Local artist says anyone who has an imagination can create art

landscape of abstract art piece covered in blue, green, pink, and black paint

An example of Haunani Hess’s artwork.

Photo provided by Haunani Hess

Bold colors and found paper, similar to collage art, make up the work of local artist Haunani Hess, who said she is directly inspired by the nature and culture surrounding her on Oahu. Her pieces are filled with mountains, aquatic scenes and photography, demonstrated in bright watercolors on the background of found pages from books.

“I am native Hawaiian. My work is an expression from the core of my being, and not solely as a reaction to external circumstances,” she said. “I am a Hawaiian artist, whereas non-Hawaiians who live here are sometimes mistakenly called, ‘Hawaiian artists.”

Hess is a local, self-taught, self-employed artist who said she has been doing art her whole adult life. Hess owns her own studio in Honolulu, where she is originally from. She explained she sells her pieces privately, and to get more coverage in the community, also at local markets on Oahu two times per month.

A BYU–Hawaii alumnus from Brisbane, Australia, and freelance artist and designer on the North Shore of Oahu, Sam Mangakahia says Maori tattoo art, or ta moko, inspires his artwork.

“[My] strong interest in moko wasn’t just in the beauty of design, it was in the process of learning people’s stories and sharing that through indigenous design,” Mangakahia shares on his website, Hamiora.com. He said he hand-carves culture pieces on almost anything, such as leather journals, phone cases and instruments. On his website, he showcases his style and technique.

According to Mangakahia, each piece showcases his Maori culture by representing the nature of New Zealand, Australia and Oahu. He uses bold lines and curved figures that look like waves, leaves, flowers and turtles.

A freshman from Papenoo, Tahiti, studying psychology, Edelweiss Chonger said she started doing art when she was 6 years old. She credited her inspiration and exposure to different styles of art to her mother, who is a pianist; her uncle, who is an artist; and her grandfather, who is an architect.

She said the exposure to different types of art has allowed her to experiment with different mediums like spray paint, acrylic art and collage. “I think today, my style has changed a little in the sense that I love trying new things every time,” Chonger said.

The creative process 

Hess described her art as multi-layered with different colors and forms. She said she uses different lines and figures to represent the mountains and the landscape of Oahu. “My style is to be in a state of ease, flow and intuition,” she said. “I am led by the creative process, rather than pushing for a specific outcome.”

Hess explained her process starts by collecting the appropriate materials and having an organized space. “I am constantly gathering materials, be it found paper, magazines, old books, fabric swatches or any material that calls my attention,” she explained.

Throughout her life, Hess said she has experienced art through a more technical lens, which was not something pleasurable for her. She explained she has also interned in different parts of the United States. One place was Austin, Texas, where she learned from artist Reggie Thomas, who specializes in glass blowing.

She compared the experience of forcing a style of art on herself to doing countless push ups. As time passed, Hess said she grew away from doing tedious work and began exploring more abstract forms and doing what felt good to her as an artist.

She encouraged other artists to do what they love, emphasizing they should try and challenge themselves within the zone they enjoy while not participating in a style that is painful for them.

Mangakahia said creating becomes much easier for him when the tools he is used to using are readily available for him. “I like to have tools I can work with, whether that is an iPad, a drill, a paint brush or pens. I make sure I have these things around me so when I have a thought and I want to bring out my imagination, I can [quickly] before the thought or the inspiration leaves me.”

portrait of Sam Mangakahia crouched in front of blank white wall holding guitar he carved

Photo by

Chalei Crane

He continued, “Anyone can do art. Anyone who has an imagination can do art. There’s no set way of how you’re supposed to do it.” He said timeless and meaningful art has a strong base in the elements and principles of art.

Chonger expressed throughout her journey with creating art, she has learned more about herself. “Art is not just about painting, or doing graffiti or drawing. It is about [artists] leaving [their] comfort zones to better discover [their] strengths and weaknesses. … I want to be authentic. Even though what we do is never really completely unique because a lot of people can do the same, I still think it’s important to try to be different.”

History depicted through art

During an internship in New Zealand, Mangakahia said he collaborated with local artist Rangi Kipa, a New Zealand sculptor and carver, on the interior design of a local airport. As they worked, Mangakahia said he learned how the narrative and meaning behind a piece of art is just as important as the final product.

“What inspires me is the meaning behind the art and how you can create emotion from pieces of art. I want to inspire others to live a better life or be happier … when they view a piece or think about how they connect with the piece through family and culture,” he shared.

Mangakahia said the experience of working with Kipa impacted how he thought about his creative process and how he could use art to teach specific history lessons. He said having messages embedded in his work will allow more people to understand New Zealand roots and heritage. “Art can make everyone culturally adapt and familiar with these markings [ta moko] and bring culture back as the main source of visual communication, helping to decolonize New Zealand.”

As a child, Hess said she traveled to different states because her father was in the U.S. military. While traveling, she said she was exposed to different places and people where she learned how to adapt.

Hess explained how the layering of her childhood experiences can be seen in the layering done in her artwork. “In a way, every place I’ve lived has stuck with me,” she said. “My work has a lot of layers and textures and nuance. I love mixed media for the rebellious aspect of using whatever materials to create. I think traveling so much as a child taught me how to be adaptable, resilient and resourceful.”

Nature’s impact on creating

During a local art show in Honolulu, Hess described a time when driving home from work where she was awestruck by the natural creations surrounding her. “The mountains are always in the background. It’s not even like I have to remind myself to look at them and to recognize the beauty of nature,” Hess said. “It stuns me every day, stuns me all the time, and I’ve lived here almost my whole life.”

While on his internship, Mangakahia said he learned an important lesson from Kipa. He asked Kipa how inspiration can come to artists and how they could be re-inspired. Mangakahia said Kipa responded, “It’s everywhere. It’s in the ocean. Have a look. You just need to look. Look at the patterns and the shape of the sea urchins.”

Mangakahia said, “What I feel like he was saying is God is the ultimate creator, and all you need to do is look around at the leaves and trees. Look at how you were created. Look at your muscles and ratios within yourself. That’s how I gain inspiration.”

Chonger said the many cultures at BYUH have helped her create new pieces because she incorporates their energies into her work. For example, she explained how the Indonesian culture, which she has learned about through friends, can give her energy, while the Hawaiian culture grounds and relaxes her.

portrait photo of newspaper collage art with female face and vase of green leaves

An example of Edelweiss Chonger’s artwork.

Photo by

Photo provided by Edelweiss Chonger

“The people on the island are very relaxed and chill, which is a completely different culture from Indonesia. It’s an interesting concept that I try to find a balance in and mix together in my artwork through color and pattern,” Chonger said smiling.

You can find Mangakahia’s leather journals and phone cases on https://shakatribeshop.com/.

You can find Hess’s artwork on https://www.haunanihess.com/