WHEN THE FRENCH American muralist Jean Charlot arrived in postwar Hawaii in 1949 on a commission to paint a fresco in the foyer of a newly built administration building at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu, he had no intention of making the islands his home. The 51-year-old artist’s goal was to complete a lush 10-by-29-foot depiction of ancient Hawaiian life, replete with poi pounding, spearfishing and seated hula dancing, set during the inauspicious moment right before Captain Cook’s approaching Resolution was sighted offshore by the natives.
Once he finished the piece, “Relation of Man and Nature in Old Hawai‘i” (1949), Charlot decided to stick around. After two decades of moving through New York, Georgia, California and Mexico for artists’ residencies, teaching posts and Guggenheim Fellowship research, followed by a stint as the head of the art school at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, he accepted a faculty position with the art department at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Charlot had studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and later spent a period in Mexico, where he recreated Mayan murals as a hired draftsman on archaeological excavations at Chichén Itzá and played a part in the post-revolution Mexican mural movement as a contemporary of Diego Rivera’s. But it was in Polynesia, as he became acquainted with the centuries-old customs of native Hawaiians and the people who still practiced them, that he developed a particular focus on nature. Before that, Charlot’s art had reflected his interpretations of Catholicism and Mexican Indigenous traditions, in which the material world is separate from the spiritual one. In Hawaii, however, the domain of the native people’s akua (gods) was felt in the elements: in a swelling wind, which dancers would personify through their limbs in a sacred hula, or in the life force emanating from a rock, which calmed the mind of a kahuna (priest) toward a meditative state.
This “whole new enterprise of seeing the world,” says the artist’s 81-year-old son, John Charlot, a professor emeritus of religion at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, is what kept his father on the islands for the remaining 30 years of his life. More than four decades after his death in 1979, Charlot is still regarded as both a generational talent and an outsider turned exemplary steward of the deep Hawaiian ideology that connects land, people and spirituality in contemporary art. “With Christianity in Mexico, you reach God and truth through pain,” John says, whereas in the Hawaiian worldview, “it’s through pleasure.”
THE INNATE PLEASURE of the Charlot House, the artist’s first home on Oahu, derives from this same covenant with its natural surroundings. Having spent years cooped up in the Manoa campus’s faculty housing with his wife, Zohmah, and their four children, Charlot wanted to build his family a proper home, one that was reflective of both his artistic sensibilities and his appreciation for the islands. Sited on a 10,310-square-foot lot near Kahala Beach, the two-story, 2,856-square-foot dwelling is constructed primarily from redwood and concrete bricks, with two walls covered in dried hāpu‘u, an endemic fern said to soothe muscles in Hawaiian plant-based medicine. A cantilevered wood table extends from the dining room through a wall of sliding glass windows onto one of three lanais, creating 558 square feet of patio space that brings the outdoors inside. So, too, does the 12-foot-square fresco of heavy, yawning leaves of banana, papaya, bird of paradise and red and green ti that Charlot painted with his friend the Oahu-born muralist Juliette May Fraser on one of the living room’s double-height walls while the house was still under construction.
Finished in 1958, the three-bedroom, split-level ranch house in the expensive Kahala neighborhood (today, incongruously, it’s surrounded by megamansions) was a collaboration between Charlot and a local architect, George “Pete” Wimberly. The two men, already friends when they began the project, occasionally disagreed over some of Charlot’s impossible architectural ideas, like his desire to forgo a necessary support column in order to offer unobstructed views of his fresco from the lofted primary bedroom.
And yet Wimberly managed. An accomplished tropical Modernist, part of an elite circle of practitioners that included Vladimir Ossipoff and Alfred Preis, he shared Charlot’s appreciation for midcentury design principles that embraced the outdoors: They relied upon organic building materials throughout, for instance, and oriented the structure so that it could be cooled with cross breezes instead of air-conditioning. (Today, in part because of shifts in the islands’ cooling trade winds, the interior is hotter than it once was.) Compared with Wimberly’s beachside resorts, which appealed to the tourism industry, and some of the other Honolulu homes he designed, the Charlot House is modest. “It’s the least radical of his residences,” says Graham Hart, an architecture lecturer and co-founder of Honolulu’s Kokomo Studio, “and that’s not an insult.”
One thing the Charlot House shares with Wimberly’s other buildings is a dramatic reveal. A long driveway leads to a stately front door — a slab of plain wood framed by a white plaster wall inlaid with one of Charlot’s own tile murals — that opens into a deceptively cavernous house. On the first floor, a low ceiling, just seven feet high, demarcates a passageway between the living and dining rooms that divides the house into mauka and makai spaces, or rooms that deliberately face the mountains or the sea, respectively, adding a localized sense of order and dynamism. “You always felt like you were heading to a destination,” says John, recalling his childhood. “There was movement and cosmic space at play.”
A social couple, Charlot and his wife often entertained other artists who were either visiting or living on the island. They filled their walls with art by their friends — Max Ernst, Carlos Mérida, Madge Tennent, José Clemente Orozco and Tseng Yuho, among others — in addition to Charlot’s own. His work was visible in an upstairs studio, as well, where he pinned sketches to its wraparound cork wall of the two dozen Hawaiian murals he would go on to complete for local institutions such as the Waikiki branch of First Hawaiian Bank and the United Public Workers union headquarters in Honolulu. In recent years, the studio was used by an architecture graduate student who was also the home’s live-in caretaker — in 2001, the Charlot House was gifted by the family to the university, which worked with local preservationists to ensure it can’t ever be demolished or significantly altered. In June, the house was returned to the artist’s family, who remain committed to safeguarding its cultural status.
WHILE THE CHARLOTS still lived here, they regularly hosted luaus with their friends and extended family members on the ample lawn; for his work depicting their rituals and customs, Charlot was esteemed by many in the native community. In 1975, an honorific mele (song), “Keoni Kalo” — with music by Irmgard Farden Aluli, a respected composer, and lyrics by Frank Kimona “Palani” Kahala, a hula teacher and AIDS activist — was created for Charlot, a traditional gesture that no other foreign-born artist has likely received in recent history. “Kū kilakila i ka la‘i a puni i nā pua,” it goes; according to one translation, “You stand gloriously in the calm surrounded by many people.”
For as multicultural as the Charlot House is, from the Mexican-inspired brick floors to the gable masks of Papua New Guinea over its cantilevered stairs, it speaks most to the artist’s kinship with his adopted home. Like a pulse that runs throughout the building, a frieze of 167 ceramic tiles of Hawaiian-inspired petroglyphs showing simple human figures mingling with a variety of dogs, hand-painted by Charlot and strung across the structure’s interior and exterior, serves as an unignorable reminder for all who visit that they are in Hawaii. Two more petroglyph tiles are cast rogue from the rest, set into the floor of a lanai, beneath a round glass table where the Charlots often relaxed. One of these ceramic tiles depicts a family, or at least a close-knit group of people — another reminder that the house, while remarkable in the ways it enshrines a bygone era of Hawaiian architecture, was always, above all, designed to be a home.
Photo assistant: Dalton Harrington