Waste not, want not. This is the philosophy Victor Kobayashi has lived by well before sustainability became trendy. But for the longtime artist and retired University of Hawaii educator, the gem of this practice isn’t necessarily in the tangible results of a robust garden or gorgeous artwork. Rather, it is in the creative act of repurposing old items, in reimagining them as part of something new while honoring what came before.
"If I see something fascinating, I keep it. I’m a scavenger type," says Kobayashi of his collection of everything from candy wrappers, beads and shells to broken clay pots and thrift-store dishes.
"In making my mosaics, it’s fun to use all kinds of things. But after I put everything together, I realize there’s a story there. Part of the aesthetic for me is imagining and recalling memories. This experience doesn’t have to translate for the viewer, but they might have eaten off of one of the plates I got at the thrift shop.
"It can be tedious, placing all those little pieces. But I try to think of each piece as different. Each one is a new piece of art. That makes it new. And I feel I’m building on other people’s work."
Koa Gallery is honoring Kobayashi with the 2011 KOA Award, a lifetime achievement honor for dedication to the arts. The award is accompanied by an exhibition; Kobayashi’s "New Alchemy, Zen & Art" is showing at the gallery through April 14.
‘NEW ALCHEMY, ZEN & ART’
Works by Victor Kobayashi
On exhibit: Through April 14, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays to Fridays and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays
Where: Koa Gallery, Kapiolani Community College
Call: 734-9374 or visit koagallery.kcc.hawaii.edu
Mosaic works hanging in the gallery are the latest products of Kobayashi’s eclectic talent. And true to his form, though they sit in wood frames, the pieces do not conform to a 2-D plane. Sections of one work jut from the flat surface, looking like land masses after an earthquake. Old dinner plates arch out from one another, adding curves to the traditional squares populating the rest of the piece.
The works illustrate Kobayashi’s tendency toward nonconformity, both in his art and in his life.
He’s worked in paper and printmaking. But the artist is known for his hand-built pots, mosaics with patchworks of various textures, glazes, colors and styles. Amid this diversity, however, Kobayashi has launched on an exploration of connections and patterns.
"Some of these pieces are sea worms — calcium carbonate," he says, examining one mosaic. "We have a connection even to sea worms because we generate calcium too, in our bones.
"Life has a tendency to create patterns, and we can respond because we’re also made up of patterns. We respond to a tree because we are a living thing just as a tree is a living thing."
KOBAYASHI GREW UP on Maui, the youngest of six children. He likely inherited his diverse talent from his father, whom at various times in Kobayashi’s childhood owned a soda factory, movie theater and auto repair shop.
Kobayashi drew cartoons as a youth and dabbled in oils, ceramics and photography at UH in the early 1950s. He served in the Air Force from 1954 to 1957 during the Korean War as a weather officer, drawing weather maps every day.
"A good weather map is also very beautiful; it’s organic and natural," he says.
That ability to uncover beauty in unlikely places continued to develop. Kobayashi earned a master’s degree at UH, producing a thesis on mathematics and aesthetics. "Mathematics has its beauty," he says. "It’s abstract and imaginative."
In 1960, Kobayashi took his aesthetic eye to the University of Michigan, where he earned a Ph.D. in Japanese studies then joined the faculty. In 1966, he returned to Hawaii with a wife and son and worked at UH’s College of Education, teaching comparative education. During his 47-year career at UH, Kobayashi also served as dean of its summer school program and was the first dean of UH’s outreach college.
Koa Gallery director David Behlke says Kobayashi has achieved a wonderful balance between his career in education and work as a fine artist.
"As an educator, Victor was always making art. If it was not in physical form, it was manifesting in his ideas. … Victor is a person of substance in thought and work."
Behlke says that in selecting a KOA honoree, consideration is paid to what an individual has contributed to the community.
"We give a hard look at educators because of their exponential influence —their students influence others, so their influence grows," he says.
Kobayashi’s dedication to both fields has been fueled by his beliefs about human experience.
"The essence of civilization is in the aesthetic," he says. "The enjoyment of living is enhanced through doing art, being with nature and so on.
"I decided that once I reached a certain level of wealth — for me that meant security for my future and for my family — the best thing to do with my time was art. And that’s not necessarily painting or poetry. It’s about valuing creation, whether you’re cooking food or tending your relationship."