Story Shannon Wianecki
Photos by Dana Edmunds
Overlooking a forested gulch on Kaua‘i, Doug Britt’s house is a temple of sorts. It’s filled with little shrines he and his wife Sharon created: whimsical figurines carved out of foam fishing floats, baubles encrusted with shells and pottery fragments, messages inscribed on pieces of driftwood. It’s obvious that some time ago, when the Grown-Up Fairy came looking for kids to turn into adults, these two must’ve hid in a cupboard.
Britt started life on the Virginia seashore, building little wooden boats. He never stopped. In the summer of ’69 he took his first trip to Hawai‘i. He was 17 and smitten with surfing. Shortly after he drew a low lottery number in the Vietnam War draft and opted to join the Coast Guard. In 1974 he used his GI benefits to attend Maui Community College. He discovered he was an artist, married a kindred spirit and moved to Kaua‘i.
Naval imagery dominates his artwork. His pigment-saturated paintings evoke the fantasy of disappearing to a deserted island —and the mixture of loneliness and ecstasy that would entail. In one painting a steamship made of vintage labels and political advertisements motors toward a green island. In the mountains, hula dancers hide. This simple rendering tells a melancholy tale of Hawai‘i’s history.
Made of flotsam and jetsam he finds on beach walks, his objets d’art exude imagination. He shapes blocks of wood into ships and fashions planes out of rolling pins and toy View-Masters. His artwork has appeared in galleries nationwide and in Honolulu, most recently in a solo show downtown and also as part of the group exhibit Hawaii’s Modern Masters.
Primarily his work is found at Ola’s, the gallery he and Sharon opened in 1982. The building stands sentry at the entrance to Hanalei and has survived two major hurricanes. Even Britt’s display cases are works of art, made out of repurposed briefcases or keyless pianos. At one point the couple planned to move to SoHo to pursue serious art careers. Then they realized how many international collectors roll through tiny Hanalei. Britt muses, “I don’t think I’d have as great exposure in a metropolitan area as I have here.”