At Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina, your eyes will fixate on the half-moon-shaped lagoon and the sandy beach lining it just outside. But give the art hanging next to the lobby a careful look, or you just might miss the next big artist and some of the hotel’s best views.
If you happened to peruse the white walls back in late 2018, you would have gotten a sneak peek at fashion brand Guess’ summer 2019 collection. The Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star hotel’s artist-in-residence Eduardo Bolioli hung his Pop-influenced island paintings there. Guess took some of the vivid pieces bearing hammerhead sharks, malolos (Hawaiian for “flying fish”) and honu (green sea turtles) and transformed them into fabric for a limited-edition line of men’s bathing suits and T-shirts, which quickly sold out.
The environment features prominently in Bolioli’s juxtaposition of bold nature prints and native silhouettes, so it makes sense that the theme carries over to the eye-catching board shorts — they are made of 100 percent recycled polyester from plastic bottles plucked from the ocean.
While Bolioli hails from South America, he feels drawn to Hawaii for one singular reason: “Freedom,” says the artist, who lives in Makakilo on Oahu’s west side about 10 minutes from the hotel. He spends around eight months of the year on the island and the rest of the time in his native Uruguay.
“I never felt more free than here in Hawaii,” says Bolioli. “This place doesn’t judge you like other places. This is a place I can be myself.”
Bolioli moved to New York in the late ’70s and attended the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in the early ’80s alongside up-and-coming artists such as Keith Haring. Like his contemporary, Bolioli imbues his work with the colorful Pop and street art that was prevalent of the period. “I’m part of a generation who grew up in that time where graffiti became an art form,” he says.
But he felt out of place in the United States’ art capital. “Everyone back then wore black,” says Bolioli, who had a royal blue baseball cap and a bushy light red beard with wisps of white when we chatted at the resort. “There I was, a skater/surfer with a different color palette.”
In 1984, Bolioli decided to take a semester off, even though SVA professor Harvey Kurtzman (the prominent cartoonist who founded MAD) dangled a job offer at Playboy to entice him to finish school. On a whim, Bolioli went on a trip to Hawaii and found a home that inspired him to pursue his two passions: surfing and art. He began painting boards, becoming a pioneer in the art form by eschewing airbrushing in favor of Japanese water-based Posca markers.
During this fruitful time on Oahu, he painted world champions’ boards, designed for surf brands like Quiksilver and Billabong, landed a gig as Absolut Vodka’s Hawaii artist, created animations for VH1 and did concert posters for Miles Davis, Aerosmith and UB40.
Then Bolioli signed an agreement with an art publishing company that brought him back to Uruguay. “Once I left Hawaii, things went really wrong for me,” he says. The publishing company folded, taking all of Bolioli’s art with it.
Left without a job, he had to find a way to support his family: “I traded my wetsuit for a suite and tie.” He took a position with Seagram’s and stayed there for 14 years.
When a new boss swooped in, Bolioli was laid off. He then returned to Hawaii in 2014. But Bolioli wasn’t sure art would be a viable career — he only sold one painting in the preceding 23 years. He dipped his toes in the water, produced a surfing painting and posted a photo of it on Facebook. His friend Shaun Tomson, a well-known surfer, shared it on his feed and a buyer snatched up the work. “I thought, ‘I am back!’” Bolioli says.
“I was getting out of a dark place,” he says. “There was a lot of anger. Coming back to Hawaii, I was finding myself and finding my essence. That’s why I am at Four Seasons. Though 58, Bolioli says since he restarted his art career five years ago, he feels 35. “While most of my friends are making retirement plans, I am making career ones.”
“Looking back, this is where I became an artist,” he says. “Sometimes when you live in a place like this, you don’t realize how good you have it until you leave.”
His debut 2018 exhibit at the Four Seasons, “My Surreal Island Life,” showed how idyllic it is to live in paradise. Free diver Kimi Werner inspired Quiet Flight, where a woman in flippers peacefully swims among a school of spotted eagle rays (Bolioli had a similar experience with the fish near the resort) against the backdrop of oversized blue monstera leaves.
But the pieces often make a deeper point. In Ahi and Pineapples, a man rides a fish like a surfboard, showing how humans exploit other species to the point of extinction. A woman mounts a dolphin like a bucking bronco in “Ride the Wild A’uku,” pushing you to think about the lives of animals in captivity.
On display now is his second hotel show, “West Side Stories,” which pays homage to the local surf culture, highlighting icons like American World Surfing Champion Rell Sunn and trailblazer Buffalo Keaulana.
Up next is “Life on Board,” which debuts June 22 at the Oahu hotel. It marks a return to his roots: Bolioli will showcase 15 custom-painted surfboards. He took Surfboard Factory Hawaii discards and repurposed the flawed boards into what he calls “Hawaiian surf art” with bright hues, sea life and local legends adorning them.
Four Seasons kicked off its Artist in Residence program in September 2017 with Oahu-based surf artist Welzie. Traces of Welzie’s tenure remain at the property — his murals cover the walls at the children’s Camp Kohola and day trips to his studio can be arranged. The hotel offers another connection to the featured artists: Book one of the specialty suites for four nights or more at its published rate and receive a $1,500 credit to commission an original work from any of the current or former artists-in-residence.
While his Four Seasons residency ends with the conclusion of “Life on Board” (though the hotel hints that there may be more work with him forthcoming), Bolioli is already onto other projects. He will unveil a new swimwear line called SEAY Collective on September 17 during Milan Fashion Week. Made of recycled fibers and certified organic cotton, the men and women’s pieces sport patterns based off of his artwork. He also plans to exhibit his art next year in Mexico, Chile, Argentina and Europe.
But no matter where his art takes him, Bolioli will return to Hawaii. “Although I am not born here, and it’s not traditional Hawaiian art, every brushstroke, every color and every image is influenced by me being here,” he says. “If I was anywhere else in the world, my work would look totally different.”