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The Mona Lisas’ of Hawaii – Pegge Hopper’s Wahine

Wahine is the HPegge Hopper 2awaiian word for woman and if you’ve ever visited Hawaii you’ve probably encountered the works of Pegge Hopper. Her art adorns the walls of our galleries and museums, the Honolulu airport, as well as various hotels and resorts in Hawaii. Much like Davinci’s Mona Lisa, the Polynesian women painted by Pegge Hopper have a seductive air of mystery about them.

The Hawaiian Wahines depicted in Pegge’s paintings wear an expression that you can’t quite put your finger on. Strong, confident, and powerfully sensuous, they almost appear to be concealing a secret of sorts. Interestingly enough, while most see Pegge’s wahines as empowered, unapologetically aloof, confident and even sexy, Pegge herself views them as androgynous. Perhaps what is most interesting about Pegge Hopper and the works responsible for her recognition as an artist, is that they very easily could have escaped creation altogether.

Originally hailing from Oakland California, Pegge claims that art was the only thing she was good at and she knew early on that it was something she wanted to pursue. After attending the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, she and her portfolio made their way to NYC where she landed a job with Raymond Loewy creating interior artwork for department stores.

Like many artists before her, Pegge had an adventurous spirit and in the 1960’s she and her husband crossed the pond to Europe. They travelled the continent in a Volkswagen van and eventually settled in Milan working for the high-end department store La Rinascente. Pegge created posters for the chain on a small scale that were then blown up to billboard size, and could be found all over the country. Two years in to her gig with La Rinascente, Pegge and her husband returned to the US and eventually settled here in Hawaii where she began working with the ad agency Lennen Newell. It would appear that Pegge was well on her way to a long and successful career as an art director…or maybe not.

Making her own way in New York City and living abroad had fed Pegge’s independence and created a tenacious, strong, and motivated go-getter. It was this fierce desire to succeed that led her to push for advancement at the agency but rather than being promoted, she was fired. Though she couldn’t have known it at the time, this was truly a blessing in disguise.

Just prior to losing her job, Pegge had begun to experiment with a new medium. Acrylic paints had recently been invented and Pegge was testing them out. She started painting the Hawaiian women she’d seen in old photographs found in the archives. There was something about the large Polynesian women depicted in the photos that inspired the artist, and losing her job provided the time for Pegge to completely immerse herself in her rediscovered love of painting.

She never once used a live model for any of her now famous Wahines. Each was created based on something she’d seen in an old photograph and many were often a combination of something she’d seen in a photo with a minute detail or two found in the face of a woman she’d encountered at the market or seen on the street. The details would blend together when her brush touched a canvas, each time creating a new and beautiful, serene yet indifferent looking Hawaiian island woman, all from the archives of Pegge’s own creativity. It was these paintings of Polynesian women that led to her first commissioned work and set the stage for the type of recognition that most artists can only dream of.

Pegge Hopper is now in her late seventies and still creating. In Pegge’s own words, “an artist doesn’t retire”.

Pegge’s works and occasionally those of other artists can be found on display at the Pegge Hopper Gallery in Honolulu’s Chinatown section at 1164 Nuuanu Avenue. http://peggehopper.com/gallery/