Thursday, July 5, 2012

IWAS On Location in Hawaii: Three Women Artists in Paradise

International Women Artists' Salon Member Sabina Pieslak caught up with Three Women Artists in Paradise to discuss their work.

What is it like to be a woman artist on the most isolated island chain in the world? Living on the island of Kaua’i, Hawai’i, for the past nine months has offered me a glimpse into the creative life of some wonderful artists, and I decided to invite three of them to tell their artful stories: Natasha Young, Licia McDonald, and Jennifer Hill.

Thank you to the artists who contributed their insights, and to Heidi Russell, founder of the International Women Artists’ Salon, for the opportunity to share these experiences.


Born on Maui, Natasha Young was raised on Kaua’i and her mother’s family has lived in the Hawaiian Islands for three generations. Surrounded by the natural beauty of the islands and raised by art consultant parents, Natasha found inspiration and support from an early age. She completed her BFA in painting at the University of Hawaii at Manoa (2010) and now specializes in portraits and island scenes, showing her work at the Kapa’a Art Night and at the Nani Kaua’i Gallery in Princeville. Strolling through the gallery one day, I happened to see her jewelry and vibrant landscapes. Her first landscape triptych, Ai'opio Fishpond, captures some of the intense colors that characterize the island’s land and sea.

Ai'opio Fishpond. Acrylic on canvas. 8x30.

Natasha’s portfolio displays a wide-ranging creativity: earrings, hair pieces and pins made out of feathers, tattoos and logos, landscapes, paintings of nudes playing musical instruments, and striking portraits. Her self-portrait, Picking up the Pieces, provides some insights into her personal relationship with art. For Natasha, the process of “putting things back together” involves the creativity of supporting herself through challenging economic conditions.

Picking up the Pieces. Acrylic on gessobord, 11x14.


How did Ai’opio Fishpond come about?

Ai'opio Fishpond was my first landscape triptych. Thus you could say it was kind of an experiment, like any untried idea, and I was not sure how it would turn out. When it came out well I decided to reproduce and sell the work in the gallery.

Sabina: I really like the deeper reddish brown of the background for Picking up the Pieces. Would you also be willing to share the personal statement you mentioned about this work? It's such a fascinating self-portrait.

Natasha: This piece is a self-portrait of this time in my life, both inside and out. When I was about 14 I decided what I wanted to do with my life as an artist: I wanted to be an illustrator for a particular gaming company. Ever since then the scholastic and artistic moves I made were aimed at one day achieving this end. Half way through my senior year of college, it was brought to my attention that my dream job was not what I thought it was, and could not support me as an artist, even a starving one… Thus, I walked away from University with a three-letter degree and no job prospects, like many college graduates these days. This portrait reflects how I’m feeling at this time in my life: torn apart by unexpected circumstances, but slowly piecing myself back together as best I can. When dreams are shattered, and hopes are dashed, it’s the only thing to do.

Sabina: Where did you grow up? What was your early relationship with art/creativity?

Natasha: I was born on Maui but raised in Kaua’i and my mother’s family has lived in the Islands for three generations. I was born into the art world; both of my parents were art consultants long before I came around. That being the case I was always inspired to create and pursue my calling.

Sabina: What did you enjoy the most about your art education/training?

Natasha: I enjoyed having the opportunity to experiment with a wide variety of mediums while being able to hone my skills in my area of focus.

Sabina: Why did you decide to pursue art and what are your thoughts on this experience?

Natasha: I’ve never really given this question a lot of thought. Why do we decide to walk? Because we have feet. Pursuing art always seemed like the obvious path for me; from a young age I displayed a natural aptitude for it and thus was always encouraged to continue doing it by everyone around me. Art has always been such a big part of my life that I honestly can’t imagine my existence without it. I am thankful that I had such tremendous support in following my dream but sometimes I wish I had more of a solid backup plan or a lucrative vocation to ply my talents. I love to create, but I don’t love how difficult it is to make one’s way in the art world, particularly in our current economic situation. Although I will continue to stick to it through thick and thin because that’s what I do best.

