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Artist of the Vanishing World

Saxony Charlot recalls hunting for lizards as a kid outside her renowned great-grandfather's home in Kahala.

woman in tan hoodie and cap smiles holding a small bird.

Saxony Charlot recalls hunting for lizards as a kid outside her renowned great-grandfather's home in Kahala. Had she been tall enough then, she might have seen the bird of paradise and banana tree her great grandfather had painted on a wall high above a glass door, a work of art that revealed him to be a kindred spirit, inspired by the same love for nature. 

The 25-year-old University of Hawaii at Hilo student is the youngest in a family of artists who've taken to walls, canvases, books and film to extol the vibrancy of life in Hawai'i. Her great grandfather Jean Charlot found fame among the 1920s muralists who emerged from the Mexican Revolution. Alongside heavyweights like Diego Rivera, Charlot painted larger-than-life revolutionary scenes influenced both by Catholicism and indigenous Mexican iconography. After he moved to Hawaii in 1949, his work veered toward depictions of nature and daily life.

Artwork of small green and yellow bird surrounded by Hawaiian plants. artwork of black bird with a stripe of yellow feathers and a black and white tail.  
Charlot the Youngest: Descended from a line of renowned Hawaii artists, Saxony Charlot (seen above in the Puu Makaala Natural Area Reserve on Hawaii Island with an amakihi, a native honeycreeper) is following in her ancestors' footsteps with pieces celebrating the Islands' endemic flora and fauna. Above left, an ou on ieie; right, an extinct Oahu oo perched on ohia mamo.



Though Jean Charlot passed away decades before she was born, as a child Saxony was surrounded by his art and by stories about him and her grandfather Martin, who carried the muralist torch. Saxony creates smaller but similarly purpose-driven works. Whereas her forebears exalted daily life and Hawaiian culture, both ancient and contemporary, Saxony's art celebrates Hawaii's natural history, particularly the native species she draws in immaculate detail. Though initially an outsider, Jean appreciated Hawaiian culture, and Saxony says it shows in pieces like "Night Hula," her favorite of his murals. "I think both Jean and I try to show the beauty of things that need to be preserved," she says."Just with different approaches."

 Saxony's zeal for protecting native flora and fauna grew while she was working with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources on Holaniku (Kure Atoll), one of the most remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Seeing a multitude of rare native species thriving on Holaniku, Saxony felt compelled to make others aware of the biodiversity Hawaii once had, and the need to protect what still exists. "I wake up thinking about conservation, and I go to sleep thinking about it," she says. Saxony attributes the intensity of her interest-something shared by great, enduring artists-at least in part to her autism. "It makes you wonder," she laughs. "They say it runs in the family." 

People often ask whether Saxony plans to paint a mural of her own one day. Though she likes the concept of "art for the people," she has yet to develop any such ambitions. "Maybe one day," she says.

Instagram: @autochthonous_hawaii

Story By Viola Gaskell

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V26 №4 June - July 2023