Lei for “The Lei Maker”

50th State Kid and friends

September 1, 2023 4–9pm
September 2, 2023 12–6pm

Lei for “The Lei Maker”
(2023) is a two-day event that takes as its starting point a painting in oil on canvas, The Lei Maker (1901) by Theodore Wores (United States, 1859–1939), currently in the holdings of Honolulu Museum of Art (chartered 1922). 

Detail view of The Lei Maker, The John Dominis and Patches Damon Holt Gallery, Honolulu Museum of Art, 2013.

Photo: 50th State Kid.

In the early 2010s I worked as a preparator at Honolulu Museum of Art. During my lunch break I would often wander the bowels of the building, dig through the loading dock dumpster for material, and talk story with employees that still retained some semblance of institutional memory.
View of deinstallation in progress, The John Dominis and Patches Damon Holt Gallery, Honolulu Museum of Art, 2014.

Photo: 50th State Kid.
One morning, Kathee Hoover, the then longtime Museum Shop manager, let me know that due to a lack of storage she was being forced to throw away a slew of museum merchandise to make space for more important collection items. Later that same day after work, I scavenged hundreds of posters, postcards, and shopping bags branded with The Lei Maker. These discarded products in turn became the basis for a new series of creative interventions.
Assorted merchandise branded with The Lei Maker as seen on zazzle.com, 2013.

Photo: 50th State Kid.
In the weeks and months that followed, I visited frequently with The Lei Maker at The John Dominis and Patches Damon Holt Gallery; documented introductory panel texts and tombstone labels accompanying this and other paintings in the gallery; and made a series of photographs with my youngest sister in response to several artworks on view.
Installation view of The Lei Maker next to versions of itself in product form, The John Dominis and Patches Damon Holt Gallery, Honolulu Museum of Art, 2013.

Photo: 50th State Kid.
Excerpts from the gallery introductory panel and artwork tombstone label at the time read:
“Artists such as Hubert Vos (United States, 1855–1935) and Theodore Wores (United States, 1859–1939) painted realistic, yet romanticized portraits of Hawaiians in genre scenes. Their paintings describe impressions of ‘Old Hawaii’ rather than anthropological studies of indigenous people.”

“San Francisco painter Theodore Wores traveled to Hawaii in 1902 and, like Hubert Vos, undertook a group of paintings depicting Hawaiian portraits and genre subjects. The Lei Maker is his best-known painting of a Hawaiian subject depicting a young woman stringing a garland of ilima blossoms in the highly nostalgic style of the French academician William-Adolphe Bouguereau.”
Museum shuttle adorned with The Lei Maker graphic, Honolulu Museum of Art parking lot, 2023.

Photo: 50th State Kid.
For decades, Honolulu Museum of Art has capitalized on The Lei Maker, reducing the painting and its subject to nothing more than an exhausted mascot whose overused image circulates with little regard for larger conversations around ongoing cultural exploitation in Hawaiʻi.
Excerpt from Laurie Hover, “Lizzie,” HONOLULU Magazine, 1970.
Over the years since my stint as a preparator at Honolulu Museum of Art, I’ve come to better understand the circumstances surrounding the production and reception of The Lei Maker at the turn of the 20th century in Hawaiʻi. I’ve read about Elizabeth “Lizzie” Piʻilani Victor (Hawaiʻi, 1883–1945) who modeled for Wores, the generosity of the Shenson family who eventually donated the painting to the museum in 1986, and even the artwork’s hefty koa and mango frame designed by muralist and critic Jean Charlot.
Documentation of a photograph [depicting “Lizzie” and attributed to Wores (1901)], by museum photographer at the request of the author (featured in the background), Photo Studio, Honolulu Museum of Art, 2023.

Photo: Alec Yasunori Singer.
Recently I visited the Honolulu Museum of Art, in May of 2023, with my mother and a beloved friend. Together the three of us sat in silence with The Lei Maker on view against a magenta wall as part of the museum’s yearlong presentation, Cross Pollination: Flowers Across the Collection (2022-2023). Leaving the gallery, I said out loud to my companions something I often say to myself in my head, “One day I will grow enough ʻilima to make a lei for the lei maker and that is a promise.”

50th State Kid
Honolulu, Hawaiʻi
July 31, 2023