Home > Art

Esther Hi’ilani Candari: Segullah’s Featured Artist

By Linda Hoffman Kimball

Artist Esther Hi’liani Candari – photo by KJ Breen

Esther Hi’ilani Candari’s radiant artwork introduces viewers to cultural and spiritual expansion through vivid colors, compositional strength, and skilled techniques. Esther’s artwork is not just what we appreciate in the surface image itself. She invites viewers to contemplate complex issues about life, expectations for women, and even the impact of  social stigma. We are delighted to share Esther’s work with you and to invite you to engage fully with the potency of her images. Let’s get acquainted with this talented and thoughtful artist!

Segullah: Can you tell us a bit about your family and upbringing?

Esther: My father is a Filipino/Chinese immigrant to America, my mother is an enigma I describe as an inside out coconut. She is white/American by birth but has spent the majority of her life in the Pacific and has internalized many Polynesian cultural, moral, and linguistic patterns. They met and married as students at BYU-H and I was born fairly soon afterward. I have four younger brothers spanning over a fifteen-year range and, recently, a younger sister of the canine type.

Segullah: Siblings of the canine type are the best! They typically never ask to borrow your clothes. How much were Hawaiian (and/or other Asian) traditions part of your life? Were those multi-cultural aspects part of your identity and family traditions since you were tiny – or did you embrace them more as you matured?

Esther: Picking apart and defining the multi-colored threads that compose my life experience and identity feels like an unending task because the make-up of my family and my community in Hawaii is so complex and multi-faceted. It is nearly impossible to pinpoint where they originated or were introduced.

The simple answer is that Hawaiian (in the modern general Polynesian sense, not the specific indigenous sense) and Asian traditions and cultural practices have been a part of my world view and day to day life since I was born. Still,  I have definitely curated and re-framed some of those views and practices as I have gotten older, applied decolonization theory to my life, and healed internalized racism.

“Kalo” –
Linoleum cut by Esther Hi’ilani Candari

Segullah: Can you share a practical example of those complex inner challenges?

Esther: One specific example is my relationship with hula. Growing up as a home-schooler in a poor middle-class family, I did not have easy access to professional dance training.  Unlike many of my friends I never learned the keiki (child) hula. My mother also had strong reservations about the indigenous spirituality/religion that was making a comeback through hula halaus (hula schools) and worried that my participation would walk too close to many lines including sexualization of children and pagan worship.

Personally I also felt the strong invisible line drawn between me and many of my friends due to my lack of indigenous Hawaiian blood. Hula spoke to my soul and the part of me that had only ever known Hawai’i as a home, but I still felt a twinge of appropriative guilt taking hold of a tradition that I could not claim by inheritance. Especially, since it was a tradition that is so often trivialized, sexualized, and commercialized for the benefit of everyone except those who created it.

Throughout high school and college I picked up little pieces here and there but still had no coherent knowledge of hula until I had the chance to learn from and perform with some Hawaiian friends from my YSA ward. That experience was healing for me because it taught me that I could respectfully take hold of the heritage of the land that had raised me and inexorably shaped how I saw my relationship with my community.

Segullah: Such a great example! Very insightful. Can you share a bit about the personalities and influence of family members and other significant people that shaped you as both an LDS woman and as an artist?

Esther: My mother is probably my most cumulatively influential individual on both the artistic and womanly fronts. She is a strong, intelligent, determined, and faithful woman. She taught me from a young age that it was totally fine to want to do exactly what my brothers were doing, to work hard but well, and that academic excellence is an expectation not an exception.

“Ruth” painting by Esther Hi’ilani Candari

My father comes in close second. He is a designer/architect by profession and has risen from the life of an impoverished child in a third world country to the founding partner in a successful international architecture firm. His constant design commentary throughout my life gave me a vocabulary and perspective that has been invaluable in my profession. He also taught me from a young age to take critique well.

Beyond my family there are a handful of key relationships and moments that have provided me with needful crossroads in my internal conversation.

Alissa Amundson was an older YSA in my first area in my mission (Salt Lake City Central 2013). One day after teaching a lesson with me, she pulled me aside and with no fuss or pretense told me that I was falling short of my potential as an educator. She complimented me on my sharp mind and expansive knowledge of the Gospel but chided me on my inability to connect my heart with my head. That brief exchange permanently changed my perspective.