Sabina: What inspires you the most now? Please describe your current projects.

Natasha: I am inspired by a challenge. I am currently working on a brand new exciting series that a dear friend is helping me to brainstorm. Although I’m going to keep it a secret until the work is done. I will say that it involves the beauty of the Island in more way than one.

Sabina: Please share with us some highlights of your artistic life and activities on Kaua’i.

Natasha: One of my five jobs is working in a toy store and I LOVE being able to interact with happy people all day whilst scouting out new little models.

Sabina: What are some of the challenges and/or joys of being a woman artist on Kaua’i today?

Natasha: Okay, this is something I don’t really talk about, but I have noticed it and I am thankful for it. As a young woman I am able to approach a wide variety of people about modeling and I rarely get turned down. In college I needed nude models for some of my projects, and I was rarely rejected. It helped that most of the folks I asked were my friends, but still, I don’t know that I would have gotten as many willing models if I were a man. However there is a whole new level of trust when it comes to children. I have had many parents accept my request of portraying their children without them even seeing my work; again, I don’t believe I would receive such acceptance if I were a man in the same situation, so for this I am grateful to be exactly who and what I am.

Sabina: Are there any tips you would offer for women artists who want to pursue art?

Natasha: Go for it, but have a backup plan. They put ‘poor and starving’ in front of artist for a reason. It is important to follow your zen, whatever that is, but you can’t eat paint. Ask Van Gogh.

Sabina: What are your hopes and dreams for your art, and for your community of artists?

Natasha: I hope to one day be able to completely support myself and my family with my art. I also hope that my artistic community continues to grow and flourish. Sometimes it can be difficult on an Island with limited resources, but it is on these same Islands that things are able to mature and thrive that don’t exist anywhere else in the world.

Sabina: Do you have any favorite organizations or sources of artistic and economic support for artists in Hawai’i?

Natasha: Our lovely visitors. J

Sabina: If you could have any superhero power, what would it be and why?

Natasha: To heal our planet of pollution, disease, war, hate, violence, and greed. Because it’s about time, isn’t it?

Sabina: If you could have lunch with anyone in the world who has ever lived at any time, who would it be and why?

Natasha: Leonardo da Vinci, because he was one of the greatest artistic minds the world has ever known and I would love to absorb some of his greatness. I may have to learn Italian first.


When Licia McDonald first moved to Kaua’i with her husband, Steve Goldberg, in 1993, they established a small pottery business, Island Clayworks, making functional pieces. The work did well, but profits were low due to the very high cost of running a business on the island. After ten years they closed the business, but Licia continued to create ceramics inspired by nature, shifting focus from functional to sculptural forms.

A passion for nature developed throughout her life. Working full time while attending college in Miami, Licia majored in environmental studies and completed her Bachelor of Arts degree at Florida International University. Her current creativity incorporates ideas from her past experience with environmental studies, moving from a utilitarian approach to a more personal, dynamic exploration of clay.

Viewing her ceramic creations, one gets the impression that the clay has magically sprung and sprouted out of the ground, like a lotus out of the mud. The medium achieves a startling, life-like fluidity in her works.

Licia’s work can be seen on Kaua’i at Alley Kat Art in Kapa’a ( and in Honolulu at Cedar Street Galleries (

Bloom with Green Stalk (Detail). Ceramic, 7x11x9.

Blue Pod with Music. Ceramic, 8x20x9.


Sabina: Where did you grow up? What was your early relationship with art and creativity?

Licia: I was born in Michigan and lived there until I was 14. My family then moved to California and that was my first experience with the ocean. It began a life long love and I’ve lived near it ever since.

