“The Molokai Process” artist writing

After talking story with Uncle Mac Poepoe, artist James Jack touches the earth to make a drawing near the entrance to Molokai’s Mo‘omomi Preserve in 2017. Photo by Nadine Powell.


Molokai Window was born in 2007 while I was living on O‘ahu. During that time I visited Molokai and was impressed by the community’s strength in preserving the island’s heritage. Spiritual sites were honored, protected and alive. Despite reports in the media on O‘ahu which said otherwise, I saw their perspective was full of positivity and hope. Over time I realized there was a bright shining lesson at the core of the Molokai community which is very important for other communities to learn from. That is: how to protect, value and stay in communication with spirits, nature and one’s own history in the complicated present we now live in. This requires love, conscious effort against adversity, and aloha. This seed resonated with me for many years while I was making other creative works, many of which reconnect people with the earth.

More recently I had the opportunity to return to Molokai to listen to the spirits. I was overwhelmed by a feeling to touch the earth. I felt stories pouring out of the soft grains of dirt. I touched my finger on to a small sketchbook over and over, listening deeper for the stories that Molokai wanted to tell. There were some sites that said no, and I listened to that as well, out of respect for the dirt.  Soon after I showed this sketchbook to Healoha Johnston, interim director of curatorial affairs and curator of the arts of Hawai‘i at the Honolulu Museum of Art, and she, too, felt that we had something to learn from the lifeways of Molokai. How could we convey this message to others? This was the beginning of Molokai Window as an art project. At that moment one of the guiding principles we cherished was: This art work will only exist if the community wants to open the window together with us.

Stories have been central to this artwork and I would like to share one story I was recently told on Molokai while holding a workshop with high school students. It is a story about the sea/land border in Kamalō, which brings to life the area from which materials are being borrowed for Molokai Window. It is just one sampling from many other colorful stories that are a part of the island’s vibrant history.

A mind map a Molokai High School student made during an artist workshop organized by teacher Ric Ornellas in 2018.


Hunter DeMello told this story while he drew a mind map of a place where he often plays behind his “gram’s” house. Speaking out loud was an integral part of making this illustrative drawing for the rest of us observing. It starts with an island, which he draws quickly in the shape of a peninsula a short walk behind grandma’s house. He continues with the stones circling around Keawanui fish pond, a revived space where he often plays with family. I recall the mist in the early morning when I walked down to the fishpond last year with Uncle Walter. His love for the pond shines from his eyes and fills the sketchpad with light. The space is an active living environment where he recently saw a stingray playing in the ocean. The mangroves, plants and fish are an active part of the space. The student recalls each of these spaces in relation to a foot pathway across dirt while walking through the forest to and from the ocean. His story was being carefully constructed for all of us who were listening. His story brings the place to life, and is an important shade in the opening of the Molokai Window.

Molokai High School teachers at the Talk Story on Dirt Artist Workshop in Sust-‘āina-ble Molokaiʻs permaculture garden. Photo by Mihoko Jack


Lessons learned
Over the course of this project, I have visited the island numerous times, often with Healoha, and found a gentle embrace from the community. During a one-month residency last year I listened to the elders, youth and other residents in a patient and respectful manner. While working with them I learned important lessons that I would like to share with others:

