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As He Unveils His Vibrant Mural, Hawai?i Artist Reveals He's Colorblind

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Ku'uwehi Hiraishi
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What do Bill Clinton, Mark Zuckerberg, and Prince William have in common? They’re all colorblind. According to Prevent Blindness America, an estimated eight percent of males have color vision problems. One local artist kept his colorblindness a secret for nearly 30 years.

If there’s anything local artist Kupihea loves talking about it’s the ancient stories or mo?olelo behind his work. His newly unveiled mural at UH West O?ahu depicts Hawaiian goddesses and mythical creatures whose mo?olelo make up the cultural landscape of this land.

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Kupihea chats up attendees at his mural unveiling at UH West O'ahu.

“There’s this deep interplay with these characters that mean all these different things to our k?puna who relied on the mo?olelo on a daily basis to tell them what was going on – ok we’re gonna plant this, we’re harvest this,” says Kupihea.

Scenes from ancient stories of Honouliuli the land upon which the university is built come to life through hundreds of little strokes and dabs of red, blue, and green – colors he can’t quite see. What he hasn’t talked about publicly until now is the fact that he’s partially colorblind.

“My eyes, my sensors when they talk to my brain gets a little confused when there’s too much red, blue and green in the same space,” says Kupihea, “So a lot of time that area will look gray to me.”

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Kupihea works on mural.

Kupihea discovered he was on the colorblind spectrum in elementary school.

“Of course it was that eye exam that you do when you get a physical. I think the first time I had that eye exam, I was in the fifth grade,” says Kupihea, “And I found out that I couldn’t see any of the numbers in the circle with all the dots and all the colors. And it didn’t seem like a big deal back then.”

Until he enrolled in the Fine Arts program at UH M?noa. He recalls a project he did for his Intro to Painting class. It came out a bit more saturated than those of his classmates. Remember colors oftentime look dull to him.

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Kupihea shares the symbolism and stories behind his mural.

“There was some laughing involved and some kidding and stuff,” says Kupihea, “And it actually made me self-conscious and I built this insecurity about color.”

Luckily for him, he fell in love with another medium – sculpture. He completed his BA and later MA in Fine Arts. His colorblindness haunted him for nearly a decade before he decided to conquer his fear and take on this mural commission. The key he says was simplicity.

“Not trying to get too fancy with colors and shading and depth and value within the color schemes,” says Kupihea.

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Kupihea and his wife Kehaulani at the mural unveiling.

He also enlisted the help of his color-seeing wife Kehaulani Kupihea.

“Ever since I’ve known him he’s always had this passion to conquer it. And he wouldn’t tell anyone that he’s colorblind and I would be the one to tell people and he would put his head down,” says Kupihea, “I’m like hey, you know one day you’re gonna have an amazing story about you conquering this.”

Kehau is a cultural anthropologist whose archival research helped inform his visual interpretation. Together, the two are already planning the next mural – the theme, location, and colors to be unveiled later.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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