The Contemporary Pacific 18.1 (2006) 59-69
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Interview with Albert Wendt:
Art, Writing, and the Creative Process
Albert Wendt, the famous Samoan novelist and poet, has been in the Citizens' Chair at the English Department of the University of Hawai'i since August 2004, having taken a leave of absence from the University of Auckland where he has taught for the past sixteen years. A few months after Al's arrival, I heard from Reina Whaitiri, his partner and the person he calls "the center of my life now," that he was spending most of his free time drawing and painting. She said that the creative muse had taken hold of Al and that he couldn't stop. Their apartment, she said, had evidence of the artist at work on the floor, on the dining table, on the walls, everywhere! Over subsequent months, I continued to make inquiries about Al's progress and kept hoping that he would soon invite me to see his art. Finally the invitation came: "What are you doing?" he said over the phone. "Would you and Jeannette like to come for morning tea and have a look at the art?" "When?" I asked. "What about ten o'clock today?"
On Sunday, 25 April 2005, the day of the phone call, Al and Reina were at the door of their two-bedroom apartment in Mānoa Valley, Honolulu, to welcome me and my wife. Al was wearing a brown floral lavalava and yellow T-shirt and looking very relaxed. Reina was her usual warm and friendly self, ushering us inside after a hug and a kiss. Immediately we felt as though we had entered an art gallery. Reina was right—the art had taken over the apartment! More interested in feasting on the art that was watching us from the walls than partaking of the morning tea, we rushed from one painting to another like little children in a toyshop. Our eyes flitted across the room as we tried to see everything at once, as though we feared something might disappear before we had a chance to see it all. Al had outdone himself: the nine canvases he had produced while in Hawai'i [End Page 59] (what he calls his Ko'olau and Pele series) adorned the walls, and stacked on the floor around the sitting room were framed drawings and paintings he had done in New Zealand. I knew immediately that, no matter how busy we all were, I wanted to interview Al and feature his art in this journal so that others could share the thrill of that Sunday morning. Most of our readers will be unaware that in recent years, the Pacific's best-known poet and novelist has been channeling his energy and talents into drawing and painting. I hope the interview that follows and the art that graces the cover of this journal and is interspersed throughout the text will make Al's art better known to his many students, readers, and admirers.
The interview took place on 1 May 2005, at five o'clock on a Saturday afternoon, inside Al and Reina's apartment in Mānoa Valley. Al, Reina, and I were seated around the same dining table over coffee, tea, and biscuits. While Reina drank her coffee and marked her students' assignments, I asked Al about his recent trip to Kaua'i to read from his work. I also learned that on that day he had performed at a literature festival on campus, even though he should have been resting because he was coming down with a bad cold.
The artworks I had seen during my first visit were still up, and the apartment remained warm and cozy. I felt enveloped and protected by the power and mana of Pele and the Ko'olau mountains keeping watch from the walls of the living room. Searching for an appropriate entry into the interview, I started from the beginning.
VH: How long have you been interested in art?
AW: I did a lot...