  1. People on Molokai are proud of their dirt and really care about it. We share this passion in common; I love dirt. Rather than talking about art in an aloof way, I spoke directly with people about ‘āina and came to better understand people’s deep connection with it. This depth has guided the diaries of dirt sketches I drew one by one with traces of dirt. It also informed the oral interviews I held with community members and residents to grasp ancient knowledge. Their resilient spirits have protected the dirt to make it possible to be self-sufficient throughout invasions, developers and outside forces. And the dirt remembers.
  1. The “Molokai process” is part of all dialogue that occurs. This process requires mutual respect, adjusting to the speed and pace of the island. These dialogues enrich and empower both sides so that mutual benefit is found together. Open dialogues have blossomed from one to the other because of caring relationships between ‘ohana members. To feel the depth of these relationships, I held workshops with high school teachers, the Molokai Arts Center community, high school students as well as other intimate groups on the island. These workshops are not secondary or additional parts of the exhibition—they are primary sources for determining the content, shape and color of the art works that will be on display.
  1. The power of stories. Memories are told through these mo’olelo, sharing the past with others. Both telling and listening keep them alive. The organic spiraling manner of telling has tremendous meaning in our worldview. Life is full of circles and gets more and more colorful the more we learn how to enjoy this process. While drawing on paper with dirt, Healoha and I have noticed people start with a spiral on Molokai. This piko is the beginning of all life which grows from the center. This spiral opens the interconnectivity weaving humans, animals, plants and all other things together.
  1. Seeing with spiritual eyes. This and many of these lessons have been taught to me by Malia Akutagawa, the spiritual guide for this artwork. Her kindness in sharing stories has made the opening of this window possible one shade at a time. One by one the louvers of this window have been opened while learning how to see through spiritual eyes. These eyes can be developed through artistic work, but they can be used far beyond the museum to see the world with an insightful view. With spiritual eyes the land is healing from suffering, inequity and difficulty. The ocean comes back to its richness in harmony with people. A future of self-determination where the land comes back to life is possible.

These are just a few lessons that have informed this artwork. There are so many more. Mahalo nui loa to Malia Akutagawa Esq., Uncle Walter Ritte, the Molokai Arts Center, Ric Ornellas, Matt Yamashita, Uncle Bobby Alcain, Sust‘āina-ble Molokai and all those who make the opening of this window possible. Together we can change the world one grain of dirt at a time.


*Opening April 26 at Honolulu Museum of Art is the exhibition Molokai Window, a series of two works on paper, a video by Matt Yamashita, a piko of resilience, quotes from key community members and a large window bearing dirt borrowed from Molokai. This post originally appeared on the museum blog site here: http://blog.honoluluacademy.org/places-found-by-memory-artist-james-jack-on-molokai-window/

James Jack at Orford, Québec July 5 – Aug 11

Solo Exhibition
5:30 p.m. July 5


The poetry of James Jack

I met James in 1997. At the time, little did I know that a story of artist and gallerist was in the making. Our paths have run in different directions, but we have maintained a rich connection in life. Fast forward twenty years and here I am now, trying to put together a portrait.

Through my research, I have found parts of the story of James Jack. The following is not complete, but it is an impression of the artist as it floats in my mind’s eye. I hope it will serve as a relevant introduction of James to the Orford Music audience.

What drew me in initially is his great sense of balance in his first solo exhibition in New York City, titled Ink and Essence. In this show, his exploration of space through the subtle use of simple forms created timeless contemporary pieces. James Jack transcends the conventions of Eastern tradition and Western modernity. Using the medium of monochromatic ink painting, his work is aesthetically defined by subtlety and restraint – poetry with a brush.

Jack is steeped in the Japanese language, Eastern philosophy and meditation. He spent years learning shodo, the art of Japanese calligraphy, and copied the etymology of all the Chinese characters used in modern Japanese language. This formed the basis for his brushwork, following the Eastern painting tradition of the well-rounded artist as also accomplished calligrapher.

“The brush is my vehicle for the ink’s linguistic expression”, he states. Like a musician’s relationship with his instrument in the simplest most intimate form, Jack creates an experience, nothing more, nothing less; a reduction to ink and essence, the very essence of life. Try as we might, this beauty cannot be explained; it can only be experienced.

However his work is not limited to ink paintings. In 2005, the Portland Art Center presented his first site-specific solo exhibition titled Natura Naturans, an ephemeral installation of natural pigments spread on the floor of the gallery. Borrowing natural stone pigments from a cliff where he had just completed an artist residency on the Pacific coast, Jack drew a circle based purely on elements from nature, precisely arranging them with nothing more than a mortar, pestle and a tea strainer. The artist now continues to explore humans’ relationship with the environment and its universal awe.

