Akiko Cutlip Painting Katachi Collage On Paper
Artist Akiko Cutlip Painting
Akiko Cutlip 'dazzling Blossom ' Acrylic And Oil Stick On Canvas

Akiko Cutlip’s art appeals to the kid in me. Her abstract paintings and collages are vibrant, playful, and free. Black lines dance between shapes of bright color and clean white space on canvas — a window into a mysterious and whimsical world. Most of all, I can see and feel that her pieces are created with pure joy.


Akiko’s inspiration often begins with her photographic memory, a kind of internal filofax that catalogs all of her sensory experiences in vivid detail, whether she likes it or not. The bright red or candy pink of a kimono she wore as a child in Japan for festivals, the silhouette of a tree on a wild and winding Holualoa road, the bold black brush strokes of Shodo (Japanese Calligraphy) on white paper. Snippets of shape, color, and memory coalesce — a mental collage — which she then brings to life on canvas.

From the initial inspiration, Akiko’s process becomes an intuitive conversation with the painting itself. Do you want a line here? How do you feel about this pink? I know, it’s beautiful. It seems like you need some of it right here… There is plenty of space for surprise and serendipity, for the work to take on a life of its own. Like hopping in the car for a drive, destination unknown. It’s in these spaces where creativity really thrives – unconfined and out of the box.

This intuitive, playful approach to art is something that Akiko credits her young students with teaching her. She is a teaching artist in the Donkey Mill Art Center’s keiki art program. “Kids are so free, they don’t have pressure or expectations. This shows in their artwork,” says Akiko. “I try to be more like them.”


As a kid herself, Akiko’s education experience was different in Japan, where her teacher -student relationships were much more hierarchical and traditional. After sharing her dreams of being a teacher with her teacher, she remembers them saying, “You’re not an educator.” That was it. “It makes me laugh now,” says Akiko, “because I am a teacher!” Pursuing her interest in art felt equally intimidating and rigid in Japan. You had to fit into a certain mold.

Being the free spirit that she is, Akiko hopped a plane to California at age 18, where she enrolled in California State University, East Bay. She didn’t know anyone in the country and couldn’t speak English. She began as a graphic design major, planning to go into commercial art. From her discouraging experience in high school, she didn’t think she was good enough to become a fine artist.

However, as fate would have it, her art teacher in college, Corban LePell, thought differently. “He encouraged me to change my major to studio art,” says Akiko. “He really believed in me. He was so supportive and kind to all of the students. He was more like a friend than a teacher.” Akiko graduated with a B.A. in Studio Art in 1998.


Another significant person Akiko met in college was her husband, and fellow artist, Michael Cutlip. They were both in the studio arts program, studying under LePell. Each year the school awarded special 24/7 studio access to a few select students and both Akiko and Michael were picked. They’d spend hours in the studio, staying up all night painting.

The pair married after graduating and have two children together, Sumi and Luca, who are teenagers now. The family spent many years in San Francisco, until relocating to the Big Island of Hawai’i in 2017. Akiko originally wanted to move to Honolulu, but stumbled upon the Donkey Mill Art Center while on a solo trip researching places to live.

“As soon as I walked in the door, I knew this was the place we were supposed to be,” says Akiko of the Donkey Mill. “I couldn’t believe there was this incredible art center with so much in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.” She called her husband and said: “I found where we’re moving to.” They built a home in Holualoa, complete with an art studio which they share.


Akiko taught children’s art classes in San Francisco, so getting involved in the Donkey Mill Art Center’s keiki program felt like a natural evolution. Sadly, the majority of Hawai’i’s public schools have no art programs. This is particularly true at the elementary level. DMAC’s keiki arts program was founded to help fill the creative void.

The program is led by artist Gerald Lucena, with Akiko and Angaea Cuna serving as teaching artists. They teach in school and after school art classes for K–5th graders at Holualoa Elementary. In the future, the goal is to secure more funding and more art teachers to be able to expand this program to other elementary schools in Kona.

When I ask her why art is important for young people, Akiko says: “creativity builds a person.” She also notes that art can serve as an important outlet of self-expression for keiki. “It can be hard for kids to communicate,” says Akiko. “They are still learning language, how to speak and share their feelings. Art is a different way for them to express themselves.”


Akiko has exhibited her work in the U.S. and Japan, including: Genkan Gallery, Tokyo American Club, in Tokyo, Japan, Bryant Street Gallery, in Palo Alto, CA, Brush Stroke in Berkeley, CA, the Fairmont Kea Lani in Maui, HI, and at The Donkey Mill Art Center. She has an upcoming show at Island Boy in Honolulu, Hawai’i scheduled for July 2022.

Akiko’s work has also been featured in real estate staging and interior design projects by the Big Island luxury staging and design firm, Mahalo Hale.

Words of Wisdom

When I ask Akiko if she has any advice on being an artist, she immediately calls up words of wisdom from her late professor, Corban LePell:

“Keep your brush wet.” 

“Your next piece will always be the best piece.” 

“Don’t be attached to outcomes.”


“Yellow is a dangerous color!”

“But I use a lot of yellow in my paintings,” says Akiko, laughing. That’s the thing with art. Sometimes, you’ve got to break the rules.

I must admit, talking to Akiko about her passion for art and teaching makes me want to pull a Billy Madison and go back to elementary school — just so I can take her classes. This might be a long shot, but in the meantime, you can join me in living vicariously through her Instagram: @akiko_cutlip_art

About the Author: Emily Gleason is a writer and digital storyteller based in Kona, Hawai’i. Learn more at: mthewriter.com.


In 2018, Wai’ala and Justin relocated from Waikoloa to an off grid homestead in Ka’u. At 4,500 foot elevation, they grow food and an incredible array of flowers – dahlias, roses, poppys, calendula, zinnias, camomile, daisies, coreopsis, marigold, and cosmos to name a few. In addition to indigo dyeing, they do flower bundle dyeing and cut flower arrangements.

Perhaps the couple’s latest and most exciting creative collaboration to date is their one and a half year old son, Kupuohi.


To stay connected, follow Wai’ala and Justin @petalsandpigments on social media, or find them online at: https://waialaahn.wixsite.com/waihooluu. If your community or group is interested in hosting them for a private workshop, contact Wai’ala at: waiala.ahn@gmail.com.