From Kauai to Monhegan Island and Back Again

By Erin Kinhart
May 23, 2012
Photograph of Reuben Tam on Haleakala Crater
Reuben Tam on Haleakala Crater, before 1941 / unidentified photographer. Reuben Tam papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Tam's notes on Monhegan Island
Notes on Monhegan Island, ca. 1946. Reuben Tam papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

In a 1970 artist statement, Reuben Tam explained that his paintings are “about weather and geology, islands, tides, and light, and the very movement of the earth.” His personal papers, which were donated to the Archives of American Art in 2009, reveal Tam’s love for two very different island landscapes.

Tam was born into a large family in Kapaa Town, Kauai, Hawaii, in 1916. Inspired by the striking Hawaiian landscapes from a young age, his first oil painting was of Haupu Ridge, which he could see from his classroom at Kauai High School.

He received a degree from the University of Hawaii, studied at the California School of Fine Arts and, in 1941, settled in New York City. There he was represented by Downtown Gallery and taught at the Brooklyn Museum of Art School from 1946 to 1974.

Photograph of Reuben Tam on Monhegan Island
Reuben Tam on Monhegan Island, 1946 / unidentified photographer. Reuben Tam papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Sketch of Maine landscape
Maine landscape sketch, 195-?. Reuben Tam papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Though immersed in the New York art scene, Tam regularly took summer trips to the coastal islands of Maine.  His papers include an album containing photographs of a 1946 sketching trip with fellow artists William Kienbusch, Carl Nesjar, and Hyde Solomon. In 1948 he and his wife Geraldine bought a house on Monhegan Island, Maine, and spent summers there until 1979.

Tam felt drawn to Monhegan Island, and in his notes stated that it was “as if the sea had organized some sort of fraternity” that had also inspired artists such as Rockwell Kent, Andrew Winter, and Morris Kantor.

His papers include seventeen large sketchbooks of the rocky landscapes and shorelines, and several photographs of him perched on the cliffs with a sketchbook. 

In 1979, after nearly forty years, Tam and his wife moved back to Kauai. Once again, he could study the landscapes that originally inspired him. In 1984 he had an exhibition of old and new works at the Honolulu Academy of Arts entitled “Two Islands: Paintings by Reuben Tam.”

Both island homes inspired Tam not only to paint, but to write poetry as well. His papers include many draft poems, some of which were posthumously published as The Wind-Honed Islands Rise in 1996.

Erin Kinhart is a processing archivist at the Archives of American Art.



Thank you for your blog about my late uncle. My aunt Gerry, still living on Kauai,a noted published botanical illustrator who also taught at the Brooklyn Art School, will be happy to know that her donation of his papers, sketchbooks and miscellany to the American Art Archives, are still receiving interest in today's world of Facebook/Twitter. My uncle taught many students, and left life-long influences on many-Murray Tinkelman & Lorraine Fox, just as random examples.

"The Shores of Light" is a great paint-
you can visit in Smithsonian

Great art, Especially the Main landscape. Just perfect!
Greets from the Netherlands

What a great artist! Your uncle had contributed so much in your society and his family should be really so proud of him. Very nice art. :)

Nice Blog! Thanks for sharing it.

Wow, awesome blog, great story! thanks for sharing this blog.. keep it up!

I remember reading a quote that a live that isn't recorded, is one that isn't lived. Tam obviously recorded his life and now look at how we perceive him - a great man.

This is very good amazing job guys!

What an inspiring story your not the only one he inspires you but all of us here based on your post inspired by him. You must really proud to your uncle.