Walking into a vintage shop in Chinatown a few years ago, I haphazardly grabbed a book off of the shelf and was pleasantly introduced to world of Don Blanding. Stylized scenes of life on remote South Pacific islands. Words awash in Polynesian escapism from a century ago. I was immediately intrigued. There's nothing better than discovering a long forgotten artist that speaks to you. The store carried a number of his books so I assumed he carried some historical weight in Hawai'i. Buying a few of them, I left the store knowing that I had some sleuthing to do.
What I found was a blend of bohemianism, exoticism, and a lot of nostalgia. Don Blanding was a poet, illustrator, and artist known for his weekly contributions to the Hawai'i Star Bulletin and his love for the Hawaiian Islands. Born in Oklahoma in 1894, Blanding became a resident of Hawai'i in 1915 until he was discharged from the U.S. Army in 1918. His time in Hawai'i was brief but he soon realized he missed the island and the people, prompting him to move back in 1921. From there, he started working with an advertising agency and ran a column with Hawai'i Star Bulletin newspaper, where he gained notoriety for his elaborate pen-and-ink drawings accompanied with his poems. Soon thereafter, he published his first compilation of stories and illustrations in Leaves from a Grass House and over a dozen more books. Some even credit his most successful book of poems entitled, Vagabond's House, as the predecessor to the Tiki rage that started in the '30's. Blanding is often referred to as the poet laureate of Hawaii. And not largely known, he founded Hawai'i's annual Lei Day holiday in 1927. Who knew.
Below Blanding explains the significance of a flower lei in Hawai'i.
While a majority of his drawings tend to be stylized women in a blend of Art Nouveaux and Art Deco, for me it's his small intimate drawings, mostly of a landscape with a lone house or person dropped in here and there, that really do the heavy lifting. Meandering line work. A playful use of negative space. And highs and lows without the use of shading. They're striped down, evocative, and serve as a great source of inspiration for our own drawings that pepper our Honolulu Guide.
The next time you find yourself in a bookshop, whether in Hawai'i or your hometown, do yourself a favor and search out a book or two by Don Blanding. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better author/illustrator to set the tone, even if it's an idealized one, for your next visit to the Hawaiian Islands.