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Surf-inspired zoo wall artist paints for passion, not cash

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From the God’s-honest to the apocryphal, every artist has a coming-of-age story.

According to legend, Pablo Picasso’s genius was first recognized when he painted over an incomplete sketch of a bird that his father had drawn, causing his father, the artist Jose Ruiz y Blasco, to put away his own brushes for good.

Marc Chagall was supposedly ignorant of art until he saw a fellow student drawing a picture and immediately began his own intensive study of drawing and painting.

For 48-year-old Maka­kilo resident Paul For­ney, whose unique brand of beach-inspired art is proudly displayed along the Hono­lulu Zoo "wall" across from Kapiolani Park, the light-bulb moment occurred sometime between homeroom and first period.

"We used to have these yellow Pee Chee folders that guys would fold into quarters and tape up with clear plastic and electrical tape," Forney says, his mind harking back to the hallways of Campbell High School. "Guys used to like my drawings to put under the plastic. So I’d charge them $2 or $3 for one."

Fine, so not every artist’s story is made for PBS. What For­ney’s development as an artist lacks in romance it makes up for in clear-eyed commerce.

While he was still in high school, For­ney brought four paintings to the zoo wall and proceeded to turn on the charm.

A tourist couple was drawn to one painting in particular, and For­ney was prepared to drive a hard bargain.

"I had it in my mind that I wanted $80," he says. "They went away, came back and offered me $1,200. I just said, ‘OK.’"

Indeed, things have a way of working out for For­ney. When he and his wife, Lynn, lived in Texas for several years, For­ney, with no previous experience, landed a job painting city logos, school mascots and other Texas-sized art pieces on water towers. Between jobs he honed his personal artwork, his imagination continually returning to an edenic surf spot that exists only in his mind.

"It’s that same place every time," For­ney says. "I can see it clearly in my head, and I try to paint it from different angles."

Forney earned enough money painting towers 187 of them by his count that he and Lynn were able to return to Hawaii and buy the house across the street from where he grew up. These days, For­ney pays the bills through his work as a house painter, but his spare time is still spent with brush in hand and that secret surf spot in mind.

On a sunny, wind-swept Sunday at the zoo wall, For­ney sits in the driver’s seat of his car, a faded UH cap set low on his forehead, smoking a cigarette and listening to Iron Maiden while Lynn keeps watch for potential customers from a beach chair next to their exhibition board. His bright, cartoonish "folk-type surf art" pieces are unique, even amid the diverse styles represented here.

"I paint for me," he says. "The fact that people buy my work is a bonus. Even if they didn’t, I’d still be painting."

Reach Michael Tsai at

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