A legendary artist on the Island of Maui, Hawaii, "Captain Kenny" became known as the "Picasso of the Pacific".
Kenneth Roland NEIZMAN grew up as part of a large extended family on Maui. His early life was idyllic. He enjoyed the easy, stress free lifestyle that most all Hawaiian kids did. Fresh papaya and guava juice for breakfast, go to school, then play with your friends at the beach. Swimming, go fishing maybe, play music or sports till dinner time, then homework, bed, and do it all over again the next day. Not a care in the world. Kenny was just nine years old when that all changed.
He remembered vividly seeing the skies "turn dirty" from all of the smoke the bombs at Pearl Harbor had left hovering over the Hawaiian Islands that horrible fateful day in 1941. The fear was deep in him. His innocence, like that of so many others, was lost forever. He knew that many people died that day as did many thousands more as World War 2 waged on. He continued his public school education but was an unexceptional student. His thoughts were with the soldiers and all of the victims of the conflict. "I always wondered why others were dying in war, and I was just fine on Maui" he said. " I thought maybe God was saving me for something special".
After graduating high school he began working for the Pioneer Mill Company as a laborer in the sugar cane and pineapple fields and by then Kenneth Roland Neizman already knew he was "different". "I will become famous" he thought. But he didn't know how, or for what. Discouraged by the harsh conditions of his daily work in the fields ("The pesticides were melting my brain"), and increasingly resentful of his superiors ("They treated me like a slave", he recalled.), Kenny eventually quit and got a job on a commercial fishing boat. He loved being out on the water and became fascinated with the undersea world and all of it's creatures. "This was the life for me !" he thought. And with much dedication, hard work, and discipline, he eventually saved up enough money to purchase his very own fishing boat. He was, at last, "The Captain", and master of his own destiny. It was now the mid-sixties and life was good again for Kenny.
The money was good too. Fresh fish was always in high demand and Kenny sold everything he could catch, which was a lot. Trouble was, Kenny wasn't good at book-keeping and he also liked to "relax" at the bars in Lahaina after he had unloaded his days catch. A combination of tax issues and too much "relaxing" finally caught up with him and by the early seventies Captain Kenny was without a boat, broke, and had developed a serious "relaxing" problem. This began a steady downward spiral of substance abuse, psychedelic experimentation, depression, mood swings, isolation, and bizarre behavior. This was also when the legend was born.
As he told it, "It all began when the coconut hit me on the head!". True, he said. While he was "relaxing" in one of the oceanfront parks one afternoon, a coconut fell from a palm tree, landed directly on his head, and knocked him out cold. "The next thing I remember is waking up on the table in the hospital. I could hear the doctor saying that he thought I was still alive. I opened my eyes and everything was blurry, except for the doctors eyeglasses. I could see them perfectly. Only his glasses. But then the glasses turned into a bizarre type of fish. An "eyeglasses fish!"."
When he had recuperated from his trauma, Kenny was trying to explain the story to some of his friends at the bar. He took a napkin and drew a pair of spectacles, just like the doctor had worn. Then he continued the drawing, filling in the rest of the details that eventually resulted in Captain Kenny's first work of art, "The Eyeglasses Fish". The drawing was an elaborate, primitive, other-worldly, underwater creature with a big toothy grin, geometric scales, four fins, and a broad tail. It had wide, piercing eyes, and, of course, the doctors glasses. It was a "doodle", Kenny said. "But the bartender liked it and he traded me for a beer and pinned the drawing up behind the bar for everyone to see“. And the rest, as they say, is history. Art history. That napkin, if it still exists, would be worth a lot of beer today.
For the next twenty five years or so, until he was committed to a sanitarium , "Captain Kenny" was a full time artist. His cast of characters grew to include dozens of species, all of them born of his imagination, and many of them blossoming from everyday objects, a la the "Eyeglasses Fish". There were the "Ice Cream Cone" fish; the "Guitar" fish; the "Scissors" fish; the "Banjo" crab; and the "Golf Club" fish, to name a few. Other famous characters include the "Crabster" (half crab, half lobster); the "Honeymooning Sea Turtles"; the "High Cost of Living" fish; the "Heart" fish; and the ever-popular "Octopus Bartender".
His marketing was unique, as were his art supplies. If he had money, he would use paint and brushes but he also liked the look, and cost, of marking pens, especially the gold and silver metallic ones ("But the smell gets me high" he'd say.). He would paint or draw on anything he could find that was flat enough and that appealed to his sense of design. This included, but is not limited to: paper; canvas; wood; lampshades; pretty girls; cars; his house; surfboards; boats; coconuts; cans of soup or spam; t-shirts; cardboard; blue jeans; swim trunks; doors; toilet seats; shower curtains; dinner plates; cups; over existing paintings or prints; flags; sails; napkins; menus; and even himself. His method of marketing was to load up a shopping cart with his latest creations and wander around Lahaina town to attract tourists. Just the sight of him was a tourist attraction. He was a large, rotund, individual usually sporting a white beard giving him the appearance of an Hawaiian Santa Claus. If he was in the mood he would also entertain his potential customers with songs, impressions, loud burping, or his famous CB radio monologues complete with static and barely intelligible conversations between mysterious characters, usually implied to be taking place somewhere on a wartime battlefield. His prices varied widely depending on who he was selling to and depending on his mood. A kind, soft hearted man at his core, and a true Robin Hood fan, he would "rob from the rich" and "give to the poor". Most of his early work sold for very little money or was traded for food or drink. Or simply given away to people he liked. If he didn't like the customer, or smelled a "nice wallet", even his earliest work could command serious money. As time went on and as his reputation grew, so did the value of his artwork.
