Louis Pohl... An Artists' Artist

Louis Pohl (1915 - 1999)

In the rich and vibrant tapestry of Hawaii artists is woven the life and works of a special painter, Louis Pohl.

Considered by many an artist's artist, Louis Pohl through his craft reflected brilliance and through his heart nurtured the potential waiting to be tapped in others. Painter, illustrator, art teacher, mentor, printmaker, and cartoonist were all venues in which Louis Pohl had achieved outstanding recognition the significance of which resulted in his being designated a “Living Treasure of Hawaii” by the 1994 Hawaii State Legislature.

Born in 1915, in Cincinnati, Louis was the oldest of 6 children. A childhood bout with rheumatic fever made it impossible to walk without excruciating pain and prevented Louis from entering school until he was 8 years old. To keep Louis busy while his brothers were in school, his parents would give him papers and pencils with which to draw. He was always drawing - that is what he knew best.

Good fortune smiled on young Louis and set his life on a path that would ultimately bring him to Hawaii to live and work. An act of generosity would change Louis' life forever and continue to open opportunities for him throughout his life.

Louis was 14 when the Great Depression in progress and he worked as a caddy during the summer at the local golf course. A regular foursome of well-to-do women had a very special bet. The loser would make their caddy's wish come true. Louis waited patiently for his turn. The loser on that day was Mrs.Yaeger. Louis dared to say to her what he had rehearsed in his mind for two years, “I want to go to art school.”

Mrs. Yaeger invited Louis to her house to discuss the matter, but he was too shy so he sent his father over to the house with his drawings. Without hesitation, she told Mr. Pohl to have Louis report to the Cincinnati Art Museum the next day explaining she would pay the tuition for one year.

However, this presented a problem as there was hardly enough money for the large family during the Depression, let alone the extras for Louis to go to art school across town. To earn tokens for the streetcar ride to school, Louis did chores for his uncle Ott everyday. His best friend, Bob Fabe, begged his mother to make big lunches to share with Louis. Louis and Bob pulled pranks on each other and challenged each other to do more and better work.

The first year of his formal art education was devoted only to drawing, as is the tradition in a professional art school of his time. Paper and drawing pencils were readily available and Louis was a dedicated and prolific student.

At the end of the school year he went back to the golf course and had the excellent fortune to see Mrs. Yaeger. She casually asked Louis how he was doing. He replied that he had so much more to learn. She paid his tuition for another year of art school.

The second year's focus, painting, caused financial problems because oils, brushes and canvas were so expensive. To resolve this, Louis stayed after the other students had left and, before the school closed for the night, collected the oil paints from the rims of the rubbish cans that other students had scraped off their palettes. He also salvaged canvases from the trash or painted over his own paintings.

Louis spent the next 4 years as a teacher's assistant. He did most of the hands on teaching given to the art students and he also taught art to underprivileged kids on Saturdays. His fine art regularly won monetary prizes and he received many commissions for large works. Eventually, Louis received his certificate of art upon the completion of a full standing nude and the copy of the Rembrandt that hung in the Cincinnati Museum. So close was his own rendition of the Rembrandt that Louis was nearly arrested before officials realized the painting was not the original but rather a likeness that young Louis had done.

After art school, Louis did any work that involved creativity. Among other things, he worked as a graphic and window display designer, and even a furniture painter. When World War II broke out, Louis enlisted in the Navy. This began the second part of his life and introduced him to the beauty of the islands. Realizing Louis' skills with a paintbrush, the navy sent him to Hawaii and put his talent to work by assigning him to painting ships in dry dock. He also did foxhole duty off Waikiki beach near the Elks' Club -with a rifle he watched for enemy ships through the barbed wire that was strewn on the beach.

Louis was injured when a destroyer caught fire and the explosion knocked him off the second level of a scaffold. Louis was medically discharged and reluctantly returned to Cincinnati. Once home, he was hired as the supervisor of 150 artists for the Work Project for the Arts (WPA). As part of this initiative, Louis created paintings such as portraits of then president Franklin D. Roosevelt, visual renditions of some of the famous battles including the Battle of Midway, as well as training signs for the war effort.

In 1946, Louis got a call from a former teacher and friend, Bill Stamper, who had talked the Board of Directors of the Honolulu Art Academy into establishing a professional art school. Bill invited Louis to come to Hawaii to start-up the School that at the time was based in Quonset huts on the Ward/Kinau site of the Honolulu Art Academy. Louis taught at the Academy for 35 years.

A little-known side of Louis surfaced around 1956-'57 when Louis was contracted by the Honolulu Advertiser to furnish a daily cartoon he wrote and illustrated entitled "School Daze". The entire collection of which was collated and published in 1998 as a book by the same name.

In 1960, Hawaii and other parts of the nation saw yet another side of Louis Pohl when he wrote and illustrated the wonderfully simple and thoughtful book, "It's Really Nice!", published by Little, Brown & Company.

"When you know that God
Keeps the stars in the sky...

When the autumn leaves
Go dancing by,
It's really nice."

Not satisfied with just one outlet for his teaching, Louis also taught art at the Kamehameha Schools for 15 years. This enabled him to expose even more children to the wonders of art. He would say, “I can teach anybody to paint. Everybody has talent; you just have to be given permission to explore that part of your life. Encouragement is the key to success”.

The start provided by his benefactor set Louis on his lifetime path to not just be an artist and teacher but to encourage others with a passion to create and support those who do not have the means. Reaching out to others has been one of the key tenets that Louis lived by. He was very rich in the art of giving.

In addition to the many individuals whose passion for art and style of expression he helped to cultivate, Louis Pohl's legacy includes a wealth of works commemorating his love for Hawaii and all of its beauty.

In the same way he encouraged students to study their subjects, Louis pursued his own chosen subjects with a thoroughness and depth characteristic of the master he was. These qualities were vividly expressed in all of Louis' works the most well known being his series on volcanoes, the sea, and birds.

The extent to which Louis Pohl's art is appreciated can still be seen in the many galleries and exhibitions that have and continue to include him among their featured artists.

Indeed, Louis Pohl was an artist's artist.

Click to view more Louis Pohl paintings.