Out of the Woodwork

Explore the artistry of Ron Kent

Ron Kent started his woodworking career using found woods such as driftwood washing ashore and old plywood lying on the side of the road.

It’s a habit he hasn’t changed in 40 years of turning out art forms marked by elegance and polish, a far cry from their often humble origins.

One of his favorite materials is marine plywood, which starts as the knotty, unworkable parts of lumber, bonded by heat and pressure to form a practical engineered wood prized more for its resistance to rotting and moisture than its look, which most people would describe as ugly.

Not Kent, who was one of the artists selected to participate in Architectural Digest’s annual Home Design Show in New York City in March.

“It astounds me how much beauty is in plywood,” he said in his workshop, running his fingers against the textured grain of one of his larger-than-life “Guardian” sculptures—one of which is now part of the monumental 2,600-piece contemporary art collection at the Four Seasons Maui Resort at Wailea.

“I don’t want it to be too smooth,” Kent said. “Even with visual things, I want to know what it feels like, what it smells like. With art, I think, the farther you get from the senses, the closer you get to baloney.”

It’s that no-nonsense attitude and analytical approach to starting his work that reveals Kent’s background as a missile engineer, who worked in the field for three years before moving to Hawaii. He showed no leaning toward the arts while growing up, and with no training, discovered his innate creativity through working with wood.

He started making furniture out of necessity, saying, “My income was lower and if I didn’t make it, I didn’t have it. By the time I could afford it, I liked my stuff better than what I saw in showrooms.”

Although many Hawaii collectors developed an appreciation for the look of what Kent calls Norfolk pine (more accurately Cook Island pine) through his fine translucent bowls, no one was using it to create art when he arrived.
“It needs processing to bring out its beauty. Otherwise, it looks like a plain, unattractive wood.”

Today, Kent believes there are 50 to 100 artists in Hawaii working with wood, but in the 1970s, he counted only himself, Dan Deluz and Jack Striata.

“Most people then thought that wooden bowls were meant to be eaten out of. The idea of an artistic bowl with no use except to be looked at—nobody else but Striata and I saw it that way.”

Kent’s wife Myra loved collecting bottles, so he also started making small bottle forms. You might say his Guardians are those bottle forms, on steroids. It’s hard to believe they start out as pieces of marine plywood that are stacked and glued until they reach about 7 or 8 feet, which is when Kent starts shaping them.

The finished pieces weigh up to 160 pounds, and at 71, Kent said he likes the feeling of machismo he gets from lifting them.

A similar process is used to sculpt his fluid seaweed forms, and one must peer into his “Vortex” pieces to appreciate the labor that goes into his arrangement of plywood to form concentric angles.

Kent, a workaholic who juggled a successful financial industry career while doubling as an artist, confesses that if not for Myra’s calling him to dinner, he would forget to eat while working in his studio. He laments that Hawaii’s small house lots mean it’s impossible to work at night without disturbing the neighbors.

“Sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and do quiet work in the studio, but it’s torture to lie in bed and think of some great idea and not be able to try it out.”

And he doesn’t care for the sort of artists who say they don’t care what others think about their work.

Art, he says, is a form of communication that requires viewer response, and he enjoys interacting with those who see his works.

“I’ll see it again through their eyes. People do see some things I don’t understand, like gender in my Guardians. I never saw that, but now I can’t get it out of my head.”

More about Ron Kent

Ron Kent is one of more than 60 Hawaii artists whose works now grace the grounds and suites at the Four Seasons Maui Resort at Wailea.

The 2,600-piece art collection is part of the property’s recently completed $50 million renovation project devised to tell the story of Hawaii’s culture and development from statehood to the present. Curator Julie Cline, a Punahou alumna who now heads the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Julie Cline Fine Arts Services, conceived the display and oversaw selection of the art work, as well as its installation, saying her aim was to help guests to connect with the richness of Hawaii’s culture.

The works at Wailea are bound by the idea of connecting today’s creators to past generations in a complex visual origin tale leading to modern Hawaii society.

“The more you spend time with this work, the more you get involved with being here,” she said. Guests staying at the resort may find out more about the works through a 20-page guidebook and audio tour via podcast or audio players that can be borrowed at the front desk.

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