Tacoma artist imagines his future from the sands of Kauai

The Tacoma Weekly knows no bounds to its coverage of local artists.

This week it ambushed University of Washington Tacoma art student Bryan Kelley on the beach at Pono Kai in Kapaa, on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

Kelley, 29, had gone down to the sand with art on his mind and a few coconut palm fronds in his hands. He’s fascinated by all the shapes nature takes, and what he can make of them.

“I like to use rocks, sand, anything at my disposal,” he said.

On that beach, he had the holes dug by sand crabs, bits of plastic thrown up by the sea and the many, many parts of the coconut palm.

“I came down to the beach and had no idea what I was going to do,” he said. “I found those seeds.”

They were the tiny proto-coconuts that hang in fluffy bunches below the palm tops. Like freshly-hatched ahi, most succumb to their environment over time, dropping away as the sturdiest among them grow larger and add layers. For the survivors, it’s a transformation rounded by salt spray and trade winds.

Kelley gathered and thought, and felt the round heat of the sun setting over volcanic mountains behind him.

Children, island keiki, who had been investigating reports of a reef shark up the way, stopped to see what was going on. The shark, lured by the blood of fish speared by local boys for dinner, had been on the beach side of the coral wall, but had made its way out. The keiki got an artist instead, and offered to collect sticks and leaves and bits of coral and shell for Kelley.

The objects began to make sense together in his mind, and in the outline he scraped in the sand above the high tide line.

“I was playing with the values, playing with ideas,” he said. “It’s therapy.”

He’d been in a serious accident a few years ago, wearing a seatbelt. He’d come out of it with a fresh sense of how, in one instant, every expected thing can blow away. He went back to college and reveled in the discipline of developed ideas. He’s made paintings and glass and sculptures and, on vacation with his family, art in the sand.

On Kauai, they have raced in a catamaran with spinner dolphins. They have peered 150 feet into the waters surrounding the island of Ni’ihau across from Kauai’s Na’Pali coast, and saw schools of fish – and one shark. They drifted into the spirit of Aloha, and felt at home.

“I’ll graduate in a year in interdisciplinary arts and sciences,” he said.

He sees his future in the arts. In Tacoma, there are murals to be painted, graffiti art to be explored. There are dead sites to be made fascinating, just as the iconic Graffiti Garage has been.

He sees Kauai in his future as well. The island has enchanted his family, including his parents. Kelley has a sense that the island is where his feet should be touching the Earth. That is the idea he gathered by the ocean, accepted from the keiki and formed in the sand.

“The universe is screaming that this is right,” Kelley said.

He is listening.

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