Ever since our trip to the Big Island last year, and learning about the art of Herb Kawainui Kāne, who once lived there, I’ve been wanting to interview his wife Deon Kāne, who lives in Freeland.

A swimming friend, Sharon Emerson, is friends with Deon, and connected us about a month ago. Earlier this week, David Welton and I met Deon at her home, which displays Herb’s art, and holds Deon’s memories of him. Herb passed away in 2011, leaving a legacy of art and stories in his wake.

Deon Kāne’s home is a gracious space, and her energy and sparkle shine through in her stories. She turns 91 April 18.

Deon Kãne at her piano with two of her husband Herb Kāne”s paintings behind her

“I do walks with an artist gentleman who is 103 and still hikes,” Deon said about her life these days, soon after greeting us. “I meet the most fantastic people!”

Speaking of meeting people, Deon told us about how she met Herb more than 40 years ago. Both had been married before. Herb had children from previous marriages, and had faced the heartache of losing a daughter too early. This story’s feature photo—a bronze sculpture of a young Hawaiian woman sitting on the back of a sea turtle—is Herb’s homage to a daughter he loved.

Herb Kāne’s painting, “The Little Mermaid,” hangs in Deon Kāne’s home

In her late 40s, Deon visited the Big Island and stayed in a ‘beautiful home’ on three acres, owned by a friend of Deon’s Oahu-based aunt. The friend had hired a woman who was friends with Herb Kāne. Deon became friends with the woman.

“She drove me around the Big Island,” Deon recalled. “Before we got to Hilo, we stopped at a bar. My friend said, ‘I want to show you something hanging behind the bar.’ It was a painting of Herb’s. I looked at it and said, “Wow.” She said, “He’s a friend of mine.’”

Deon was introduced to the artist and her life took on a new light.

“We were…Pow!” she recalled with remembered love, clapping her hands together. “It was…Woo!… amazing. We had chemistry, and in three days we were living together. How many people get that experience? What are the chances?…Losing him (in 2011) was not fun. Herb had mana.

Herbert Kāne, shared by a family photo on his webpage

Mana is described as “the spiritual life force, energy or healing power that permeates the universe in Melanesian and Polynesian mythology.” If you are open to the feeling, it is there for you to experience in Hawaii.

The couple married when Deon was 50, and Herb 55, and they moved to his home near Kailua-Kona.

This was not Deon’s first visit to the islands, though.

“I first got to Hawaii in 1950,” Deon recalled. “I had graduated from Curtis Institute (of Music in Philadelphia) in 1950 playing the harp and auditioned for two symphonies, one in Iceland, one in Honolulu. Not a hard choice to make! I was in Honolulu five years. Due to professional differences with the conductor, I moved on. I was getting island fever. I was 22-23 and just starting life. I’ve always been a fearless person, and I wanted to get on with my life.”

Enjoyment to Deon, among other things, was once playing a golden harp, now standing by a big window in her living room. She’s owned it since she was in her 30s. Deon said she does not play as much now, after thousands of hours of playing.

Deon Kãne and her Obermeyer Harp

“It’s like a Stradivarius,” Deon explained of her golden harp. “This is an Obermayer, the last harp he made.”

During the years before meeting Herb, Deon played for a symphony orchestra in Utah, in addition to her time in Honolulu, and later spent a long while working in Europe. She married a few times.

“I have hundreds of stories,” Deon said. “They have started doing this…”—here she crossed her fingers indicating weaving together—“as I get older.”

At her home in Freeland, Deon walked us around to view Herb’s paintings, and we learned that Deon made art, too, shimmering slump glass plates displayed in a lit cabinet. Upstairs in a tower at the top of the house, Deon recalled that the room was used for making her quilts. It was the recall of the stories behind Herb’s art that Deon most enjoyed telling.

Deon’s slump glass ware plates

We looked at a painting featuring Tlingit men in a decorated cedar canoe, titled Followers of the Eagle.

“Herb is an honorary Tlingit member of the tribe,” Deon said, recalling her husband’s art honoring one of Alaska’s indigenous tribes. “He designed buildings in Alaska. He did a lot of work for the Tlingit people. That’s why they honored him. They had voyaging canoes, too.”

‘Followers of the Eagle’ homage to Tlingit people

Looking at various webpages about Herb, he is often described as the “Father of the Hawaiian Renaissance in art.”

Herb’s art made since the 1970s evoke Hawaiian pre-contact by the European people. He painted many images of canoes with graceful-in-the-wind sails manned by powerfully strong men.

There are paintings depicting Captain Cook’s first arrival in Kealakekua Bay in 1778, where Hawaiians first looked at the white man as a form of their god, Lono.

‘Captain Cook Entering Kealakekua Bay in 1778,’ at the Isaacs Art Center in Waimea, Hawaii. Photo taken by Kate Poss

“That was Herb’s creme de la creme,” said Deon a year ago, when I saw her at a memorial. We had just returned from a trip to the Big Island, and I had shown Deon a photo I took of the original painting, which is displayed at the Isaacs Art Center in Waimea. “It took him 15 years to paint that.”

