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Isle sculptor, beloved mentor influenced generations of artists

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Sculptor Fred Roster poses in a gallery with his artwork. Roster, who was a professor of art and chairman of the sculpture program at the University of Hawaii until his retirement in 2016, died Dec. 19. He was 73.

Fred H. Roster, an acclaimed sculptor and beloved professor of art, died at home on Dec. 19 after a battle with brain cancer. He was 73.

A mentor to generations of young artists in Hawaii, Roster’s work is considered an integral part of Hono­lulu’s built landscape.

His work is included in the collections of the Hawaii State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, and range from sculptures such as “Atoll, Toll, Total” at the airport to a bronze portrait of Gov. John A. Burns.

Roster’s wife, Lynette, said on his last night, his right arm was busy moving, as if he were working machinery, creating another piece of art.

“Fred was just a very humble, kind person,” she said, describing him as a gentleman. “For somebody who didn’t talk a lot, so many people will remember him. I guess it’s not for his words, it’s for his deeds. He made art and he loved doing that.”

Born June 27, 1944, in Palo Alto, Calif., Roster grew up on a farm with a love for animals and the outdoors, which led him to gravitate toward natural materials such as wood, clay and stone.

He moved to Hawaii in 1969 shortly after finishing a master’s in ceramics from San Jose State University. He went on to receive his master’s of fine arts from the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 1970 and joined its faculty, where he was a professor of art and chairman of the sculpture program until his retirement in 2016.

Known for his mixed-media narrative sculptures, the prolific artist was also co-founder of the traveling International Shoebox Sculpture Exhibition, which mixed small-scale works by local and international artists.

In 2010, the Honolulu Museum of Art showcased 40 years of his work in an exhibition titled “It Seemed Like the Future: Works by Fred H. Roster, 1969–2010” at the Art School Gallery.

Lisa Yoshihara, transit art administrator for the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, called Roster a major mentor in her life and said he was instrumental to so many careers in Hawaii’s art community.

In a biography she wrote for the family, Yoshihara described his signature as the “adroit juxtaposition of media: stone, wood, clay, bronze, steel, fine metals, and found objects like a natural tree branch.”

“Although his works spoke of environmental and global concerns, they were also deeply reflective of his personal life experiences,” she wrote. “Roster invited the viewer to interpret and interact with his evocative symbols of wheels, canoes, fishes, human figures, monkeys, his beloved dogs, and birds.”

Katherine Love, the museum’s assistant curator of contemporary art, said Roster’s impact on the art and artists of Hawaii cannot be understated.

“As chair of the University of Hawaii sculpture department, he taught, guided, trained and mentored generations of artists. I know and have spoken to many of his former colleagues and students who emphasize the profound influence he had on their work. He was adept at sharing and communicating his strategies of art-making, both materially and conceptually, and emphasized the importance of connecting an idea with the successful construction and implementation of the finished piece. He will be greatly missed by all who knew him.”

The museum collection includes several of his works, including “Hilo Dog Bench,” which is on view at Spalding House.

“Fred Roster was a dedicated faculty member at the university for over 40 years and influenced countless generations of artists,” said Gaye Chan, chairwoman of the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “He deeply believed in his students’ capabilities and inspired them to do their very best. As artists and art professionals, Fred’s former students are among the leaders of our city’s cultural landscape. There is no fine art organization in ­Honolulu where his influence is not felt in some profound way.”

Former art student Lisa Shiroma remembers Roster would be at the university seven days a week, and that his office door was always open to answer questions. She described him as “gentle, knowledgeable, very patient and fatherly.”

Shiroma was a member of a sculpture club Roster founded for former students who got together to network.

“We would always joke that Fred was a wizard,” Shiroma said. “Whenever we were stuck with anything, we would say, ‘Ask Fred.’ It seemed like he knew all the answers. And if he didn’t, he always knew what to say to get to the right answer.”

He was also an avid bicyclist who trained at Tantalus, and had a love for boating and fishing, which influenced the use of large-scale wheels and canoes in his artwork.

Lynette Roster said Fred was never talkative, but became quite conversant as he battled cancer. Without the use of his left hand, he turned to writing longhand.

She shared “Musings from Fred” to a growing circle of family, friends, former colleagues, doctors and former students in his last months. She said he taught her about living with terminal cancer and dying with grace and dignity.

“An artist sees differently,” she said. “Fred looked inwards into his heart, and it was full of gratitude. In his musings, he said his one regret was that he wished he had said ‘thank you’ more often.”

Roster is survived by wife Lynette; her daughter, Rachel; son Cade from his first marriage; brothers Bill and Curt; sisters Pat Dickerson and Joyce Helmbrecht; and two grandchildren. Services will be private. Donations may be made to the Hawaiian Humane Society, Hawaii Craftsmen or Hawaii Bicycling League.

Correction: An earlier version of this story had the wrong birthdate for Fred Roster.
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