If you’ve hung around the Mill lately, or attended any of its recent events, you’ve probably come face to face with Gerald Lucena’s art. A chameleon of sorts who is both artist, educator, mentor, and Mill staff member, he lets his creativity run wild across many different mediums including paint, fibers, flowers, and….sourdough bread to name a few. I sat down with Gerald, who is the Mill’s Youth Education and Fibers Studio Coordinator, to learn more about his work, and the Artists in the Schools program.


When he was a kid, Gerald’s parents had a collection of encyclopedias in the house. Growing up in 1970s Kona, there wasn’t a whole lot to do. One day, he opened encyclopedia A to “art” and found an image of Picasso’s Guernica staring back at him. “It freaked me out, but at the same time, I was drawn to it,” says Gerald. “I connected with it in this deep way. I felt this kind of internal fracturing.” He was a shy kid and often felt like he didn’t quite fit in. Art provided a refuge and an outlet. 

Gerald earned his BFA in painting and drawing from the University of Hawaiʻi Manoa in 1990. After graduation, he went on to do a residency at the Skowhegan School in Maine in 1992. It was here where he began to break the boundaries around the traditional medium of his education and experiment with all kinds of materials. “I was painting with mud, spray painting hay, just trying all kinds of things,” says Gerald, “your medium doesn’t have to define you.”


Gerald’s work explores the question of identity as a queer artist, including some of the more vulnerable and darker aspects of the experience. The concept of duality is another central theme in his work, exploring both the divine and the perverse, the spiritual and the physical, life and death. “My pieces are a way to have a dialogue with myself,” says Gerald. Characters from mythology at times serve as a narrative springboard. Figures in the landscape featuring Hawaiʻi’s abundant wild-growing flowers and tropical plants are both inspirational flash points and raw material for creation. 

Gerald has been involved in numerous community art projects, including murals for the Hawaiʻi Humane Society, Innovations Academy, and the Aloha Aina mural at the intersection of Palani and Kuakini Highway. He has designed many different sets for the Aloha Theatre, including for The Addams Family Musical, Mama Mia, and Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, among others. 

His work has been featured in exhibitions at the Donkey Mill Art Center, Studio 7 Gallery, East Hawaiʻi Cultural Center, AMP: Art Market Provincetown, Monterey Peninsula College, and will be part of the Honolulu Printmakers Exhibition in June.

Evolution of a Teacher 

Gerald began teaching art by accident, or some might call it fate. It all started when he signed up for a drawing class at the Imin Center in 2000. The class was being offered by the Hōlualoa Foundation for Arts and Culture, before they found their permanent home at the Donkey Mill Art Center building. It was through this class that he connected with Setsuko and Hiroki Morinuoe, the organization’s founders. “One day, Setsuko pulled me aside and asked if I was interested in teaching kids art,” says Gerald. “I didn’t have previous experience, but I said yes.” His first teaching job was at summer art experience, a five-week program followed by an after school A + program for sixty children both held on the floor of the Hōlualoa Elementary school cafeteria in 2003. 

Over the last twenty years, Gerald’s role in youth arts education at the Mill has grown and evolved exponentially. Among many other contributions, he helped to organize the current Artists in the Schools program (AITS), which brings teaching artists into Hōlualoa Elementary for a 10-week intensive for second, third, and fourth graders. He currently serves as the program’s director and mentor to its two teaching artists — Akiko Cutlip and Angaea Cuna.

Artists in the Schools Program

First of all, AITS is not your mom’s art class. There are no noodle necklaces, or coloring books with lines to stay within. A graduate of a local public school himself, Gerald remembers how his own childhood art classes were very cookie cutter, lacking creativity, critical thinking, and a sense of connection to something bigger. “The arts are often looked at as extras, not essential for students,” says Gerald. Today, many public schools in Hawaiʻi, especially at the elementary level, have cut art as a subject entirely. 

The AITS program changes the narrative, by putting art in the center of the student’s learning experience. During the 10-week intensive, artists address important cultural and scientific topics with the elementary students like rapid ‘Ōhi’a death, canoe plants, and Hawaiian ahupua’a through art projects, while also teaching foundational art principles like color, shape, and line. 

With each subject, students are encouraged to explore thoughts, opinions, and feelings that come up — an emotional component that is not present in a typical science or social studies class. This approach has led some students to explore how art can be used for activism and to educate others about important social, cultural, and environmental issues in Hawaiʻi. 

In addition to educating students, the AITS program also educates school teachers, providing training on how to incorporate art and visual learning into their lesson plans for the rest of the school year. The program is funded by a grant from the Hawaiʻi State Foundation on Culture and the Arts. Looking forward, Gerald and his team hope to expand the AITS program to include more local elementary schools and employ more teaching artists. 

“I see art as a tool that can help kids learn many different subjects, facilitate cultural connection, and a sense of positive identity,” says Gerald. “Our goal is to encourage curiosity and wonderment and build student’s confidence through exploration and experimentation.” 

The End, and Bread

When he isn’t working on AITS or making art, Gerald is probably baking his specialty — sourdough bread from scratch. If you know, you know, this is no ordinary bread my friends. Dyed a rich yellow with olena and crusted with a perfect semicircle of poppy seeds, it is edible art at its best. Lucky are those that have encountered it, piping hot on the Mill’s kitchen table, with a generous side of butter. 

The Mill is truly fortunate to have Gerald as a staff member, mentor, teacher, and artist. Follow and connect with him @gjameslucena to see more of his beautiful art, in all its forms.

Artwork pictured (center): Gerald Lucena, Drawing based on the Martyrdom of St. Erasmus, 2007

About the Author 

Emily Gleason is a writer and ceramic artist who contributes a monthly article feature to the Donkey Mill Art Center’s Blog. Learn more at https://mthewriter.com/ and follow her @emilysouthpaw.