Segullah: Wow. I can see how the skills of “taking critique well” were already at play in your life!

Esther: During the post-mission half of my time at BYU-Hawaii, I had the privilege of developing a personal relationship with several members of the school presidency. Among them were President and Sister Tanner, and Vice President Debbie Hippolyte-Wright. The Tanners were the first memorable example of an academically well-matched, spiritually strong, and truly egalitarian marriage that I had experienced. They set the bar for the type of bold, loving, and equally yoked leadership that I hope becomes a broader model within the Church and that I strive for in my marriage. VP Debbie showed me how to wield power unapologetically but with grace but as the lone woman in a man’s club.

La Mujer – sculpture by Esther Hi’ilani Candari

Segullah: Such powerful mentors and such exceptional lessons they taught you!

Esther: An on-and-off-again romantic interest played a large role in helping me see myself as a professional artist and a future career woman. At the time in my life when he was a part of it, I was battling with the limiting gender perceptions of Church culture, both from within and without. He talked about my future success with a blaisé confidence that felt simultaneously unachievable and blasphemous to me at the time, but he gave me the courage to reach for that version of myself.

In recent years I have seen God place multiple women of spiritual and academic substance in my life who have continued to break down my apprehensions surrounding being a woman who questions, a woman who seeks to not just reach bars but to set them. Most importantly they have helped me to see family, academia, and career as branches in my personal and divinely appointed tree of life. Women such as my sister in-law Barbara Christiansen, my Virginia friend and ward member Sandra Rodgers, and artistic hero Rose Datoc-Dall.

Finding my artistic voice has always been somewhat easy for me, but knowing how and that I can and should use that voice has not come naturally. I am grateful for Heavenly Parents who saw and provided for that.

Segullah: What were some early experiences or situations that clarified to you that you wanted to be a professional visual artist? Did you major in art at college? Have you always been an artist?

Esther: I would say my path has been more along the lines of God telling me what not to do. Me deciding begrudgingly what I should do and then later receiving confirmation I am on the right path.

Since I was very young I have had good fine coordination and an affinity for creating things. As a child that manifested as crafts and tinkering. In high school it was an obsessive fascination with shell collecting, cleaning, and curating. And after a very disappointing marine biology course and a change of majors to “Visual Arts,” it finally settled into fine art. I began my studies as a sculpture major but was forced to switch to painting when the sculpture major was canceled during the course of my mission. I experienced many conflicting emotions and self apologetic life plans over the early course of my BFA studies, but I can pinpoint one moment that felt like the telescope of my life had been focused for the first time.

During my Junior year, I created and displayed a solo sculpture show centering around the growth that vulnerability facilitates. Each sculpture was symbolic of common human experiences but was also intensely personal and captioned using relevant excerpts from my extensive journaling. The night before the show opened I lay on the floor crying because I was afraid of letting the world see those broken pieces of my heart. I contemplated removing the more personal pieces of the show, but ultimately my integrity required it of me to take this risk.

As part of the show I had a station for visitors to write thank you notes to someone in their life who had been vulnerable with them. I am fascinated with the embodied interaction of art and humanity. I came back the next day and to my surprise there was a small stack of notes addressed to me. One simple one stood out, “On dark nights like this, I will remember your art and I will find hope.” I sat there and cried again, this time burning tears of conviction and joy.

Segullah: That is so moving. You are brave and your allowing yourself to show vulnerability shows it. I’m very impressed. If you weren’t an artist, what might you be in a perfect world?

Esther: A Nat-Geo human rights photojournalist or the owner of a non-profit contemporary dance studio for at-risk and underprivileged youth.

Segullah: Who are some of the other artists or professors whose work you really like and admire? Biggest influences?

Esther: My most influential personal artistic mentors have been my painting professor in undergrad, Jeff Merrill, my sculpture professor in undergrad, Viliami Toluta’u, and my former apprentice-er (is that a word?), Joseph Brickey. Jeff gave me a rock-solid understanding of expressive realism; Viliami taught me priceless lessons about creating genuine and anatomically sound portraiture in all mediums; and Joseph continues to teach me to see and create sacred symbolism in all that I do.