By the late seventies, the local art world was beginning to take notice, and to appreciate, the underlying sophistication of NEIZMAN's truly original creations. It was becoming apparent that the artwork was special. Truly original. The compositions were uniquely balanced and subtly nuanced while at the same time wild, exotic, and trembling with a pent up energy. Whether in a kaleidoscope of color or in simple outline, the shapes seemed ready to explode off the picture surface. The characters, full of sharp teeth, were seemingly dredged from the deepest depth of NEIZMAN's ocean of imagination and hauled to the surface in his net of creativity. All of his pictures, though childlike and naive on the surface, contained an underlying display of remarkably balanced form and composition. And his work revealed an even deeper exploration of the subconscious mind of the artist. The Maui News proclaimed Captain Kenny "THE PICASSO OF THE PACIFIC" in 1977. Others called him "THE MARINE MIRO". Yet, opinions still varied widely about the true value of his work. Many still considered him a "street person" and he was often assumed to be a homeless vagrant because his appearance, complete with his ever-present shopping cart and unconventional style of dress, gave the impression of one who did not fit the mold of a successful artist. Most gallery owners still scoffed at and ridiculed his work. But not all.
By the early 80's Maui had become a must-visit haven for the upwardly mobile, the uber-rich, and the Hollywood elite. It was also the Rock-Star's “party central“. Mega resorts were being built and the airport was expanded to land the 747's that flew direct from the mainland and from all over the world. No more stopping in Honolulu and then catching a smaller plane to Maui. It was Maui direct now. And they came in droves. It was then that Captain Kenny was discovered by the celebrities. His artwork was collected by numerous superstars of the day like Peter Fonda; Dennis Hopper; Carole Burnette; Elton John; Willie Nelson; Stevie Nicks; Rod Stewart; George Harrison; Robin Williams; Richard Pryor; Brian Wilson; and Dustin Hoffman. An original Captain Kenny painting even found it's way to the map room of the "Calypso", Jacques Cousteau's famous research vessel (Kenny was very proud of that).
From time to time one of Maui's many art galleries would attempt to show Kenny’s work. But nothing meaningful ever developed for NEIZMAN on the gallery level until 1985 when Montgomery Gallery took serious interest in promoting Kenny's work. The Gallery owner and Captain Kenny developed a bond and a mutual trust over the course of a year or so by displaying and selling NEIZMAN paintings and drawings in the Gallery. Exposure for the artwork in this more traditional and distinguished setting proved to be the grease needed to start the Captain’s ball rolling in a serious manner. Sales, and prices, were building fast. So fast, in fact, that in 1985 Montgomery Gallery and the Captain entered into a formal binding contractual relationship granting the gallery owner exclusive copyrights to any and all of NEIZMAN's artwork in perpetuity and soon thereafter Montgomery Gallery invested in the publication and production of NEIZMAN's first-ever limited edition serigraph (silk screen print) entitled "The Aloha Fish" based on one of the Captain's favorite paintings. The print, limited to just 200 examples plus 25 proofs, was entirely created by hand with the original screens drawn by NEIZMAN and each color chosen and approved by him. It was released for sale in 1986.
Soon, sixty examples of "The Aloha Fish" had sold, along with a steady stream of original paintings and drawings. But by 1988 the Gallery and the Artist had encountered the inevitable.....Kenny was still selling out of his shopping cart and the issue of price variations became too troublesome for the Gallery to continue the program. The Gallery and the Artist parted ways amicably and without ill will. In 1989 the Gallery relocated to the mainland. The remaining unsold 140 examples of "The Aloha Fish" and the Gallery's significant collection of original NEIZMAN paintings and drawings were put into secure storage. And Captain Kenny continued to create and sell his artwork on Maui out of his shopping cart. By the mid nineties the Captain's health, both physical and mental, had declined. He was eventually committed to a facility in "upcountry " Maui, on the slopes of the Haleakala volcano crater, where he remained, still making art, until he passed away in 2003.
On his paintings, during his entire crazy, zany career, Kenny would often include one of his original slogans, "IN GOD WE FISHING". How profound it is that this man who lived his entire life on an island in the middle of the Pacific could so easily grasp that universal concept. We are all fishermen in his eyes. We are all casting about to find true meaning in life. Kenny knew where to drop his line and we are all blessed to have had him share with us the gift of his catch.
He felt it as a young boy, and he was right, he did become “famous” and his God clearly was saving him for "something special".