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The glamour of Hawaii is very much embodied in the Island of Maui. However, Maui remains a complex and often a very poor community despite the large transient population of tourists. Despite the grandiose Hotels built all over the island, the celebrities with luxury houses, there are hidden communities on Maui. Many people will work two jobs to try to make ends meet. Hawaiians and other minorities are often economically oppressed with little hope of economic mobility. Sadly drug and alcohol use are prevalent in the community.
Not so many years ago Maui was very rural, with a low population. There was only one policeman for the whole island. Now there is a prison as well as a whole police force.
One of the many people who made their way to Maui during the time of quiet, rural, pre-growth was Ed.
The people who are attracted to Maui are not always tourists with shiny eyes and visions of leis and pristine beaches, seeking paradise on earth. Also attracted to the islands are those people who are searching for a kind of freedom in warmth. People who feel out of place in mainstream commercial America. Ed was one of those people.
From afar Ed was not the kind of person who shone with brilliance. He looked a perfectly ordinary homeless man. He was middle aged, tanned, had a short beard and short grey hair. He usually wore worn looking shorts cut just above the knee. He wore a worn Hawaiian shirt and sometimes a dusty straw hat. He usually carried a plastic bag of belongings with him. He blended in, was shy and had I not been with my Aunty, I would have passed him by and he would have passed me by. My Aunty had known Ed for years.We bumped into him when we were together at the library in Kahului. The year was 1998.
My Aunty is the kind of person that attracts people. She is easy to talk to, always has something interesting to say and she is incurably curious. You could argue her life work has been collecting characters. She would have to tell the story of how they met, but she would often bump into Ed as she was out and about on the Island. As we talked outside the library, Ed’s marvellous story emerged to me.
He was actually an artist and frame maker from New York. He had spent many years in the big apple making handmade wooden frames for art dealers. He was also a skilled painter. After years living the fast paced life of New York – the rat race, chasing money and dreams, he decided he could not live this way any longer.
He wanted a life in the warmth, away from the rat race. He detested the capitalist lifestyle, how commercial art stifled creativity and centred on greed. He wanted to make his art in a natural environment. These feelings led him to the Island of Maui.
When I met him he had been living on the beach for many years. He was not the only one – there are many people who live on the beaches on Maui, a hidden community and each person with their own unique story to tell.
Ed was technically homeless, but really he was living a choice. He would walk the beaches and from the driftwood he collected he would make the frames for his paintings. His paintings were beautiful oils showing the lush foliage of the tropical forests of Maui. The frame and painting united as one piece, the paint escaping from the canvas onto the frame. On the back he would often write thoughts, messages. A kind of diary to the world, to be read by unknown people once the painting was released to lead its “life.” He would sometimes sell his paintings using the money to buy materials. Sometimes people he knew would gift him materials and a friend provided a place to paint where his work could not be found or destroyed by people who might come across his temporary home on the beach.
When he understood I was a young artist and was from England, he decided he wanted to gift me a painting. He wanted to make a trip to the cold places of the world, starting with England and he decided he liked the idea of one of his paintings making the trip ahead of him. We only met one more time, for me to receive the gift. He gave me the painting all wrapped up in brown paper and string, along with a huge shell he had found on the beach and a fist sized knot of rope from a boat he had also found washed up on the shore. He didn’t want me to open the package until he had left.
We chatted a while and then he was gone. I never saw him again.
Once I got home I unwrapped the painting and the enormity of what he had gifted me hit home. The painting must be the most valuable thing I own. Not necessarily for its commercial value, but for the beauty of the painting. How he captures the lush foliage of Maui’s forests. Value produced from the act of the gift itself and how selfless he was in giving it to me. For sure he would have had need of the money he could have got for selling the work. He gave only what he had, but what did he have?
A homeless man gave me, a complete stranger, a gift worth more than gold.
What a beautiful example of the heights humans can reach when we let go of greed, of capitalism and make selfless choices.
Ed’s beautiful painting sits in my mother’s house in the UK. His painting sits on the wall acting like a window into Maui. The viewer can almost imagine Maui is really there, you only have to reach into the painting to touch it.