I also really enjoy traditional indigenous arts and handiwork from across the world. As for modern abstract art, I understand it and sometimes deeply enjoy it, especially if it has a powerful and meaningful purpose. (One example that is popping into my head is the shoe installation at the Holocaust museum, but I don’t usually dedicate as much time to viewing it. I don’t have the same technical appreciation for it that I have for well-executed figurative work.

“As Grains of Sand” by Esther Hi’ilani Candari

Segullah: I love the phrase “the female gaze” in your artist statement – although I’m not entirely sure I know what it means. Can you explain that a little more, maybe with some examples?

Esther: My interpretation and understanding of the term is that it is the counterpart to the “Male Gaze” within art theory. It is the female and empowered view of the female form rather than the objectified male view of the female form. Within historical and contemporary religious art you may not have the same degree of sexual objectification that you see within classical secular art, but there is prevalent spiritual objectification of the female body and form. One of my goals as an artist is to take that lens back and portray the female form in its imperfect but empowered state. I want the women I portray to be active givers of spiritual truth and power rather than impossibly pure, passive, and whitewashed receptacles or beneficiaries of male power.

Segullah: How do you juggle the careful balance between invoking emotions and allowing viewers to fully engage with your images without the art being didactic? That’s a difficult path to walk!

Esther: I may be understanding the word ‘didactic’ differently than you because I intend my work to be so. As an artist, I see my visual practice the same way as I see my vocal and written practice as an educator. I strive to present my viewers with enough facts or information to set the stage, then I propose unique questions and step back to allow them to insert their personal experience and inquiry into the space that remains.

Segullah: Aesthetically and intellectually engaging. A great combination. Tell us about your Master’s Thesis work. This sentence from your website is especially evocative: 

This study aims to give a limited example of how empathy can be fostered using a specific tool of communication—fine art—focusing on a specific challenging topic—female infertility—and in a specific social setting—religious instruction. 

Esther: As someone with a unique personal background who has often felt misjudged and misunderstood, I have always been fascinated with how humans can better communicate and develop a productive understanding and appreciation for different life experiences and world views. How I settled on this specific topic is a long and frustrating story involving a lot of petty drama from my grad school administration, but suffice it to say at the end of the day I saw how God, yet again used the “no’s” in my life to direct me to a divine purpose.

Segullah: Conveying attitudes toward fertility and infertility in visual arts seems daunting and fascinating. Your website – and its interactive components – gives a rich sense of how complex and interdisciplinary a task you created for yourself. You are not only creating artwork, but you are essentially doing sociological and theological work in both infertility and religious pedagogy. What a meaty endeavor! Did you have this particular project in mind when you began your Master’s work, or did it evolve over time?

“Of the Barren and the Fruitful” by Esther Hi’ilandi Candari

Esther: I have a certain proclivity for biting off way more than I expected and demanding way more of myself than is most likely necessary. It’s a blessing and a curse. My thesis was no different. The school I went to has a uniquely rigorous research aspect to their MFA program, but I went above and beyond even that because once I start asking questions I have a hard time knowing when to stop. If I can’t find the answers, then I have to find a way to to find the answers, hence the development of the primary research portion of my thesis. This idea was fairly different than the ideas I went into my program with. I always knew I wanted to research the general concepts of empathy and human communication, but the final destination was unexpected.

Segullah: What snags or challenges did you face in your studies – and how did you resolve them? 

The most surprising road bump (other than the obvious, COVID, which hit during my last three months) was how reluctant pastors, priests, and rabbi’s were to let me distribute my survey to their congregation, or even advertise my survey on their premises. A majority of my sample was LDS, not for lack of dedicated and prolonged efforts to expand my pool, but because, unlike other clergy, all of the Bishops I got a hold of allowed me to use their ward FB pages to advertise my research. The remainder of my respondents were mostly found via my personal social media and that of my Christian friends from graduate school. All of this was despite carefully following IRB regulations for transparency and controlling for bias in the survey questions. Unfortunately due to the timeline and onset of a worldwide pandemic, I never completely resolved this road bump, but it did confirm my conviction that there is a greater need for these conversations and research within Judeo-Christian circles.