My early experience in art was the classic story of the art teacher telling me “you really can’t draw, so you should just find something else to do”. Of course, at an impressionable age I believed her and didn’t even consider drawing or painting again until later in life. And yes, I really am lousy, but that’s not the point. I’m especially sensitive to that whenever I work with kids, and thankfully, the mindset has changed in the world of teaching since then. So for kids who don’t feel like they can draw, clay can be a liberating alternative. It’s tactile, and a dimensional experience that many can relate to. I’ve had parents come to me and tell me their child always hated “art” (usually boys), but they were just hooked on working with clay.

Clay is the one medium I know of that really has some sort of “juju” effect on people. So many people tell me the story about the ash tray or hand print they made in kindergarten -- I’m talking 50 or 60 year olds too. And they say they still have it, or their mother still has it on the shelf. And they’re talking to me with this big smile on their face. It’s like they’re talking about gold. There is this strong emotional connection. It’s wonderful.

Sabina: What did you enjoy the most about your art education, training, and mentors? How was Florida International University?

Licia: When I was 18 I moved to Miami and worked full time while attending college. It took me 7 years to get a 4 year degree. My major was environmental studies and that is when I became enamored with systems of nature; adaptation and the resiliency of life. Clay was kept in the background because like most artists, I also had a full time day job. After college I worked and apprenticed for a few successful potters.

Sabina: How and where did you decide to open Island Clayworks, and what are your thoughts on that experience?

Licia: My husband and I moved to Kauai in 1993 and started a small pottery. We made coffee mugs and dinnerware. Painted with designs that were inspired by the beauty of Kaua’i. The glazing process we used is called majolica. The clay was dipped in a white glaze and we painted designs on top with ceramic stains. Our work was well received and we had a bit of a following. We sold our work in about 25 stores throughout the state. But the cost of doing business here is extremely high. We have one of the highest electricity costs in the country, so our profit margin was extremely small. We usually had about 4 or 5 employees and we were like a family. We enjoyed what we were doing, but after 10 years, it was time to move on.

Sabina: On your website you mention being inspired by nature, the beautiful and strange. Could you tell us more about that? Are there specific plants on Kaua’i that inspire you?

Licia: Obviously, moving to Kaua’i and experiencing first hand all of the beauty and the abundance of plant life here has been an inspiration. Of course the incredible flowers and fragrances, but what I’m really drawn to is the seed pods. Palm trees - and there is such a huge variety -- I still cannot resist an opening pod. The beautiful Lawai fern...just turn over a leaf and there are thousands and thousands of tiny spores. Reproduction ....this is sexy.

Sabina: What motivates and inspires you the most now? Please describe your creative process and current projects.

Licia: I’ve been inspired by the photography of Karl Blossfeld. He was a botanist, so his photos were largely clinical, but I feel he captured all the intrigue and intimacy of plant life. The beauty, but also the strangeness that exists in much of the plant world. Incredible and intricate seed pods, and tendrils and just wild shaped leaves and stems.

Stevie Wonder’s: The Secret Life of Plants had a big effect on me. There is such a huge story going on in the understory of the plant world. Before the invention of the microscope, scientists didn’t even know the tiny, microscopic world existed. The thought of that still knocks me out. There are usually a few microscopic photos of plant life up on the board in my studio, and at least one of Karl’s photos is always there.

The best words of inspiration came to me recently from a friend of mine who is a very successful painter. He was responding to my questioning and second guessing what I was doing in the studio. He listened for a while and then he finally said “Screw it, just do want you want to do”. That was just when my current work really started to develop, and that is now one of my guiding principles for being in the studio. There has to be integrity, but you have to do what you feel; do what you want to do.

Sabina: Please share with us some highlights of your artistic life and activities on Kaua’i.

Licia: Before I moved to Kauai, I mostly thought of clay in a utilitarian way. But I found it to be the perfect medium for expressing how I feel about the natural world. It flows and moves and responds. In the last few years, my background in environmental studies came to the foreground with thoughts of how plant life may evolve in the future. What forms, textures and methods of reproduction will be required for them to sustain themselves? How will they reproduce effectively to insure their future. I imagine they will have to adapt to live in any environment. Land, underwater...that is why I’m not interested in defining my work. My forms could be plant or coral derivatives. They’re prepared for any environment.

