‘A Okay’ and ‘the real deal’ is my view of this unique man and I know it’s shared by everyone who meets him. Painter, print maker, teacher, political activist and wordsmith, Tomas Belsky was born on July 4, 1938, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, the seventh of nine children to Russian/Polish immigrant parents. “Mama said I was making pictures on the crib walls, so I’ve been at it awhile.” After High School, there was some eye-opening factory work that inspired his higher education which led to degrees in History, Painting and Spanish. Belsky went to Brazil (1965-68) with the U.S, Peace Corps, where his love of painting became paramount, largely due to the influence of naive artists working in favelas (slums) under adverse conditions lacking adequate art supplies.
Belsky has worked with young people in public schools, jails and half-way houses using creative processes to liberate students from numerous forms of anti-social behavior. “What art has done for me, it can do for others.” I had the privilege of working alongside him at Kaniu Kinikimaka-Stocksdale’s school of personal development and watched him teaching the classics of art and literature to homeschooled kids at Hilo Community Players. He’s a master educator and captivates the attention of his audience.
Before that I’d admired his murals and visited his studio and when I needed T shirts, posters and banners made for our circus and festivals and ‘jugglers for peace’ tours that I organised I went to Belsky. He is the silk screen king, all hand production, all original and all from the heart. His posters for local arts groups and political action groups are legendary. At one time his studio was in the old Mamo Street theatre, awaiting demolition, and to visit him involved a precarious trip up ancient broken stairways and across termite ridden floor boards. Belsky worked, and lived, there at times right up until it was torn down. He scorned materialism and moved to Ke’au, using an outbuilding for his studio and as a coup for breeding his precious pigeons.
There are deep philosophical reasons for everything Belsky does. He specialises in block printing because it is an essentially primal method of pictorial expression, filling a need for premeditated creativity as opposed to the more intuitive spontaneous aspects of oil painting. It also has the advantage of allowing the common citizen to own original works of art at reasonable prices. Prints are silk screened by hand in limited editions, signed and pinky-printed by the artist. Belsky’s subject matter is essentially related to the Spirit of Aloha ‘Aina — Love of the Land. He says, “We have much to be thankful for in Hawaii, and through my work I try to spread the appreciation for Nature and God’s blessings.”
Belsky was married to Moanike ala Akaka until she died of cancer in 2017. Significantly, he not only shared in his partner’s social and political activism but also shared her birthday on July 4th. For over forty years Belsky has participated in actions protesting causes including nuclear war, colonialism, Hawaii occupation, U.S. military invasions abroad and cannabis prohibition. In 2019 he was one of the 38, mostly kupuna (elders), arrested and charged with obstruction for preventing construction vehicles and workers from entering the sacred Mauna Kea mountain to work on a $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope project.
In addition to producing regular political newsletters Moani and Belsky wrote a personal story about Uncle Luther a legendary Hawaiian man of many talents and adventures who lived a long, colourful and individualistic life. At his 80th birthday celebration Belsky was similarly honoured by his many admirers for his very special contributions to life.
When his rented home and studio burned down in a fire he described himself as “a lucky son of a gun.” At age 81, he escaped with only the clothes he was wearing — a T-shirt with two pens attached, work shorts and a pair of sneakers. Much of his work went up in flames, including originals of many of the posters he painted over the years for the Hilo Community Players, and generational family photographs of Belsky’s life partner, Moanike‘ala Akaka, a Hawaiian advocate, activist and Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee.
“The place was built in 1922, single wall, termites in a lot of places, so it was like a tinderbox,” Belsky said. “I had a lot of work and a lot of paintings in there, Those things went up in a puff of smoke.” Friends sifted through the rubble afterwards and salvaged some possessions. “A lot of it was Moani’s memorabilia, a lot of her writing and my writing from the early ’70s when we first met.”
Belsky, is often at the Hilo Farmers Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays selling prints of his work and doing on-the-spot drawings for customers. Sometimes when I had bookings at fancy Kona hotels for caricature artists Belsky would make the trip and some good money. He did a portrait once of me that is one of my most treasured possessions.
On August 23rd 2019 an overflow crowd of about 200 people packed a Hilo courtroom as nine kupuna including Tomas Belsky were arraigned on charges they obstructed Mauna Kea Access Road to prevent construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope. They were the first of 38 individuals arrested on the mountain they consider sacred; all pleaded not guilty. Meanwhile everything is on hold due to COVID, various legal challenges and plans to possibly build the telescope in the Canary Islands.
Belsky is the real renegade deal………….and is AA Okay in my book.
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