If you walk into the Mill’s gallery right now, you’ll be greeted by a striking portrait. A lovely silver-haired couple meet your gaze, while behind them, the Pacific ocean dances in abstraction. Who are they? Their story, and the stories of many others form the exhibit Mai Ka Pouli: (Re)presentations of Moananuiākea, on view at the Mill through July 8th. This powerful show features artists from Hawaiʻi, Aotearoa and Samoa responding to historic photographs of Hawaiʻi and Oceania found in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Pacific Island Photography Collection. The couple in the portrait are painter Saumolia Puapuaga’s parents, captured in a unique work he created for the show. I sat down with Saumolia to learn more about the portrait, his process, and his story as an artist.


“When first asked to participate in the show, I didn’t know what I wanted to paint,” says Saumolia. “I did know it would be a portrait, but of whom? Most of my art is ocean themed, inspired by nature’s changing beauty. I wanted to highlight moana, a significant life force that connects all of Oceania.  As I looked through the photo collection, I was inspired by the beauty of our Samoan people and the environment. I didn’t know their story or who I was looking at because most of the images were not documented. This got me to think: who am I? Where do I come from? And what do I want to say?” These questions led him to his parents, and the opportunity to reclaim a piece of missing family history.


Growing up, Saumolia always wondered why his parents didn’t have a wedding portrait, or any photos of their wedding – something that all his other friends’ parents seemed to have. His parents were married on December 11th, 1971 in San Diego, after meeting and falling in love in church on July 4th, 1971. They celebrated their fifty-second wedding anniversary in December. They both migrated to the United States from American Samoa at different times. 

His dad, Taylor, came in pursuit of an education in 1965. He attended Southern Nazarene University in Oklahoma and later went on to Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri to earn his Master of Divinity and Master of Religious Education in 1982. His mom, Isapela, came to San Diego in 1964 as the daughter of a military family. Together they had seven children. Saumolia is number six. Creating the portrait of his parents for the show was a way to reclaim the lost photo and share his parent’s legacy through art.

Saumolia created the piece, entitled Puapuaga, working with his parents as live models. Looking through the LACMA collection, he was struck by a photograph of the King and Queen of Samoa and strove to give this same royal energy to the portrait. His parents sat for a series of live painting sessions over a month-long period. On the first day of painting, Saumolia asked his dad how it felt to have his portrait painted. His dad replied, “it feels important.” “I remember his response brought me to tears and from that moment, I knew why I was painting mom and dad — I was painting Love,” says Saumolia. 

In the portrait, his dad, who has been a pastor for forty-six years holds a Bible. His mom holds a woven “Ili” or fan that reveals a cross, symbolizing the interwoven dynamic between Samoan culture and Christianity. She is also very active in the church and taught Sunday school in between raising their seven children. In the background, Saumolia’s signature abstract painting style envelopes his parents in a stunning view of the Pacific, with a rainbow spanning the horizon. 

Painting with Intuition

Saumolia’s process as a painter relies heavily on intuition and quick, instinctive mark making. Drawing on his Samoan roots, he translates the dashes and lines used by tapa makers or traditional tattooists to paintbrush and canvas. He builds up layers and layers of paint in this fashion, with some pieces having as many as twenty layers. Living in Hauʻula, Hawaiʻi, the ocean and the horizon serve as Saumolia’s living color palette —  from the muted, moody colors of dusk and dawn, to the iridescent blues of high noon, to the fiery hues of sunset. 

For Saumolia, there is a deeper component to painting than the work itself. Art is therapy. Creation is liberating for the soul. “When I go to my canvas, I can forget everything and just dance with my brush, kind of like jazz musicians improvise, that’s how it feels — freeing,” he says. 


A feeling is how it all began. Saumolia remembers first becoming aware of art and the power it had back when he was around five years old. “I saw how it caused a reaction in others and within myself, how it was a way to connect with other people,” says Saumolia. While he didn’t start making Art art right away, this early awareness led him to study art at Kapiolani Community College and later earn his BFA at the University of Hawaiʻi at Manoa. In school, he gravitated toward painting from the beginning and soon fell in love with oils, for their rich, vibrant tone. “I had a professor at UH that liked to say “oil paint is like butter!” and I love butter,” says Saumolia laughing. 

After graduation in 2012, Saumolia lived and worked in Oklahoma City for five years. In 2017, he returned to Hawaiʻi, where he currently lives and works as a full time artist. His recent solo shows include Dear Saumolia at the Hawaiʻi State Art Museum and Hau’ula Horizon 100 with Pictures Plus in Kakaʻako.

Looking Forward 

As for what’s next, Saumolia plans to create work honoring his beloved dog and faithful painting companion, Pele, who passed away recently. With her passing, his mind has been on the afterlife and seeking spiritual connection at his favorite place — the ocean’s edge.  

When I ask him if he has any words of wisdom for other artists, he says: “It’s only been recently that I’ve been able to find my voice through art. Find your voice through art, whatever the medium. Art empowers us. Do research to reinforce your ideas and meaning behind what you create.”

Connect with Saumolia and follow his work on Instagram and Tiktok @artbysaumolia and on his website https://www.artbysaumolia.com/. You can find more of Saumolia’s art at https://www.picturesplusprints.com/ and https://808arts.com/.

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.