I’ve received some recognition and awards in the last few years, which I’m grateful for. One award was for a triptych that I called “Burial Ground”. I’m happy with the way it turned out, but it was one of those pieces that, the minute I finished it, I knew I would never make another like it. The basis for it was 3 box like forms, and I found the shapes to be way too confining and constricting. I felt claustrophobic. This piece led me to examine the odd thing that people do to clay. Clay is this incredibly pliable, soft, fluid material, and we turn it into shapes with right angles or hard edges or perfect round forms. My interest is in letting the clay “be”. Yes, it has to be fired to a hard surface, but my goal is to convey that fluidity that it has in its raw state.

Sabina: What are some of the challenges and joys of being a woman artist on Kaua’i today?

Licia: I don’t feel any challenges to being a female artist on Kauai. Women are strong here, and they do amazing things. Incredible athletes, business women, mothers, artists, and some of them do it all. I feel that strength when I work. I’ll think about friends who get up early in the morning and swim down the Na Pali coast. Just out in the ocean in a very remote environment with 1 or 2 other people. That is strength and determination, and I think about that and get inspired; women are amazing: we can do anything. Kauai is also a very beautiful and sensuous place. It’s perfect for women.

Sabina: Do you have any favorite organizations or sources of artistic and economic support for artists in Hawai’i?

Licia: I belong to Hawaii Craftsman and Kauai Society of Artists. I’m thankful for the organizations here in Hawai’i. We are here on such a small island and there is not a lot of opportunity for shows. I think many visitors are surprised at the caliber of work that is shown here. There are many art galleries on the island, but understandably, because of the beauty and inspiration, most do well with landscape paintings. It’s a little more challenging to find a venue if you work in 3D.

Kaua’i is a very nurturing place for artists. Generally speaking I find that people are very accepting and appreciative of creativity here. Everyone is inspired by the beauty, and by those who can express it in some way. That said, there are not a lot of venues or forums for art to be displayed. Artists have to be creative in their approach to getting their artwork seen.

Sabina: What is it like on a typical day in your studio?

Licia: I love the work that I’m doing now. I live for that time in the studio when you’re “in the zone”. I love when I can get to a place of “not thinking”, and that feeling of being compelled to do something, and you have no idea why. It might be hours, or days or weeks later when you discover “oh, that’s why I did that”. I’m working in the realm of strange beauty. I aim for an elegant shape, but there is always an can’t be too beautiful. I can’t handle too beautiful (that’s probably a whole other story).

Aside from college courses and lots of workshops, I’ve really learned from just being in the studio. There is a famous quote about “the learning is in the doing” and I think that is especially true with clay. Of course you have to learn the technical aspects and you have to learn the craft, but you also have to experience it. You have to work it, listen to it, and then you have to stop thinking. There is the “living on the edge” aspect of being a ceramic artist, because there is about 500 chances along the way in the formation of a piece for things to go wrong. It can crack in the drying process, it can blow up in the kiln. You can have a bad glaze effect. And even if all goes well, you can drop it and break it before you deliver it to the gallery. The first rule of clay is: detachment.

Sabina: If you could have lunch with anyone in the world who has ever lived at any time, who would it be and why?

Licia: If I could have lunch with anyone....maybe Frida Kahlo. First of all I could count on an incredible Mexican feast, but also to be in her rich surroundings and with her dynamic and emotional spirit. We could get drunk and tell stories till early in the morning...of course I’d be doing most of the listening.


In her open-air studio on Kaua’i, Mikioi Ceramics—“deft and dainty” in Hawaiian—Jennifer Hill creates small ceramic works that make a big impact with texture, color and shape. The tiny proportions of her humorously-titled Sobriety Sakes seem to invite careful sips of the Japanese rice wine.

