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A survivor of destruction, woman creates

By Steven Mark

LAST UPDATED: 2:24 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011

For all that Solina Wilhelm has been through, she might be excused if she comes across as rather shy. Over the phone her high-pitched voice quavers as she speaks, uncertain of her words as she talks about a life filled with trauma. Much of it is graphic, like being fed "bad food and getting tapeworms and not being taken to the hospital when I was sick, or washing my hair with kerosene."

She describes the physical, emotional and verbal abuse she suffered as a child at home and finding little support for her situation at school or church, and the toll it took. "I really felt like hating myself, hating who I was," Wilhelm said. "I remember growing up fearing authority. You don't speak unless if you're spoken to, and if you get it wrong, you get a beating."


An exhibit of works by

Solina Wilhelm

» Where: Honolulu Academy of Art Center at Linekona, 1111 Victoria St., Mezzanine Gallery

» When: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday; through Sunday

» Info:


Wilhelm, who said she has been in therapy, is in full voice now, if not in her speech, then in her art. The fledgling artist has her work on display this month as part of "The Mind's Eye: Refuting Stigma and Discrimination Against People with Mental Illness," an exhibit at the Honolulu Academy of Art Center at Linekona.

Her small display reveals a history of tragedy in brutal frankness. She made an entire dress out of various medical reports, bills and other artifacts stemming from her painful upbringing, interspersed with notes detailing comments made about her and her feelings about them: "Just give her a pill," "Her mind is still like a child's," "It's not our problem."

Postcards she created suggest other traumatic events, such as her family killing a stray dog that she brought home. "Because I loved you, you are dead," says the card, which has a picture of a dog. Another postcard depicts a ghost and refers to a 2007 hit-and-run collision in which she was the victim that wiped out her savings.

Wilhelm, now 35, managed to persevere through these hardships, moving to Maui, getting married and trying to develop a career in social work. After the collision forced her family to start over, her husband, Kamalei, decided to take construction classes at Honolulu Community College. While looking for his class one day, she ran into art instructor Rebecca Horne, telling her, "I've been interested in art before, but every time I draw something, I hate it and throw it away."

Horne told her she suffered from her own "inner critic" and encouraged her to enroll in art classes. Wilhelm has since become remarkably prolific, in less than a year producing more than 200 pieces in watercolor and oil, acrylics, mixed media, sculpture, ceramics, photography and more.

The postcards displayed at the Academy of Art Center were her first art assignment, which had the theme "Postcards from the Edge." The cards were supposed to be seen by Horne only, but the teacher said she felt they were so powerful she wanted others to see them, particularly other students who were struggling with personal issues.

Horne said Wilhelm was brave for being willing to reveal so much of her life story, even if it came in postcard-length messages. "If the assignment was to do five, she would come back with 20," Horne said. "It takes a lot of courage for any artist to put their work out there, but for someone who's suffered such incredible hardship … that is truly courageous."

The response to Wilhelm's work, which has also been displayed at First Unitarian Church of Honolulu's Gallery on the Pali, has amazed her. "I had people see them and run out of the room," she said.

Wilhelm is now taking courses at the Honolulu Academy of Art's Vision, Strength and Artistic Access program, which provides her with instruction, materials and career help. She says she is "just learning" to be an artist.

"I only know to do what I know," she said. "To paint what I know, to write what I know, and then it comes out."

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