East Hawaii News

Big Island not just a place for vacation, it’s a place to get inspiration

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You tend to have blinders on when you go to the airport. Once you get into that TSA line, it’s go time. You don’t really think to look around at anything superfluous or extra. You’re there to do one thing: get to your flight on time.

Next time you’re flying out from or touching down at Hilo International Airport though, turn your brain off airport mode and schedule an extra 10 minutes into your itinerary.

This mural was inspired partially by the ‘i‘iwi, an endangered Hawaiian honeycreeper, and painted by Hilo abstract artisti Kristie Fujiyama Kosmides. It is one of five she painted that are now installed at Hilo International Airport. (Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now)

You’ll need at least that much time; although, once you experience one, you’ll want to look at all of them deeper.

So maybe an extra 20 minutes.

Five 18-by-11-foot original murals depicting different locations around the Big Island on oil painted canvasses have been installed for the past 2 years in the airport waiting area right after getting through the TSA checkpoint, above the gift shop, newsstand, restrooms, service animal relief stations and exits.

They don’t just show places, including Akaka Falls, Pohoiki black sand beach and Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, they’re more about the unseen.


The murals were the catalyst for what abstract artist Kristie Fujiyama Kosmides and her friends filmmaker Tracey Niimi and ‘ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro — now collectively known as Abstract Collab — would eventually create in a multimedia project meant to show the world how the Big Island is not just a place for vacation, it’s a place of inspiration.

“I wasn’t trying to paint something that you see, but something that you feel,” said Kosmides, who was born and raised in Hilo and still calls it home. “And it’s the subtleties, it’s the unseen, it’s the beauty, it’s the aloha spirit, it’s all these things.”

It’s also what draws people here, what draws her to stay and live on the Big Island, to want to raise her 13-year-old daughter here and live close to her family and friends.

It was not about the waterfall or the beach and so on. Sure, they’re identifiable, but she expresses them and the few animals included, a humpback whale and endangered ‘i‘iwi (Hawaiian honeycreeper), in a way everyone can feel something.

Kosmides also wanted to offer a different perspective in the paintings — a bird’s-eye view of the island. Makes sense because the art is in an airport, but take the ‘i‘iwi for example.


It’s an endangered bird that doesn’t have a voice. So seeing the world from their perspective and how the environment is so precious to them, she hopes it becomes clear why it should be so precious to us.

“It’s just a small perspective, but yet so important,” Kosmides said.

Abstract Collab members Jake Shimabukuro, Kristie Fujiyama Kosmides and Tracey Niimi talk about their multimedia project, which the murals now installed at Hilo International Airport, including the humpback whale painting behind them, were a part. (Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now)

She was commissioned by the airport in 2018 to create the large-scale pieces. Two years later, she hadn’t started anything so she went about finding someone who could help channel inspiration from the island into her creative process.

She didn’t know how to visually express a place that is so special not only to her but to so many people who live and visit here. Different cultures, different generations. How do you express that in five murals?

That’s when Niimi came aboard. Niimi has known Shimabukuro since they were keiki, so he offered to connect Kosmides with him. Soon after, Abstract Collab and its inaugural multimedia project took off.


It was the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and people were struggling. While the original idea was for the murals at the airport, they thought why not do something to showcase the island in a way people hadn’t seen.

Coming on board, Shimabukuro, who has family on the Big Island, said he’d write a song for the collaboration. Niimi, who like Kosmides was born and raised here and still calls Hilo home, suggested he produce a music video.

It all made sense. Everyone would work together to inspire each other and they would create something that would help the island in one of its toughest times.

The ‘i‘iwi actually became kind of the mascot for the project.

Shimabukuro hadn’t touched his ‘uke in awhile before becoming part of the project either, so it helped him find inspiration, too. He wanted his song to musically represent the extremes experienced on Hawai‘i Island, so Niimi would record natural, ambient sounds to incorporate into the track.

Returning with the endangered scarlet honeycreeper singing, Shimabukuro realized the pitch was in the perfect key, so he took a sample and used it — along with inspiration from humpback whale songs and other sounds from the island — to create what became “Eyes Of The ‘I‘iwi.”

The song also represents the emotional roller coaster that visitors can experience from beginning to end of their trip, as well as a journey from sunrise to sunset, from east to west.

The track is on Shimabukuro’s newest album “Grateful.”

Once “Eyes Of The ‘I‘iwi” was recorded, Niimi, Kosmides and Shimabukuro planned out the places they would go to shoot the music video to bring to life and visually tell their collaboration’s story.

They wanted to feature not just the experiences you can have here but the dynamics of the entire island.

Doing it all from a bird’s-eye view, seeing everything from the simple and serene to the most active volcano on the planet and everything in between, shows the island is not just a great vacation spot, it’s a place you can come to take care of your well-being.