Sobriety Sakes. Ceramic, 3x3.5x3.5.

Before moving to Kaua’i in 2008, Jennifer traveled, studied, and lived in many places throughout the US. Her parents were not artists, but were open to letting her explore art. After obtaining her BFA in Ceramics from Southern Methodist University (1997), she pursued a year of post-baccalaureate study at the University of Florida (1998) and an MFA in Ceramics at Utah State University (2001). Now on Kaua’i, she finds inspiration in the scenery around her, and the photography of her science teacher/actor husband, Aaron Martin. The colors used in the Spectrum series recall the rich, lively hues of the Kaua’i plants and flowers.

Spectrum. Ceramic, 2.5x3x3.

Jennifer is connected with several arts organizations, including Hawaii Craftsmen, Kauai Society of Artists, The Studio Potter, The Potters Council, and the National Council for the Education of the Ceramic Arts. Her art is shown on Kaua’i at the Island Art Gallery in Hanapepe; Halele'a Gallery in Poipu, and on Oahu at the Cedar Street Galleries in Honolulu


Sabina: Could you describe your earliest memories of your relationship with art and creativity? How was your creative world growing up in your home city, Dallas?

Jennifer: My serious relationship with art began as an adult, fortunately. It's fortunate because I can honestly say that when we got together we meant it. Growing up I did in fact want to become an artist but had not idea why or with what media. My parents are not artists but were always willing to let me try things out, so I had that freedom but lacked direction. Thanks to the magnet public school system in Dallas I could attend a high school with various career and pre-college courses available in place of typical electives. I was a pragmatic child and came to the conclusion that I could get a license in cosmetology (creative and practical) and at least have a good job to see me through college. This was figured out in eighth grade. If only I were as savvy now as then!

Sabina: You’ve traveled, studied, and lived in a variety of places throughout the US (Texas, Florida, Utah, Maine, Pennsylvania, Portland, Kaua’i -2008 – did I get these all right?:)) Which places resonated most strongly with you as an artist?

Jennifer: Everywhere I've lived has been great in its own way, although my home state made me unable to tolerate cold for too many years. Florida had a strong impact artistically for specific reasons. It was the first time living away from my home city, I was in school at UF as a post-bacc student in ceramics and was only staying one school year. A big change yet comfortably familiar. And my work changed a lot which was confusing but interesting. It still had a long way to go which is why I applied for grad school. Getting a taste for moving made me want to go somewhere completely different and I ended up at Utah State. Kauai is visual overload and I have to beat back the jungle of ideas -and the literal jungle that is my backyard- to get any work done, poor me.

Sabina: What did you enjoy the most about your art education, training, or mentors?

Jennifer: I loved being in school particularly because I had great teachers. Linda Arbuckle at UF is a cherished gem to most who have known her. She is an exceptional artist and I can't put into words how much I gained from my experience with her. I never even had a hands-on class with her the entire year I was there, yet I learned so much. My hands reached a more refined level of function via John Neely at Utah State. He too is an excellent teacher defined.

Sabina: On your website you mention being inspired by nature, by the “surrounding luscious flora and its tasty coloring.” Could you tell us more about that? Are there specific plants on Kaua’i that inspire you? Are there certain activities you enjoy more than others, which connect you with nature?

Living on the "Garden Isle" makes it nearly impossible to not be influenced by the landscape. I’m not great at identifying plants but enjoy letting things with interesting textures soak in subconsciously and come out when a piece I'm working on can use it. With the ocean so handy, I get to absorb sea life while snorkeling. My husband is a diver and photographs all the good stuff I miss so I have a library of photo references as well. Ironically, people have consistently commented on how I must be influenced by sea life, long before I was near an ocean. But just like when staring at the clouds you see what you see, and I'm all for it.