Cook was killed a year later after holding a Hawaiian king prisoner for allegedly stealing one of the Englishman’s boats. Herb painted a scene of Cook’s ending as well.

Hawaiian deities, children, flowers, marine life, fish sellers, grandmothers, musicians, and everyday island life, are recalled in his paintings and sculpture.

“Herb is loved by the Hawaiians,” Deon said, as we walked through her home’s light-filled rooms. “Herb was a Renaissance man, a painter, a sculptor, a businessman. I love talking about him. And he found me interesting, too.”

As we walked throughout her home, we stopped at an object, a nail, framed in wood.The simple object has a story to tell.

Holding a framed nail, taken from the sunken 1700s era ship HMS Bounty, made famous in the novel, “Mutiny on the Bounty,” Deon recalled a story about a month’s trip to Tahiti.

It was taken from the ship, HMS Bounty, sunk in the Southern Pacific in the late 1700s. The Bounty was captained by the infamous Captain Bly, and later burned by a mutinous crew. The incident was recalled in a 1932 novel, Mutiny on the Bounty, by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, and was later made into the highest grossing film by the same name in 1935.

Deon recalled a story relating to the Bounty, and one of its unrecorded voyages to an island near Tahiti.

“Herb was friends with Nancy Norman Hall–the daughter of James Norman Hall—and her husband Nicholas Rutgers,” Deon explained. “Nicholas was curating James Hall’s research and found evidence about an unpublished journey of the Bounty. Herb told him, “You’ve got to tell National Geographic.”

Interested in doing the story, National Geographic sent one its prolific writers, Luis Marden, along with Nancy Norman Hall, who was Tahitian, and could act as an interpreter, and Herb Kāne as the artist, to research the story. Nancy’s husband Nicholas, and Deon joined the crew for the month-long voyage to the South Pacific. While it was a great adventure, the story never made it to print.

During that trip, Deon recalled chatting with Luis Marden one day while they stood on the porch of an estate in Tahiti. She found his life interesting, and asked if he’d ever written his biography, and he told her it was reflected in his stories published by National Geographic. Later, on, while on assignment for another National Geographic story in the South Pacific, Luis went diving to the sunken ruins of the Bounty, and recovered nails from the ship, which had sunk in the late 1700’s. He sent the nail to Herb as a keepsake.

Deon Kāne and Inter-Island Airways, a painting Herb Kāne painted celebrating the first flight to Hawaii

National Geographic had previously used seven of Herb’s paintings in a Dec. 1974 story called, “The Pathfinders,” which recalled the journey to Hawaii 600 years ago by people in the South Pacific. The original boats later faded into extinction.

Herb Kāne thought it was important to keep his ancestors’ memory alive. He engaged people from many walks of life, and together built a replica of the boats, which was named the Hōkūle’a. He founded the Polynesian Voyaging Society to maintain a connection to the ancient voyagers, whose navigation techniques are still used today. He captained the Hōkūle’a’s first voyage in the 1970s. The Hōkūle’a celebrated her 49th birthday March 8th of this year.

Herb’s painting, ‘Navigator on the Observatory, celebrates the masters of sailing who successfully navigated the oceans using hundreds-year-old techniques still in practice today.

Navigator on the Observatory, by Herb Kāne, celebrates his ancestor’s voyaging skills.

Nowadays, Deon is working with the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, which will eventually be the curators of Herb’s legacy of art and books.

Meanwhile, Deon enjoys the company of friends, and at home, her faithful dog, Coco, a Shih Tzu breed with a long golden-red coat.

Deon and her dog Coco

Buying her comfortable Freeland home in 2000 was a smart move, Deon recalled. As a gift to celebrate the new abode, Herb painted a copy of his art that once wowed her so many years ago. It is named “Home of Kauila,” an homage to a turtle deity, who is a guardian for children. The original painting had been sold to another Hawaiian resort. Deon liked it so much, and had asked Herb to buy his painting back, but instead he painted her a new version. It’s the first art you see when walking in the front door.

“Home of Kaulia,” honoring the turtle deity guardian of children, was the painting that first drew Deon Kāne to her future husband, artist Herb Kāne.

Though they loved each other, Herb and Deon were different kinds of personalities.

“He once told me I’m an eagle and he’s a bear in his cave,” Deon recalled. “I have to be free and out doing my things. You have to live the day you’re in and not worry about all that bad stuff out there.”

When visiting with Deon, I enjoyed her stories and the bad stuff out there went away.

Herb Kāne’s bronze of Pele, Hawaiian volcano deity, next to the front door at Deon Kane’s home
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3 Comments

  1. I lived in Kailua from 1986 to 1989. Herb Kane was a legend there. How interesting to learn there is a Whidbey connection!

    • Kate Poss | With Photos by David Welton on

      Hi Celia. Are you related to Ben Metz? I used to work with him at the Langley Library. Thanks for your comment!

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