Their collaboration itself highlights the power of creativity, community and working together.

Hawai‘i County Mayor Mitch Roth, center, poses for a photo with his entourage who visited Hilo International Airport last week to take a look at five murals painted by Hilo abstract artist Kristie Fujiyama Kosmides. Members of Abstract Collab Tracey Niimi, to the left of Roth; Kosmides and Jake Shimabukuro, to the right of Roth, joined the group. (Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now)

“Now, we’re showcasing the island as a place where you can get inspired, a place where you can get rejuvenated,” said Shimabukuro. “Not just a place you come to drink mai tais.”

Kosmides was able to gain new inspiration through the song and the experiences she had while exploring the island with her co-collaborators as they shot the music video.

“And all of a sudden, it came to life,” said Niimi.

The video was premiered May 24 during Shimabukuro’s sold-out concert at the historic Palace Theater in Hilo. The trio are still trying to figure out when and how to widely release it.

“The video is amazing,” said Hawai‘i County Mayor Mitch Roth. “Everything about this project is so amazing.”

Roth and an entourage including Hawai‘i County Managing Director Deanna Sako, Hawai‘i Island Airports Division District Manager Chauncey Wong Yuen and the three members of Abstract Collab, among others, visited Hilo International Airport last week to view the murals and learn more about the multimedia project.

The mayor said the county has been working together with the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority for the past several years on the Hawai‘i Destination Management Plan and redesigning tourism around the Big Island’s communities instead of the communities around tourists.

That allows the focus to shift to the culture, natural beauty and the experiences officials really want visitors to have instead of the ones they don’t.

“When you look at these murals, they tell a story. They tell a story about our island. They show off the natural beauty we have here,” Roth said.

If the county can get visitors into that kind of mindset, island residents wouldn’t have to deal so much with the negative side effects that can come with tourism.

It’s people who are going to come here and be considerate to the people who live here and also enjoy what the island has to offer through its culture, environment and other natural amenities are who Roth wants to visit.

  • Abstract Collabe members, from left, Tracey Niimi, Kristie Fujiyama Kosmides and Jake Shimabukuro speak with Cyrus Johnasen, executive assistant to Hawai‘i County Mayor Mitch Roth, on May 21 at Hilo International Airport. (Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now)
  • One of the murals painted by Hilo abstract artist Kristie Fujiyama Kosmides now installed at Hilo International Airport. (Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now)
  • Another of the murals painted by Hilo abstract artist Kristie Fujiyama Kosmides now installed at Hilo International Airport. (Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now)
  • ‘Ukulele virtuoso and member of Abstract Collab plays a song while he sits under a mural inspired by one of his places on the Big Island, Akaka Falls. The mural is one of five painted by Hilo abstract artist Kristie Fujiyama Kosmides now installed at Hilo International Airport. (Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now)
  • Jake Shimabukuro, ‘ukulele virtuoso and member of Abstract Collab, speaks with Hawai‘i County Mayor Mitch Roth and others during a visit to Hilo International Airport last week to view the murals and learn more about the group’s multimedia project promoting the Big Island. Kristie Fujiyama Kosmides, the artist behind the murals and member of Abstract Collab, is at left listening. (Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now)
  • Abstract Collabe members Jake Shimabukuro and Tracey Niimi walk into Hilo International Airport on May 21. (Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now)
  • Hawai‘i County Mayor Mitch Roth and his entourage, seen in the back, walk into Hilo International Airport on May 21 as travelers go about their business. (Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now)

Abstract Collab is working with the Hawai‘i County Research and Development Department to find ways it can support the county in its tourism promotion efforts. Hawaiian Airlines is also working with the state tourism authority so people coming here can see the music video.

The collab is working to make sure it’s seen around the globe.

Niimi hopes it attracts visitors coming for all the right reasons. That includes learning about the culture, Shimabukuro said, and not just what they see on social media, added Niimi.

Roth said the three collaborators also exemplify how you can be whatever you want right here on the Big Island.

“A lot of people think, ‘If I’m going to be an artist, I have to go to California or New York.’ ‘If I’m going to be a musician, I have to go to Nashville,'” he said. “No. You can do all of that here.”

The mayor added that every time he comes through the Hilo airport and looks at the murals now, he’s proud: “And there’s so many things to be proud of — the beauty of the art, knowing that that art represents where we live, knowing that the people that made it are from here.”

Kosmides is honored she had the opportunity to put a little bit of her self-expression into a place that is as visible as the airport.

“But I hope that in it, people will feel like they see something about the island for themselves,” she said.

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel is a full-time reporter with Pacific Media Group. He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism as a reporter, copy editor and page designer. He previously worked at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo. Nathan can be reached at nathan@bigislandnow.com
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