That Lucky Find from our Attic
When we renovated our 1948 Suburban Sweetheart, we found a few items left in the attic from the previous owners. They didn’t want them, so we kept two items which were particularly interesting: a roll of vintage Korean silk and this gorgeous poster of the Hawaiian Islands.
We hoard our frequent flyer miles and hotel points, and every two years our family heads to Hawaii for two weeks of bliss: snorkeling, swimming, exploring, and all the pineapple we can eat. So to find this beautiful map of a place we truly love was kismet. And it seemed like the perfect jumping off point for this project.
But as an author and an avid student of art history, I needed to know more about this piece of art, and frankly, the history is fascinating.
This map was created by Joseph Feher, an artist born in Hungary in 1908. When World War I broke out, Feher’s family was torn apart. His father was conscripted into the Army and sent to the Italian front. He was there only two months when he was shot and sent home with shrapnel in his lungs. He died at home leaving his wife with four young children in a country being torn apart by war. “Hungary was under terrible conditions,” he later recalled, “There was no food and everybody was undernourished.”
Not long after his father died, Feher’s eight month-old sister died of starvation, and he and his brothers were sent to live with other relatives in search of better nutrition. Joseph Feher went to his grandmother in Budapest — a grandmother who supported his love of art. His mother and youngest brother eventually emigrated to the United States leaving her two older children in Hungary in the care of relatives for the next seven years. But Joseph was lucky. His grandmother encouraged his artistic talents even in the face of his grandfather who thought “an artist is just not a respectable, responsible person.”
Feher’s grandmother helped him to find an apprenticeship at a museum studio in Budapest to learn furniture design and the making of historical reproductions, but as a young boy, Feher’s job was to stir boiling pots of glue for hours a day. “That smell and the monotony of just stirring all day long, it discouraged me from the career of being a furniture designer.” Cultivating the artist in her young grandson, Feher’s grandmother helped him enroll in art school — keeping it secret from his grandfather.
And then at the age of thirteen he earned a scholarship to an art school in Florence and went off to Italy on his own. “In Italy, I was in Firenze about eighteen months or so, and I learned the language, and I went from museum to museum and church to church mostly every day. I saw two or three churches every day mostly for the artwork, not because of my strong religious feeling.” But after more than eighteen months in Italy — first in Florence and then in Venice — the life of a starving young art student became too much, and Feher went back to Budapest — still only fifteen years old.
In Budapest, Feher became the youngest student at the local art college where he studied drawing and painting techniques until his mother, remarried and settled in Chicago, finally sent for him and his brother. In Chicago he attended the academy at the Art Institute of Chicago, but when he graduated jobs were scarce as “that was right at the time of the big crash, the Depression, and art was the first thing that people cut out… But advertising was still necessary.” So, Feher ended up working in advertising -- primarily freelancing. He painted portraits of Chicago’s wealthy and well-to-do, and took on odd jobs to make ends meet. And ended up with a job at the A. B. Dick Company working on mimeograph machines.
But Feher dreamed of being a fine artist -- not working on office equipment. So in 1934 he and a friend, Don Ruff, hatched a scheme to get to Tahiti where they would be inspired like one of his idols, Gauguin. He sold a subscription series of 30 paintings to be done on his travels and delivered when he returned, and with $800 in his pocket, Feher and Ruff set off for San Francisco. When they arrived they found that they had just missed the monthly freighter to Tahiti, so they boarded a ship to Hawaii instead. Eventually Ruff left for Japan and a trip around the world, but Feher made his $800 last for 14 months during which time he painted and fell in love with Hawaii -- particularly with Kalapana on the island of Hawaii.
Eventually, Feher’s money ran out, and he returned to Chicago where Edison Dick of the A. B. Dick Company made him an unusual offer: a full-time salary for part-time work. In essence, the mimeograph company became his patron. He worked there in the mornings and then went to his studio on North Michigan Avenue where he built up a freelance business doing advertising artwork as well as portraits. He also married and started a family.
And then one day in 1946 United Airlines approached Feher. They were beginning service to Hawaii, and they asked Feher to come on their inaugural voyage to sketch and record their trip to Hawaii. He made ten watercolors which were published as a Christmas gift for the executives at United Airlines. On that trip he visited the Honolulu Academy of Arts who asked if he would return to Hawaii to teach. In 1947 he packed up with his family, and they moved to Hawaii for good. He taught at the Academy in Honolulu and continued his freelance work counting the Chicago Tribune, Abbott Laboratories, and Eli Lilly amongst his clients.
In 1950 he was hired by the Dole Pineapple Company to produce our map -- a pictorial map of the Hawaiian Islands. They printed 300,000 copies of the map and distributed them in conjunction with Pan American Airways.
Feher’s work -- particularly his travel-related work -- was in demand for decades. He produced promotional posters and calendars for United Airlines. He also continued to work for his other corporate clients which, together with his teaching work, “just enabled me to paint on weekends.”
In his later years, Feher embarked upon an ambitious project to illustrate Hawaiian religious stories and chants. He illustrated several books, and worked on large-scale pieces including a cycle of the Hawaiian creation chant in pictures. And he continued to teach at the Academy, a job he loved.
Joseph Feher died in Hawaii on June 8, 1987.
I am delighted that this gorgeous piece by a Hawaiian-loving, Hungarian immigrant finally has a good home. If you are interested in more about Joseph Feher’s life, the University of Hawaii has a transcript of an interview with him done as part of The Watumull Foundation’s Oral History Project on February 15 and March 1, 1986. This interview served as the primary source for this article and is available in its entirety.
Interested in reproductions of Feher’s artwork? The images above will take you to Amazon.com where his artwork has been reproduced in a variety of forms. You can also buy a reproduction of our Hawaiian Islands map.