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Painting the town red, blue, green (and yellow if it fits)

By Staff | Jul 28, 2011

You’ll often find Jim Kingwell painting Lahaina scenes outdoors.

LAHAINA — For years, Friday night has been Art Night. For all those years, prolific artist and good soul Jim Kingwell has set up his easel alongside Lahaina sidewalks to lure in crowds.

By his estimate, he has easily painted 3,000 original works of art, many featuring Lahaina Town landmarks.

Through this Oakland, California-born oil painter and watercolorist, hundreds of visitors have brought a piece of Maui back home — scenes like crowds in front of Cheeseburger in Paradise or ocean view landscapes.

Celebrities like TV sports legend John Madden, Dustin Hoffman, Donald Trump, Olympian Dorothy Hamill, Arnold Schwarzenegger and art aficionados around the world display his work, often created plein air (painted outdoors) in Hawaii, Finland, Switzerland, Chile… even Easter Island.

Kingwell, son of an airline mechanic and grandson of a Finnish masseuse — both his grandparents and father came from Finland — was inspired to paint by a third grade teacher.

From California, “we started flying to Hawaii on those four-engine prop planes in 1955 when I was five years old,” as he tells it.

“We could come on a dime because of the employee discount, and we did that once every other year until I was 14.

“I always had an inclination to draw. I remember drawing on little paper bags in Yosemite,” he recalled.

After one Hawaii trip, his teacher asked him to draw on the class chalkboard.

“I drew a palm tree, a hula girl and Diamond Head. It stayed up there for a week. That was a real plus for a kid,” he said. This was that moment Kingwell realized he wanted to be an artist.

The would-be artist kept drawing all through grammar school and high school. During high school, “I won a summer scholarship at the San Francisco Art Academy. My folks were ecstatic,” he recalled. Later, the college-level program extended a full scholarship.

He trained with practicing professional artists — “It was a great school.

Among his teachers was a famous courtroom sketch artist who had drawn the notorious killer Charles Manson in jail.

After six years in the Air Force and reserves, he turned to painting to make a living, traveling the world. After a failed marriage, he returned in 1989 to Hawaii, “a very healing place” he said.

“I had forgotten how great the weather was, being able to paint outdoors every day.

Working on Oahu, he became friends with Rick Ralston, founder of Crazy Shirts, who suggested Maui was a better place for an artist. Another mentor

in the early years in Lahaina was David Paul Johnson, now owner of David Paul’s Island Grill.

Kingwell never intended to remarry, but then along came Christine, a vacationer from Seattle, who became the love of his life. Christine got her man. The phone calls between Maui and Seattle just got too expensive, he noted.

After two years under the Banyan Tree, Jim’s work went into Lahaina Galleries, Dolphin Galleries and Sergeant’s Fine Art. For 16 years, he operated his own small galleries at Lahaina Marketplace before moving to shared space on Front Street near the Baldwin home ten months ago.

“I knew diddly about running a gallery,” he confessed. Christine became active in the business and got him organized. She also gave him twins, now 12 years old.

“I always try to get one or two days off a weekend, because I don’t want to short change the family. They are growing up fast,” said the doting father.

Kingwell’s success is rooted in his ability to create representational art, a romanticized realism that he embellishes with a touch of whimsy.

“I like to capture the initial attraction of a scene that has light or colors I like. A lot of people say my work makes them feel happy. That’s good. There’s enough negative” in the world, he said.

About half of his work is landscapes; the other half what he calls “building art.” He has painted hundreds of structures, filling them with colorful characters. The artist has filled hundreds of sketchbooks with drawings of people, many made at airports, which he uses to populate his paintings.

Will the prolific artist ever run out of subjects in Lahaina? “No way,” he is quick to point out. “There is always something different. Lahaina is changing, too. I almost think I am a historian at time. I paint something that you think is going to be there forever, and it disappears.

Does he have a love affair with Lahaina? I guess so, he smiles. “It’s a pretty nice spot.

Columnist’s Notebook: Kingwell’s oil painting of Lahaina Public Library, “Gathering of Readers,” is for sale at his gallery. He also has giclees available. Proceeds go to the Rotary Club of Lahaina’s library renovation fund.