Sabina: In your studio on Kaua’i, Mikioi Ceramics – “deft and dainty” in Hawaiian – you create marvelous, small ceramic works that speak boldly with texture, color and shape. (I love the incredible mini spinners, debutantes, and sobriety sakes!) What motivates and inspires you the most now? Please describe your creative process and current projects.

Jennifer: As an artist I am media specific and clay is the one medium that truly works for me. I'm also a huge fan of utility and love artwork that can be used in your hands, which makes me a potter at heart. Some of the work I make however is barely user-friendly, such as the "Sobriety Sakes". They sound humorous but I'm really laughing at myself for wanting to be a potter but creating all these pots that are "perplexing for use" as I put it. But I do make fully functioning vessels as well and currently am working on a series of tea bowls, tumblers, and sake sets, all with textures inspired by the sea. I like the intimacy of drink ware and the fact that a series or set can make it socially interactive.

Sabina: What are some of the challenges and joys of being a woman artist on Kaua’i today?

Jennifer: I haven’t noticed any difference in being a female artist here so can only speak to the fact of living on Kauai versus the mainland. The most obvious challenge is the higher cost of every single thing, which is the trade off for living in this lush beauty. Making a living from art fluctuates with the flow of travelers and I do send work to exhibits off island as well. I suppose the look of my work fits well with the scenery so it has been well received. People have given me wonderful feedback at shows here. The daily joy is working in an open-air studio (aka my carport) which is also a challenge as every manner of creature likes to come into my space.

Sabina: Are there any tips you would offer for women artists who want to start their own gallery or art business?

Jennifer: I can only give the same advice I’ve often been given: Make work that you love and put it out there. I still depend a lot on galleries to do the selling part so I don’t feel entirely in business for myself –that end seems more collaborative right now.

Sabina: What are your hopes and dreams for your art, and for your community of artists?

Jennifer: For my art, I hope to keep investigating and discovering ideas, and to always look forward to being in studio. I find that when I’m enjoying what I make other people do too. I also hope to live off my work entirely someday. I wish success for my fellow artists in whatever form that takes for them.

Sabina: Do you have any favorite organizations or sources of artistic and economic support for artists in Hawai’i?

Jennifer: Hawaii Craftsmen is the most relevant organization for me. They are statewide and as you can guess by the name, are particularly concerned with art made with traditional craft media. I feel that I’ve been seen more on Oahu thanks to being a member.

Sabina: What is it like on a typical day in your studio?

Jennifer: It depends if it’s a making day or glazing day. If making, I might throw a handful of forms that may be dry by afternoon for trimming and texturing. Often the texturing carries over into the next day. There is always some maintenance to do, such as laying out soaked reclaim clay to reuse. And body maintenance too. I have to break midday to stretch and exercise. Intermingled may be a kiln firing or I’m taking time out to photograph work.

Sabina: If you could have any superhero power, what would it be and why?

Jennifer: These days, the power to regenerate and cure pain. Why not?

Sabina: If you could have lunch with anyone in the world who has ever lived at any time, who would it be and why?

Jennifer: Usually people want to meet someone they think they can learn something from. I’d pick myself 20 years ago instead -I could teach that girl a thing or two!

Like Natasha, Licia, and Jennifer, and many other artists in the area, I have been inspired by the energy and beauty of the Hawaiian Islands. I make colorsculptures out of shredded paint chips from the Benjamin Moore paint company, which generously gave me paper materials to use in my art (for the story please visit Since my first visit to the islands in 2000, I have been moved to create pieces that express some of the powerful dynamics of nature here, from lava that flows into the ocean to the embrace of the tropical water that soothes the body and soul.

Sabina Pieslak

Streams of Kilauea. Shredded paint chips on ragboard. 40x60.

Pacific Embrace. Shredded paint chips on ragboard. 32x40.

IWAS thanks Sabina for her time and talent in bringing us information about women's artistry on location in Hawaii and introducing to the world some women artists from that location.  This is the beginning of an IWAS article series that will introduce women's artistry and feature women artists from locations around the world.

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