One of the major road bumps resultant from COVID was the cancellation of my in-person exhibit. It was a big letdown at first because I was the only MFA student graduating that semester and therefore had the entire gallery to myself. I had planned to create an immersive experience using the both the final artwork and the props, scenery, and research that had gone into it. Yet again though, it became something just as good if not possibly better because it forced me to create a digital experience that was accessible to a much wider audience than the physical show would have been. I saw my work touch hearts and open minds across the globe thanks to the wonders of the internet and Wix.

Segullah:  I’m so sorry that COVID impacted your exhibit. What a blow – out of which you apparently found jewels of creativity. What was most freeing and satisfying about the process?

I am not sure I would describe the process as freeing. I am still recovering from some post thesis PTSD. But, it was empowering to step back and recognize the Herculean task I had accomplished in the course of less than a year, as well as the personal academic and artistic growth required to accomplish that task. I had never painted work anywhere near that level of complexity before or written anything near that level of rigor and length. Yet again, biting off too much. It’s a pattern.

Segullah: I love how your website emphasizes the interactive nature of art and human response and behavior. How do YOU feel toward the women you have depicted?

Esther: Like I know them and they know me. Painting work like this has always been a deeply spiritual experience, and there are brief moments when it feels like time and space compact, and the veil is lifted. Reading the scriptures and listening to the spoken word has always been a hit and miss path to religious edification for me, but the creation or appreciation of the visual or musical arts is an open and glorious door if I prepare myself adequately.

Segullah: What would you want viewers to consider/ponder as they study or view your artwork? 

Esther: How your personal emotions might mirror those of the women depicted and not just the ‘good’ or ‘pitiable’ emotions. Discipleship requires of us that we sit with and address our jealously, hatred, and anger. These women undoubtedly did, some days better than others. We must do the same.

Segullah: What are the take-aways you’d most like viewers to have when they engage with the images you create?

Esther: See these stories through new and humanizing eyes. These women are simultaneously so much more but also much more human than we make them out to be. The scriptures become crippled by our own hasty and limited cultural lenses. My hope is that my artwork and research serves to reposition those lenses and provide a new and arguably more accurate perspective than mainstream rhetoric.

“All I ask” oil painting by Esther Hi’ilani Candari

Segullah: Have you had  other “aha!” moments in your artistic life (besides the stack of thank you notes at the sculpture exhibit)?

Esther: Another momentous one was the creation of my painting “All I Ask” which now resides in the collection of the Church History Museum in Salt Lake. There was something about that piece that helped me to begin to bridge the gap between decent amateur work to powerful, moving, and masterful work. I knew when I painted it that I had turned a corner, and there was no going back.

The first time I sunk my hands into wet clay.

The first time I saw the colors in a shadow while painting from life and was able to replicate them.

Segullah: Besides making impressive artwork, what else do you like to do for fun or edification? House plants? Guinea Pigs?

Esther: My houseplants are more like my cheap alternative for therapy, as were my Guinea Pigs who we sadly had to re-home when we moved from Virginia. But I really do enjoy all things plants and animals, thanks to my somewhat rural upbringing. In the last couple years I have gotten into gardening and canning a lot of my own food. My husband and I are total foodies and cook together at least once or twice a week. Latin social dancing, swing dancing, window shopping for dogs (which ended in our adopting a dog two weeks ago!), actually shopping for vintage furniture, and chocolate connoisseur-ship are a few of my other vices.

Segullah: Thank you so much, Esther, for sharing your artwork and worldviews (and vices) with us here. Thanks for your candor and your obvious commitment to justice, unity, and understanding one another. Thanks for sharing your gifts of heart and hands. May you have a healthy and creatively productive year!

Read Esther Hi’ilani Candari’s artist statement here.

About Linda Hoffman Kimball

Linda Hoffman Kimball is an artist, writer, photographer, and poet who grew up as a faithful Christian near Chicago, & joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1971 while at Wellesley College near Boston. Early on she assumed that all Latter-day Saints were articulate, inquisitive, faithful, and socially engaged since her role models in the University wards in Cambridge, MA., were. Her husband says she is “fluent, but not native” in Mormon-ese. She is a founding member of Mormon Women for Ethical Government.

Leave a Comment