Sixty statues grace public places across Oahu, silently looking down at us from their perches in locations that range from a humble neighborhood community center in Waianae to downtown streets and rural schools all the way to the lush gardens of luxury hotels in Waikiki.
Most of us drive or walk past the statues without giving them much thought, or worse, without even noticing them. The people depicted in some of the stone and bronze sculptures have been dead for so long they have slipped from memory, their images now blurred into the landscapes surrounding them.
That can happen because there is not enough room on the plaques of most statues to explain why people should continue to care about the once prominent personalities.
Longtime Honolulu city planner Cheryl Soon’s new book aims to change that by giving voice to each of Oahu’s 60 sculptures in a well-researched narrative she hopes will encourage readers to want to know more and even to make family visits to explore the statues and to have picnics by them.
“Reflections in Stone and Bronze: Exploring Hawaii’s History & Culture Through Sculpture” is published by Mutual Publishing, with photographs by Renea Gavrilov Stewart.
The only problem I have with the book is its vague title. I wish Soon had made clear in her title that she is writing about Oahu’s statues accessible to everyone instead of using the word “sculpture,” which rings of precious art hidden away in fancy museums accessible only to paying visitors.
But that’s OK, there is much more to praise in this book.
Soon explains how, why, when and by whom each statue was erected and the special achievements of the person depicted.
And rather than merely listing each sculpture with its accompanying information, she delves into larger, more difficult questions such as is it right to glorify people with statues who by being citizens of their time did things some find distressing today?
Soon asks: “Is it right to ignore the violence committed during Kamehameha I’s reign while praising that he united the islands? Do we praise Kalakaua for his renaissance of traditional Hawaiian ways while ignoring the drinking that led to his death? Do we honor the Royals but ignore the fact that they welcomed and invited in outside influences? Did they have another choice?”
She says a similar question could pertain to the 13th century French king St. Louis IX who has a U.S. city named after him and is depicted in sculptures internationally and locally in front of the Mamiya Theatre at St. Louis School in Kaimuki where he is shown astride a trotting horse.
Should he be honored for his love of justice while ignoring the fact he persecuted Jews and Muslims during his crusades and ordered the burning of their sacred books?
In a phone interview Friday, Soon said she was initially drawn into writing about Oahu’s statues after the violent protests in Charlottesville in 2017 and in Richmond, Virginia, where angry mobs rallied both for and against the removal of statues glorifying Confederate army leaders.
“As a planner, I wondered what would we do if something like this happened in Honolulu. Should statues deemed inappropriate in modern life be smashed, should they be put in museums?” she said.
It is a question with no easy answer that got her thinking more about the role statues play in public discourse and city design. And other larger questions such as who gets to pick subjects to be memorialized in a statue and to say how they will be depicted?
Soon has a master’s degree in planning from Harvard and a doctorate in planning from the University of Hawaii. She was director of planning and permitting for two years in the administration of Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris and Harris’ Director of Transportation Services for another six years.
During that time, she played a role in the placement of many of Oahu’s statues.
She says luckily no statues in Hawaii have been ripped down, although two are highly controversial, including memorials to Capt. James Cook at Kealakekua Bay on Hawaii island and on Kauai.
And on Oahu, by far the most controversial statue is the bronze sculpture of President William McKinley fronting McKinley High School on South King Street.
Petitions have circulated year after year calling for the removal of the McKinley statue and to change the name of the school; critics are angry about the former president’s central role in the annexation of Hawaii to the United States, which they believe was illegal.
State lawmakers failed last year to win approval for a resolution to change the name of the school and take down the McKinley statue.
Although the McKinley statue remains standing with the firm backing of the school’s principal, Soon says the issue is not going to disappear.
Soon began her research by driving around Oahu on weekends to search out statues with her husband, Ray Soon.
“We might stop off to visit three or four statues on a good day. It was like a scavenger hunt and a lot of fun,“ she said.
