Legendary Wood Pioneer Ron Kent Shares His Collection, Stories and more

Legendary Wood Pioneer Ron Kent Shares His Collection, Stories and more

While perusing the Four Seasons Maui at Wailea’s multi-million dollar art collection last year, we met long-time O’ahu artist-in-residence, Ron Kent. One of his “Guardian” sculptures was a focal point of the entire exhibit; it’s mere presence commanding close inspection by anyone that came within eyeshot. It turns out that Kent is a treasure not only to Hawaii, but the global art community.

Over lunch at Kent’s Windward O’ahu home, we got the back-story on his ascent from a successful career in the financial world, to a hobby that became a deep passion. This self-proclaimed “non-promoted” artist has not only sold pieces to some of the world’s biggest collectors, he has handed his translucent wood-turned bowls (he is the pioneer of this practice) to President Clinton and Pope John Paul II, in addition to having pieces placed at the Smithsonian, the Louvre and the permanent collection at The White House.

Read on to discover the humble beginnings from which Kent started, with a piece of driftwood and a toy lathe, to what forms he’s currently obsessed with shaping.

B on Hawaii: As you’ve told me, your wife bought you a “hobbyist” lathe in 1975, and to not upset her, you gave it a whirl. Take it from there…

Ron Kent: Something that I thought I wouldn’t do more than once became a life-long pursuit, if you can believe it. Believe me when I say the element of surprise had me as well. But I think, after I really got into turning wood bowls, the fact that I didn’t know, nor care, what other turners were doing helped me immensely. It was just a hobby. The best things in life you do with no agenda.

B on Hawaii: This happened here in Hawaii?

Ron Kent: I grew up in Hollywood, California. In the early 1970s, Myra [Ron’s wife] and I decided we wanted to raise our kids somewhere that was ethnically diverse—and where shoes were optional 100 percent of the time. I came here and started a municipal bond fund. Investing meant something very different back then than it does now. So I spent a lot of time predicting the things that we’re seeing right now. Disaster.

This “hobby” of mine around came at the perfect time. I sold my business shortly after my bowls began fetching thousands of dollars. At that point, it was hard to consider it a hobby anymore.

B on Hawaii: What separated your wood bowls and sculptures from others at that time?

Ron Kent: First, there were only a few guys doing this in Hawaii at that time. Now, of course, there’s a wonderful lot of impersonators, who do beautiful work. I am honored. But then it was me, this guy Jack Straka on the Big Island, a few others. Yet I was a pioneer in two aspects: I was the first one to use Norfolk Pine, which, they now export to the mainland it has become so popular. Second, I was the first one to make the translucent bowls, which is what the collectors flocked to.

B on Hawaii: Ah, the translucent bowls. Those weren’t what you initially were making, correct?

Ron Kent: I started with a figure I called “Bottles”. I was fascinated with the negative space, the area between the bottles, when you put them next to each other. It’s what eventually came back to inspire the “Guardians”, which is what you saw at the Four Seasons on Maui.

B on Hawaii: Tell us more about those translucent bowls—they are incredible. They literally glow from the inside out.

Ron Kent: Interesting you put it that way, because it’s actually true. I carve the bowls as thin as I can, and then it takes months and months to soak it in oil, let it dry, sand it down and repeat the process. The oil builds up polymers inside the wood, hardening it from the inside. There’s no varnish or lacquer, just oiling and sanding. This way, what you touch is the actual wood itself. It’s the insides that have hardened.

B on Hawaii: The way you have these displayed around your home, spot-lit from above, the grains and tone of the wood really glows. Amazing. Tell us how it came about that you handed one of your bowls to the Pope.

Ron Kent: A local doctor and his wife wanted to give a nice present to the church. The contracted me to make a bowl, which eventually led to us flying to Rome, and handing it to the Pope, at the Vatican, right after Easter Mass. It was a very proud moment for me; for a Jewish guy from Hollywood to give this thing to the Pope. I mean, really.

B on Hawaii: You sound amazed at the fact that people collect your works, when they truly are gorgeous. Do you think about value and what sells or doesn’t?

Ron Kent: Recently someone bought one of my early bottles at a garage sale for $5. It proves that my work has lasting value!

B on Hawaii: The Guardians, like what’s shown at the Four Seasons, are very powerful. Tell us about the series.

Ron Kent: These are made from marine grade plywood. I glue a dozen or so together, and the hand shape them. What I love is the personality that develops in each one. Some are more forceful, others refined.

B on Hawaii: I understand you prefer that they are displayed in pairs, at least.

Ron Kent: I would give a full fifty percent discount to anyone who bought two, as they are great together. Again, that negative space they create… But I do love the way the Four Seasons show it—at the end of a long hallway, up on a pedestal.

B on Hawaii: What are you currently working on?

Ron Kent: Well, the Contemporary Museum invited me [along with 19 other artists] to make a bench, signifying the “benchmark” of their 20th anniversary. My wife liked the one I made for them so much, she insisted I make another for us to keep here at home. So it goes.

Learn more about Ron Kent at www.RonKent.com. There, you can find a listing of galleries that carry Kent’s work, from Hana to Waikoloa, Houston to Cleveland. Mahalo to Ron Kent for inviting us to his home.

"...handing it to the Pope, at the Vatican, right after Easter Mass. It was a very proud moment for me; for a Jewish guy from Hollywood to give this thing to the Pope. I mean, really."