The Largest Private Collection of ‘Sugar Art’ Is Headed to University of Hawaii Maui College

Maui art collector Jo Rockwell recently donated a significant collection of paintings of Hawaii's sugar mills and the people who manned them.

Painting of large mill with tree placed in front in the middle
Uri Blayer, Lahaina Mill, from the collection “Maui Sugar—the Twilight Years.” Courtesy UHMC

Jo Rockwell, a longtime resident of Maui’s Kaanapali community, had always intended to gift her art collection to University of Hawaii Maui College (UHMC). The collector’s original plan was to pass on the works when she died or was no longer able to live in her house. But after last year’s Lahaina wildfires caused Rockwell to evacuate that house twice, she decided to fast-track the donation so the artworks would be safe in the case of future disasters.

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The thirty-nine pieces document Hawaii’s history of sugar production and are believed to make up the largest private collection of “sugar art.” Rockwell’s full collection can now be viewed on the UHMC campus in a permanent display entitled “Maui Sugar—The Twilight Years.”

Woman stands in front of gallery wall filled with paintings
Jo Rockwell originally intended to donate the collection after her passing. Courtesy UHMC

Rockwell, who was drawn to industrial art from an early age, has long been fascinated by Maui’s historical sugar mills. After hearing of the planned demolition of Lahaina’s Pioneer Mill, which once oversaw ten acres of cane production, she purchased a painting of the plantation as her first acquisition some eighteen years ago. The work was created by Uri Blayer, an artist whose scenes of Hawaii are held in private, corporate and institutional collections like those of Bank of Hawaii and Hawaii State Museum.

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Before coming across Blayer’s work, Rockwell “was struck to [her] bones” after viewing a pastel painting of Puunene Mill by the late artist Stephen Burr while visiting Lahaina’s Village Gallery in 2005. “Even though I was unable to purchase that painting it was the beginning of a passion that lasted the rest of my life,” she said in a statement.

When sugar was king

The Puunene mill owned by the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company that closed in 2016 was Hawaii’s last operating sugar mill. Its final harvest marked the end of an era that played a formative role in the region’s history. Sugar production began in Hawaii in the 19th Century and their product was in high demand after the Civil War cut off the North’s access to Southern sugar and an 1870s treaty between the U.S. and what was then the Kingdom of Hawaii eliminated tariffs on Hawaiian sugar. The subsequent boom in sugar plantations led to scores of laborers coming to Hawaii from Japan, China, Portugal, Puerto Rico and the Philippines—immigration that helped form the basis of Hawaii’s diverse population today.

Painting of sugar cane worker with straw hat holding a knife to a cane
Macario Pascual, Worker in Straw Hat, from the collection “Maui Sugar—the Twilight Years.” Courtesy UHMC

The lasting legacy of the Puunene mill is depicted in So What’s Next? by Ronaldo Macedo, another work from Rockwell’s collection. Originally from Brazil, Macedo has lived in Maui since 1989 and in 2006 founded the Maui Plein Air Painting Invitational, an annual local festival dedicated to outdoor painting. UHMC additionally received pieces by artists like Macario Pascual, who often depicts life on sugarcane fields through his art and has a personal connection to the sugar industry—his father moved to Maui from the Philippines shortly after World War I to work at a sugar plantation.

“This collection is so special and so powerful because it represents a history that so many of our students are connected to in one way or another, but may not know much about since the plantations closed,” said Jocelyn Romero Demirbag, director of development for UHMC at the University of Hawaii Foundation, in a statement. “In that way, UHMC is an ideal location for the collection which is educational as well as personal history for so many in our communities.”

The Largest Private Collection of ‘Sugar Art’ Is Headed to University of Hawaii Maui College