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Maui artists to be exhibited in Leonardo da Vinci show

By Staff | Feb 18, 2010

Leonardo da Vinci’s “Requiem” as realized by Roger Van Boxtel and Robin Ritchie. Photo by Paul Janes-Brown.

LAHAINA — Lahaina and Green Bay artist Roger Van Boxtel and former Lahaina Visitor Center Director Robin Ritchie have been commissioned to submit a piece of Van Boxtel’s scrimshaw into a blockbuster exhibit of the Italian master Leonardo da Vinci.

The “Da Vinci Experience” is an exhibit that features, among other things, 60 working models of the machines the great artist invented. It opened in January at the 44,000-square-foot El Paso Museum in Texas and will be there until July.

In an “only on Maui” story, Ritchie was volunteering at the center in November when a distinguished man came in. He saw Van Boxtel’s piano key artwork — “he looked very closely at it,” said Ritchie. The man, who was on a cruise through the Hawaiian Islands, purchased a piece.

In December, Ritchie received an e-mail from the man. He identified himself as Godfrey Harris, the co-manager and curator of the “Da Vinci Experience.” He thought that Van Boxtel and Ritchie were the perfect artists to realize a recent discovery related to Leonardo that he wanted to include in the exhibit.

An Italian musician, Giovanni Maria Pala, wrote a book called “La Musica Celata” (The Hidden Music). Besides all of the other talents this man from Vinci in Italy possessed, it turns out Leonardo was also a musician and composer.

Leonardo da Vinci’s “Requiem” as realized by Roger Van Boxtel and Robin Ritchie. Photo by Paul Janes-Brown.

Pala heard there might be a real “Da Vinci Code” hidden in the “Last Supper,” and he began to study the painting in 2003.

Eureka! Pala claims to have discovered a Requiem (albeit very short) in the painting. In his book, Pala describes how he found what he says are other clues in the painting that reveal the slow rhythm of the composition and the duration of each note.

In a press release from Rome, Pala “stressed that his discovery does not reveal any supposed dark secrets of the Catholic Church or of Leonardo, but instead shows the artist in a light far removed from the conspiratorial descriptions found in fiction.”

“A new figure emerges — he wasn’t a heretic like some believe,” Pala said. “What emerges is a man who believes — a man who really believes in God.”

Harris sent Pala’s discovery to Van Boxtel and Ritchie and asked them to create a piece. Van Boxtel, a former painter, has a totally unique approach to scrimshaw. For his ivory, he uses recycled piano keys. To date, he has used more than 14,000 piano keys in his works.

“Piano-makers stopped using ivory for their keys in 1925, when plastic was invented,” said Ritchie. “So it is getting increasingly difficult to find genuine ivory keys. Even when you get a call from someone to see an old piano, sometimes they’re plastic, because the keys were replaced.”

For the Leonardo work, Van Boxtel and Harris reproduced the artist’s “composition” on 14 keys in two rows. The work is in three-quarter time and is 12 measures, presumably for each of the apostles. The keys look distressed with chipped tips and faded ivories that give it an authentic, antique feel. Also, unlike many of the works by the artists, all of the keys are the same width. 

Harris asked them to create a smaller version that could be sold in the gift shop. They did, and it sold the first day it was exhibited.

Van Boxtel, who invented piano key art, specializes in Hawaiiana.

The former salesman said, “I owe everything to Robin.” When he came to Maui on a visit in 1996, he found no interest in his work until he showed it to Ritchie. She saw how it could be displayed most advantageously, and thus began an artistic collaboration that has Ritchie selling ten times the amount of work that his two Mainland galleries — one in Wisconsin and the other in Michigan — sell.

Ritchie said scrimshaw, which was a popular folk art among whalers, ended when whaling stopped and fell out of favor. President John F. Kennedy was an avid collector of scrimshaw, and he is credited with its revival in the 1960s. 

The partners recently completed his largest piece to date. It’s a scene of Lahaina from the film “The Devil at Four O’Clock” starring Frank Sinatra and Spencer Tracy. It was commissioned by former Oregon Congressman Denny Smith and consists of 45 keys.

Ritchie said that they take commissions, and three weeks after an order, “The work will be at the client’s door, guaranteed.”

Van Boxtel’s work can be viewed at www.binkyshawaii.com/piano_key_art.htm. To reach Ritchie, e-mail RobininLahaina@msn.com.