The Swell Makers

The Swell Makers

In Honolulu’s creative spaces, collaboration is king.

Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Lana Lane art studio of Wooden Wave, the artistic progeny of husband and wife Matt and Roxy Ortiz. The duo started working together a decade ago and are now best known for their whimsical treehouses, vertical islands of surf-skate utopian bliss. In 2013, Wooden Wave painted five treehouses for Pow! Wow! Hawai‘i, and they’ve been invited back every year since. Together in life and together in art, Matt and Roxy have a lock on working together to create imaginative, playful places that bring joy and excitement. They’re pictures you want to jump right into. We caught up with Roxy to talk about what it’s like to collaborate on their upcoming mural at Pow! Wow! Hawai‘i 2020.

How has your relationship with Pow! Wow! developed over the years?

This is Pow! Wow!’s 10th anniversary and we remember when we saw it as viewers for the first time. We were so excited to have this program of local artists showing work on a larger scale and bringing national and international artists to the Islands to share their work too. When we were invited in 2013, we were ecstatic to be involved. We feel lucky and blessed to be a part of it every year since then, so we’ve been able to grow with them. It’s a testament to how Pow! Wow! has been received in Hawai‘i and how it’s expanded to other locales, and we’ve been lucky to be involved in those as well. We’ve formed meaningful relationships with visiting artists and the organizers of festivals in other locations and with other local artists as well. It’s a great way to meet local artists facing similar challenges of creating work on a large scale. We all get really close during Pow! Wow! There’s a camaraderie that happens and it extends to the festival visitors as well. It’s been uplifting for Hawai‘i. It’s like an outdoor museum. People get to see artwork created in real-time. It’s a nice contrast to going into a gallery, where you don’t know the artist or have any insight into the technique. Over this week, people walk by and come watch each day as the murals progress. They can see how the art is made, and not just for one person, but for all the artists involved. With 20 or 30 murals created in one week, you can see every step of the process.

As part of Pow! Wow! Hawai‘i 2020, Wooden Wave is painting on a huge mural in Ward Village. Can you share any details with us?

The wall is on Halekauwila Street, on the backside of the Consolidated Theatres Ward parking structure, on that little street between Whole Foods and the movie theatre. We’re directly across from the exit/entrance ramp of the Whole Foods parking structure. It’s going to be big—about 30 feet high by 30 feet wide. We want to activate spaces you don’t normally notice and we want to enliven them with color and bright imagery, so you can have an experience on your everyday route. Visitors can look for our signature treehouse style and spot our solar panels, green roof, skate ramp, and other elements of our playful lifestyle. This one is going to have a lot of bold and vibrant colors. It’s going to be something fun to look at from far away, but it will reward the person that gets up close. It’s about taking the time to find and connect with the details.

With two artists collaborating as one entity, what is your role in the process?

It takes time to develop collaboration and compromise in a relationship. We come up with ideas together and all of our ideas and sketches are in a sketchbook. We take inspiration from our everyday lives, and put that into the sketchbook, where they sit until there’s more detail to allow those concepts to grow. From there, once we’re excited about an idea, Matt builds it out in a sketch. He’s like the master draftsman. When it comes to architecture and technical aspects of drawing, that’s really his strength. And then I pop in and add artistic details, essentially becoming the art director. When it comes to big picture stuff, that’s what I like to do. When we start a piece, we know some aspects of the architecture, like the energy and food components. When it comes to the fun stuff, we add a skate ramp in there, an actual wooden wave, and then we play around with the details. And depending on where we are, we include characteristics of the location. For our San Jose Pow! Wow! mural, we were in Japan Town, so we designed a Samurai treehouse to fit with the neighborhood. From there we looked at different aspects of Japanese culture, like a sand garden with a rake. We included a table with tea and mochi ice cream because it was on the side of an ice cream store. Once the piece is built out to a sketch that we like, that’s when we go to town from that sketch and we paint it together. That’s how we’ve developed over the years. How can we use the architecture to add to the character of the piece? We get to be playful and hide these fun characteristics in there. The main part of our work is to bring joy. That’s our benchmark. We know we’re done when it sparks joy and excitement. We position it at the intersection of sustainability and play. It needs everything to actually live in there and you want to enjoy life, so you have to have things to play with too, like the skate ramp and slides.

How important is public art for urban communities like Ward Village? What message does it send to residents and visitors?

Murals are an aspect of visual culture. Bringing the ideas and talents of local artists as well as visiting artists enriches the community with the voices of their collective identities. The best part is that it’s easily accessible. Historically, there are a lot of barriers into even viewing art, and these festivals bring art into everyday life. When you’re going to the grocery store, you get to see this art and it brings joy into your life. That’s the best part—it’s for the public. It’s great for people to see and then the best part is that during the week of the festival, you get to meet the artists. And the artists get to meet the people in the community they are serving, which is equally as important.

Do you have a must-see suggestion for festival goers?

During the week are different art openings and artist talks going on, so those are cool to check out. In particular, check out the opening reception on Tuesday night, curated by Andrew Hosner of Thinkspace Gallery. People should see this because of the amazing amount of work. It’s a very diverse group of artists, stylistically, but what’s cool is that the works are all the same size, 12 by 12. It’s a nice size and relatively affordable for an original piece of fine art. We’re showing our painting, Samurai Blueprint.