In Ancient Hawaiin culture, there’s a term called kino lau meaning “many bodies.” It refers to seeing divinity in everything, or more specifically, everything in nature. The concept of kino lau (which I’m only starting to understand—check out this article for a more in-depth and accurate explanation) offers that everything in nature is an embodiment of the divine.
Each of the 400,000 deities in Native Hawaiian religion (which was derived from Ancient Polynesian religion) is associated with various flora and fauna. The kino lau for a particular god or goddess is associated with their powers.
For example, Laka is the goddess of fertility and reproduction. She’s also seen as the goddess of the forest (and of hula), so her kino lau includes several forest plants. These plants—the ʻaʻaliʻi plant, the lama tree, and the maile vine—are considered an embodiment of Laka herself. They provide another way to see, worship, and understand Laka.
If I put myself in the shoes of Indigeous Hawaiians, it makes perfect sense that they would see the divine in nature. First of all, the natural landscape of Hawai’i is stunning; it’s not hard to see each exotic plant and animal as descended from the heavens. But there’s another reason: survival.
Ancient Hawaiians lived on remote islands surrounded by ocean for over a thousand years. Understanding—and yes, revering—the world around them ensured their survival. Like Indigenous people living in North America and every continent on the planet, Ancient Hawaiians lived in harmony with nature. Caring for the land was a chief responsibility. There was a mutual respect; they lived by the understanding that the well-being of nature was inextricably linked with the well-being of people.
It’s no secret we’ve lost this connection. We’re starting to rediscover it, to return to that ancient wisdom. It’s a long road ahead, and we need as many reminders as we can get. Jon Ching is creating some beautiful ones.
Meet artist Jon Ching, a painter raised in Hawai’i, now residing in LA. I met Jon when we were both living in San Francisco and his painting career was just budding.
The first pieces I saw of Jon’s were birds, regal and strong with streaks of paint portraying movement across a still canvas. From the powerful creatures he’d painted, I assumed Jon was always interested in birds, but it turns out this was a seed planted by his girlfriend (now wife), Casey.
Just before Jon had two weeks to himself to simply paint, Casey gifted him a book of birds. In order to portray each creature accurately, Jon studied them closely, examining feathers and shape and color. He was captivated. These early pieces (which you can see on his website here) show a replica of the real thing.
Jon says part of him would’ve been content to continue painting nature exactly as it was, but another part of him knew he needed to find his unique style, an aesthetic that would help him stand out from the crowd. So he moved from painting a mirror image of nature to adopting a more surreal approach. He started highlighting common patterns he saw across species, drawing parallels we might not have noticed before. He incorporated the florets of a snapdragon flower into the flowing tentacles of a jellyfish. He crafted a cockatoo’s feathers from the wings of a butterfly. He calls this exploration Flauna, a word that marries “flora” and “fauna.”
As Jon’s paintings progressed, the surreal aspects of his work have gotten wilder, more radical, more dramatic. Birds’ wings wisp into smoke, or the feathers at their crowns blaze into fire. He’s getting bolder in his combination of creatures, too. You might see a bird feeding from coral growing on the shell of a crustacean, or an owl sheltering a tiger cub from a rainstorm, the pattern of the cubs’ stripes streaked across the bird’s wings.
It speaks to the interconnectedness of things, the interdependence.
By studying, painting, and exaggerating the creatures of this earth, Jon found more than his signature style. He found himself connecting more with nature and trying to see it as Ancient Hawaiians had.
Jon would try and put himself in the place of Indigenous peoples. He said, “I’d ask myself, ‘What did they see when they actually saw a bird or a fruit or a flower?’ And in a lot of cases, I think they saw God.”
That’s kino lau: seeing divinity in nature. In Jon’s most recent work, he’s really leaning into the holy aspect of nature, the kino lau. His goal is to encourage people to worship nature again.
In Ancient Hawaiian religion, each god and goddess has kino lau which are associated with their strengths. For example, Laka is the goddess of fertility and reproduction as well as hula. She’s seen as the goddess of the forest and associated with ʻaʻaliʻi plant, the lama tree, and the maile vine. Because these plants are associated with Laka, the plants themselves are considered holy.
“That sort of guided me,” Jon said. “I want to create my own deities. I want to create my own version of what gods could look like now. And so that sort of drove this new body of work.”
You can see this influence in his most recent paintings which will be shown at Haven Gallery West on January 16. In one piece, two birds hover amid a lightning storm, a streak of electricity connecting their beaks. In another, a doe wears mushroom gills like the regal collar of a royal gown.
“If I can get someone to look at these and be like, ‘Wow, that’s magical,’” Jon explained, “magic translates into divine and something worth—if not worshipping—then respecting and wanting to preserve. I really think that if we saw nature as God again, we would protect it.”
We talked about the idea of ownership that’s so central to white supremacist and capitalistic culture. What if we let go of the idea of owning anything—land, objects, people, nature? What if we returned to the way Indigenous people relate to the land and focused on managing it and caring for it rather than manipulating it to our will?
“Humans are greedy,” Jon said. “Once you say that this is theirs, they want yours. But if it’s all ours, then you have it all.”
Check out Jon’s work on his website and Instagram. If you want a daily reminder of the messages behind Jon’s paintings, I’d highly recommend purchasing his 2021 calendar. I’ve had a Jon Ching Art calendar on our wall for 3 years running now. It’s an amazing, low-cost way to bring more art into your life and support a brilliant painter. You can also shop prints and originals in Jon’s shop.
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A few notes about this piece -
I learned a lot about Hawaiian religion and culture while writing this blog. Here are some of the sources I referenced:
I by no means claim to be an expert, so if you're interested in learning more, I'd start with the sites linked above. If you're educated in this subject matter and feel compelled to share corrections or more information, I'd love to hear from you. Please reach out.