Jack is such a traveler who searches with all of his being and intuition to bring together a vocabulary that brings together the real with the spiritual. Gathering materials from specific sites, Jack explores social memories of place through intimate contact with the people who live there in the simplest way. His method, using ink he creates from the husk of butternuts and walnuts (he gathers the nut, separates the husks, grinds, boils and filters them) is a meditative, labor intensive process. Representation is not the goal. The painting is more than the subject. The ink, color and brushwork become the image, not the mountain or ocean or whatever he is painting. Poetry that is connected to the landscape and people.

Since 2005, Jack has been collecting soil from various places as part of his interest in exploring the materiality of landscapes, the symbolic meanings of earth elements and the potential of organic materials as painting material. This process culminated in his Philosophies of Dirt series featuring natural pigments from 46 sites which the artist has touched the earth. This work has continued in ephemeral installations and works on paper. Most recently in 2017, with Natura Naturata: Light of Singapore, he continued this exploration for a site-specific commissioned work composed of more than twenty soil samples from locations in Western Singapore.

In the Transpacific Crossing series Jack began in 2015, he explores the pathway of one container ship as it crosses the Pacific Ocean between Japan and North America. These paintings show the view of the Pacific through the bathymetric data as well as the memory of water when applied to the paper recalled by the ink. Again using handmade ink, he re-imagines the journey via these underwater seascapes, diving deep into the memories of the water, paying special attention to the white space around and inside of the work. Each painting represents a day on the ship through which we can imagine the slow journey between East and West via the Ocean.

Art offers possibilities that feed the soul. It is in the resulting union between nature and art that we are given a new perspective, stories of resilience and repurpose that give us clues on how to live the social and environmental challenges of today. As an artist in residence at Orford Musique’s Japan Festival this summer I have high expectations for the potential for what can be found in their shared creative passion.




For more information: www.orford.mu/arts-visuels-2/



“Triangulation” Exhibition, Workshop & Book


Tokyo — Goto — Ho Chi Minh City


Exhibition, Conference and Workshop

March 2018

Exhibition Room, University Hall 2F
Faculty of Music, Ueno Campus, Tokyo University of the Arts

Tokyo University of the Arts: Yoshitaka Mōri, Tomo Yamazaki, Sawako Ishii, Jeremy Woolsey, Tanja Sillman, Kazuya Yukimura, Yuka Ikawa and Chiho Oka
Ho Chi Minh City University of Fine Arts: Huynh Thanh Trang, Truong Boi Ngoc and Nguyen Hoang Yen

Guest Artist
James Jack(Yale-NUS College)

The title for this project ‘Triangulation” is derived from a cartographic technique. The determination of the location of one point is enabled by forming a triangle to it from two other known points. This technique is often used to identify the position of a boat for navigation. We apply this concept to think beyond the fixed relations between two places such as Tokyo and Ho Chi Minh or Japan and Vietnam, but also the ongoing processes of making relationship between any two cities or any two nations.

The point for our triangulation is Goto Island in Nagasaki Prefecture. These multiple points leads to the exploration of long-term, complicated and flexible relationships that cannot be reduced to direct one to one between two nations, two cities and even two universities. This includes consideration not only with human relationships, but also with networks of animals like the hachikuma bird and fishes and plants: it also asks us to rethink about environmental issues in the history. We discuss different layers of exchanges through our research and artworks on the theme of triangulation.

Organized by:
Graduate School of Global Arts, Tokyo University of the Arts

More imformation


Global Arts Research 2017-2018


東京芸術大学 上野キャンパス 音楽学部 大学会館2階 展示室

ホーチミン市美術大学:ウィン・タン・チャンHuynh Thanh Trang、チュン・ボイ・ノックTruong Boi Ngoc、グエン・ホアン・イェンNguyen Hoang Yen

ゲスト・アーティスト:ジェームズ・ジャック James Jack(Yale-NUS College)


More imformation

Artistic Engagement with Maritime Pathways

Friday, March 2, 2018
3:00 – 4:30 pm

Tokioka Room (Moore Hall 319)

Room change: Center for Korean Studies’ auditorium