures the feel of a healthy, native forest, but he also occasionally paints now extinct Hawaiian birds, through research and specimen studies at places like the Bishop Museum, in an effort to raise awareness about what’s already been lost.

“There are some really spectacular things that are gone,” he says. “And no one is going to go to a museum and say, ‘Can I see what that bird looks like?’ if they don’t even know it exists. So I’m trying to show people the diversity we once had, and hopefully, that helps them connect with our native species today and helps make people want to do something to save them.”

The field research Furuya’s done for his paintings of remaining Hawaiian birds has taken place far from any museum specimen case in protected places across the state, including the Hakalau Forest Reserve on the slopes of Mauna Kea, where the artist once spotted a rare ‘akiapola‘au—a bright green Hawaiian honeycreeper with a curved, black beak.

“It uses its beak kind of like a woodpecker,” he says of the ‘akiapola‘au. “It pecks the koa tree bark, and I guess it can hear the hollowness of the trunk, and then bores into the wood and pulls out little grubs to eat.”

It’s not just the birds, however, that Furuya observes closely on those outings. He often paints island-specific settings, so the distinctive details of the forest provide fine points he tries to recreate in his work. “The forests on the different islands look different,” he explains. “If I want to do the Big Island, I’ll put in Big Island types of ‘ohi‘a, because their forests are so much older and more gnarly, [and] the koa trees up in Hakalau a lot of times are covered with lichens.”

Most of the composition sketching and actual painting happens at Furuya’s studio in his home on the Windward side, tucked back in a lush, quiet Kane‘ohe neighborhood. A married father of two boys, ages 7 and 10, the artist says he often paints more in the evening.

“I work best late at night, because everyone is asleep,” he says. “Once my boys get home, and they’re coming in and out, it’s impossible to get anything done.”

Like their father, whose work is regularly on display at Cedar Street Galleries in Honolulu, Furuya’s sons have been interested in art from an early age.

“They really like to draw,” he says. “So they’re always in and out of the studio, looking to borrow my supplies.”

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