During the pandemic shutdowns, she started writing every day for five months to finish her first draft of the book as well as to interview sculptors and the sponsors of the statues. That was followed by fact checking, draft reviews and seeking permission to use photos — she estimates it took a full five years of work to assemble it all.
She divides the statues into four separate categories:
- royal statues
- religious and spiritual statues
- music, culture and entertainment statues such as a bust of Israel Kamakawiwoole in Waianae and the statue of Elvis Presley at the Blaisdell Center
- statues honoring national and international figures
Soon said she was often surprised by the creative details on each statue she studied. For example, the statue of Saint Francis at Saint Francis Medical Center in Liliha doesn’t show the animal-loving Italian saint with European type birds as he is usually depicted. Instead, he has a Hawaiian pueo on his shoulder, a mynah bird in his hand and a nene goose standing by his feet.
“The sculptor made it Hawaiian. I love the thinking that went behind that,” said Soon.
Another surprise revealed by Soon’s research is how state lawmakers in 1967 almost rejected French-born sculptor Marisol Escobar’s now world famous boxy sculpture of Father Damien of Molokai in favor of a more realistic sentimental work by New York sculptor Nathan Cabot Hale.
Critics of Marisol’s work were disturbed by her depiction of Damien’s face ravaged by advanced stages of leprosy. But supporters in the Legislature and the community called it a great work precisely because it disturbs viewers, forcing them to stop and consider how Damien prevailed in treating patients on Molokai despite the brutal conditions under which he worked.
Soon considers Marisol’s Damien statue among the most artistically valuable sculptures in Hawaii. It fronts the State Capitol and its duplicate stands in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C., where a replica of the statue of Kamehameha the Great also stands.
Interestingly, Marisol’s Damien statue came under fire again when detractors said it should not be placed in the national Statuary Hall because Damien was not a U.S. citizen and he was a priest. However, supporters pointed out that two other priests were memorialized in Statuary Hall as well as several non-Americans.
Soon — always the professional city planner —writes interestingly about the role statues can play in changing and enriching a landscape as they did in the city’s revitalization of Waikiki.
She was part of the Harris administration’s multiyear project starting in the mid 1990s to renovate Waikiki by making it more pedestrian friendly with wider, heavily landscaped sidewalks and the installation of new monuments and statues to remind visitors and residents alike of the area’s Hawaiian roots.
“The locals had come to resent the visitors. The Kapiolani Park and Kalakaua Avenue capital projects were focused on encouraging locals to rediscover Waikiki and provide them with something familiar they could be proud of,” Soon writes.
She said the first step to healing was to treat Kapaemahu, the four sacred stones monument next to Honolulu Police Department’s Waikiki Substation with more respect — adding a protective fence so swimmers couldn’t drape their towels over the stones. Another step was to rebury more than 200 ancient Hawaiian bones unearthed in Waikiki construction projects in a new monument approved by lineal descendants fronting Honolulu Zoo.
The hotel industry joined with the city to add new statues of Hawaiian entertainers such as Alfred Apaka, athletes like Duke Kahanamoku and Hawaiian royalty including Princess Kaiulani, Queen Kapiolani, Prince Kuhio and King David Kalakaua.
Soon says that sculptures in three dimensions can bring history to life by making the people depicted more accessible. It can cause a human connection that was not there before.
“Kalakaua’s statue at the junction of Kuhio and Kalakaua Avenues has made him something more real to tourists than a word that is difficult to pronounce or the name of a street where their hotel is located,” she says.
In ending the book, Soon says she was touched by the heavy sense of responsibility felt by the small number of people responsible for the erection of statues on Oahu.
She writes the statues’ sponsors she interviewed all approached their task with humility and respect.
“A common theme has been established: Aloha. Humans are flawed yet stories are still told in the spirit of generosity, of finding goodness in the subject, of sharing stories that find individuals in service to or trying to benefit others. The opportunity of a statue can animate an individual and tell their story,” she writes.
Soon is currently working on a book on the memorials and statues on the neighbor islands.