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Buzzy Sproat on the trail to Kalaupapa Photo by Richard A. Cooke, III
Vol. 7, No. 2
April/May 2004


Public Figures 

by Catharine Lo

(photo: Linny Morris Cunningham)
Kazu Fukuda doesn’t mess around. Well, literally he does—but figuratively, no way. He spends his days with wood, fiberglass, concrete and steel, creating not run-of-the-mill shelters but huge, playful and decidedly beautiful sculptures that tell tales of Hawaiian gods and monsters.

And not just any tales. Creations don’t just spring from Kazu’s mind. It’s not like he throws sand and gravel onto twisted wire, and poof! instant dragon. Kazu’s sculptures are faithful depictions of characters and moments from Hawaiian mythology—and he’s a stickler for historical accuracy. Each project is thoroughly researched and modeled before a drop of cement is poured.

Kazu’s public works are found primarily in Oahu’s public schools. For example, there’s the seven-foot statue of a mother bearing the mythical shark goddess, Kaahupahau, which Kazu built at Ewa’s Campbell High School in 2001. Kaahupahau was the aumakua (protector) for the people of Ewa: She warded off dangerous sharks, aided fishermen and guarded the entrance to Pearl Harbor. "This was a story about nurturing and the power of raising children," Kazu explains. "Without the mother, there would have been no aumakua. Take care of the young, and they’ll take care of the community."

(photo: Kazu Fukuda)

Or there’s the Ka Mo‘o ‘Ili ‘Ili statue at Kuhio Elementary School, one of Kazu’s favorites. The sculpture illustrates the legend of the mo‘o ‘ili ‘ili, the dragon that was turned into stone, exploded and scattered to create Waahila Ridge above St. Louis Heights. Sculpted parts of the dragon are scattered about the school campus; the main body is an amphitheater where children can sit. Kazu built the sculpture when he was an artist-in-residence at the school in 1997, days when he modeled his art in the playground and the students called him "Mr. Ichi," short for Kazuichi. ("Mr. Kazu sounded too much like a hairdresser," he says with a laugh.)

"Children are so receptive. They haven’t developed a fear of art yet," Mr. Ichi says. "My interest in teaching art is to give people a creative experience, a chance to make up their own answers. We don’t have enough experiences like that to help us improve. Art is a philosophical endeavor. It is the conscience of society. For me, the pinnacle is to make something outdoors for people to see. What I’m interested in is how to reach the working class. That’s where my roots are."

Kazu, who is fifty-six now, grew up in the densely packed neighborhood of Kaimuki, the son of a Japanese father and a Hawaiian mother. “I was born with a Japanese name and Hawaiian face,” he says. Like his sculptures, Kazu is himself a work of art: His dark, stern face is softened by a small silver hoop that hangs like a comma from his left ear. The hair atop his head is shaved short but yields to a long black ponytail that sways when he walks.

The Last Eskimo,
circa 1976, is
"a comment on vanishing
cultures," says Kazu.
(Photo: Kazu Fukuda)

Sitting comfortably in his little home on Wela Street, Kazu reminisces about a childhood spent trekking down to the beach with a heavy wooden surfboard and hanging out with friends. His father worked in the pineapple cannery and his mother was a librarian, but because of his mother’s heritage, Kazu was eligible to attend Kamehameha Schools, the distinguished private school for Hawaiian students. He got a great education but, ironically, found himself shunned by the kids on his block as he began to drop pidgin for proper English. Dismayed, Kazu moved to California for a year to live with a hanai (adopted) sister and spent the tenth grade at San Diego High School. There he became even more aware of the ways that class, culture and race influence identity, a subject that motivates his work to this day.

"Kazu has helped communities identify who they are by giving them works of art that help tell their story," says Jon Johnson, who works with the Art in Public Places program of the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts. "There is so much passion in his work. Every sculpture we’ve commissioned is better than the last."

"Kazu is a leading contributor in the contemporary art scene," agrees David Behlke, director of Kapiolani Community College’s Koa Art Gallery. "He is a terrific sculptor whose thoughtfulness is always apparent."