When spinal meningitis struck Martin Day Charlot two years ago, paddles were needed to start his heart. He was later told he missed dying by seconds. A freelance painter, writer, illustrator, filmmaker and teacher, Charlot left the hospital in a wheelchair and blind in one eye, and spent eight months in rehabilitation therapy, learning to get around with a walker. So it is that Charlot, son of the famed muralist Jean Charlot, finds it especially sweet that one of his best-known artistic works is getting a second wind—just as his life has done. Charlot's wall-size painting, "Hawaiian Folkways," mounted 17 years ago at the Kane`ohe McDonald's, is the subject of a new book, "Local Traffic Only: Proverbs Hawaiian-Style" (Watermark, hardback, $19.95), which tells the story of the creation of this 5-foot-by-24-foot painting. Charlot diagrams the panorama, segment by segment, and shows how characters in each scene play out the message of the 130 sayings, aphorisms and proverbs that inspired the work. "I've always had a sense of the preciousness of life, always been grateful for it," Charlot said in a phone interview from his Burbank, Calif., home. "But this just comes at a wonderful time, where I thought I had lost life itself and suddenly this project is there and it's really cheering to me." Also cheering is that Charlot is living on his own again. And he's painting—great, huge canvases just pouring out of him. "I'm so happy, so grateful for it," he said. He was happy and grateful, too, back in those days in the early 1980s, when his then-hometown of Waiahole Valley had just come through a harrowing and yet community-building experience, fighting off plans for a development that would have altered the valley, and its country-style way of life, profoundly. The seed of the idea was planted in letters Charlot wrote to his four children while he was living temporarily on the Big Island, doing a large mural for Konawaena High School. He decorated the margins of these notes with sketches illustrating various wise sayings. Soon, he began to imagine how these might come together in a single work. He approached a former classmate from Saint Louis School, Pat Kahler, who was then head of McDonald's Corp. in Hawai`i. Would the growing fast-food chain like to showcase works of art representing Island life, and educating young patrons about worthwhile values? The answer was yes, and Charlot would produce three large artworks for McDonald's in the next few years (one was destroyed during remodeling. The other, exploring Hawaiian fishing customs, is on Nimitz Highway). In those days, Charlot kept his camera and list of proverbs with him, buttonholing people on the street who looked a part he wanted to illustrate. "Your mind becomes attuned to a project that you're doing. You never stop working," Charlot said. Though he loves to paint from life, he used photographs to save time and trouble for his subjects. As your eyes travel down the length of the 20-something-year-old painting, you're struck by changes—how much more time we spent outdoors, how much more closely knit our neighborhoods were, how unpretentiously we dressed and (no baby boomer could help but notice) how much more hair we had! Charlot is pleased to hear these impressions: "One of the things I had hoped (for) was to capture that moment in time, the tone of life then. It was a special time." Murals, he said, are unlike other art forms in that they're painted with an audience in mind, they're for a specific place, often people who don't see a lot of art, who don't realize how powerful art can be, how it can influence your life. I love that about murals." --Wanda Adams, "The Honolulu Advertiser"
Martin Charlot grew up in Hawai`i, apprenticing with his father, the legendary artist and muralist Jean Charlot—a major influence in the Mexican muralist movement of the 1920s and `30s and a teacher of Diego Rivera. Known primarily as a muralist, the younger Charlot is also a writer, actor, film maker, illustrator and educator and has been honored as a Fellow in Perpetuity by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.