The Art of Nature

Former wildlife ranger Patrick Ching uses his intimate knowledge of Hawaii’s animals – especially those in the sea – to create vibrant paintings at his Princeville Gallery (when he’s not working as a rodeo clown, that is)

Vibrant splashes of color blend science and art together in every one of Patrick Ching’s creative compositions.

“They go hand-in-hand for me,” says the wildlife artist about what typically would be thought of as mutually exclusive trades.

The abstract oil paintings he currently is working on at his art show “Kai” in Princeville combine the two elements while encompassing the beauty of the ocean and its various inhabitants – most of which Ching has intimately observed over the course of his life in Hawaii.

“Animals excite me,” he says of his work, which features everything from monk seals and turtles to sharks and birds. “I like things that catch my attention, so I like the little things that move.”

Ching’s interest in wildlife behavior began when he was a child. Whenever he found a new animal, he would flip through encyclopedias to learn more about it. His affinity for the natural world peaked while attending Moanalua High School on Oahu. As a teenager, Ching spent much of his free time outdoors and camped for weeks at a time in Moanalua Valley, where his family resided.

But because he also had a knack for getting into trouble, Ching was encouraged to make up his mind about what he wanted to do professionally early in life – at the age of 16.

“Since I was 12, I was looking so hard to be good at something and I was just good at getting in trouble – just restless, wanting adventure and feeling my heart pound,” he says.

Though he was encouraged by teachers to pursue his artistic talent before he entered high school, he didn’t believe it was possible to earn a living teaching people about nature through art.

But he was wrong. “Right now I’m living the dream that I thought of when I was 16,” he says with a genuine smile.

He even won a scholastic art competition for an abstract painting of a tree he created as a high school senior in 1980, which is part of the Smithsonian’s collection.

His fascination with nature’s shapes and colors grew when he moved to Kaua’i in 1984 and accepted a position with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a ranger for Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. Prior to the job, he took every opportunity he could, volunteering to work with birds and gathering inspiration for his paintings.

The position allowed him to spend even more time with Hawaii’s native flora and fauna.

“I spent time with some of the rarest animals on earth,” says Ching, who is largely a self-taught artist who attributes learning some of his techniques from fellow painters such as John Pitre.

The Hanalei resident was sent out to areas of limited access – the Northwestern Islands to observe monk seals and turtles, and the slopes of Haleakala to study and paint the po’ouli bird, now considered to be extinct. He fondly remembers being sent out via helicopter to the site where a po’ouli’s nest was discovered. His job was to record the movements of images of the bird in a waterproof notebook for one month.

“Most of the things I paint, even if they are very rare, I got to know them like my family – I lived with them that much,” says Ching, who works in many different mediums, including oil. “During all that time, I’m observing all the movements, characteristics, so when I paint an animal, I know how it moves; I know it really well.”

Nonetheless, Ching decided to leave his job as a ranger after almost 10 years of service to pursue art full time.

“I wasn’t really using my God-given talent. I didn’t have to, I was comfortable working for the government,” he explains.

Ching moved back to Oahu and opened his Waimanalo gallery in 1996.

“Our artist minds are not necessarily the most organized. I had to really work hard at learning business and I took it seriously to learn about money and business,” he says, admitting that he initially suffered from financial stress. “Opening a gallery was my business school.”

Still, by that time, Ching also had become an accomplished author and illustrator, publishing books that are still found in the hands of keiki across the state, including The Hawaiian Monk Seal and Native Animals of Hawai’i Coloring Book – the book that launched his writing career.

“I just dove in and started writing about stuff I was really excited about,” he says.

Though he admits to being a slow reader who had trouble spelling as a youth, Ching currently has about a dozen more books set to be published.

“It’s one of the joys in life that I did not expect,” he says about his successful authorship.

Ching still enjoys focusing on monk seals throughout his work.

“I was always so in love with monk seals even before I ever saw them,” he says.

Since he was a child, Ching says he would dream about them. “Seeing a monk seal was like seeing a mermaid to me,” says Ching about the critically endangered species.

He is encouraged to see the mammal make its way back to the main Hawaiian Islands.

“I’m very happy they are here,” he says.

Ching also enjoys painting horses.

“The way they are built and the way their skin shines,” he says about both creatures. “I like reflections, and I notice reflections the normal person doesn’t see, and so those two animals offer a lot of shape and reflections I like to paint with.”

Ching appreciates everything nature has to offer and hopes to inspire others to share these sentiments. His current art show was created to help spread ocean awareness. The temporary pop-up gallery, located at the Princeville Center, is unique in that his pieces are to be bid upon for several weeks and are ongoing works of art not to be completely finished until the final reception March 23. “It’s in the next layers that the real meat of the paintings comes together,” he says.

The 10 large oil paintings, while abstract, represent realistic subjects, such as a pool of sharks that Ching originally encountered and snapped a photo of some 25 years ago.

Ching also has a permanent gallery at Princeville Center, and when he isn’t at one of his two galleries, he is teaching workshops on Oahu or Kaua’i – and around the world. He even has plans to make the classes more readily available via television shows.

“When he teaches workshops, everyone just comes to life because of how positive he is,” says Deanna Palfrey, who has worked with Ching for more than a year. “He is always extremely friendly and encouraging; he’s a very loving teacher.”

She also highly regards his support for endangered species.

“He’s everything that I love about Hawaii wrapped up into a person,” she says.

Ching shows gratitude for the ‘aina by enjoying what he can of it when he has time. He is a self-proclaimed “water rat” who likes to surf, but his only “vacation” is a couple of early morning hours before work.

Ching, the father of 12-year-old Kawena, who lives on the Big Island, also is a cowboy and rodeo clown, traveling across the state and to places such as California and New Zealand to perform.

However, Ching still aspires to use most of his free time painting.

“I have so much I want to paint,” he says

Retiring never crosses his mind, and he says inspiration always strikes him because he truly loves what he does. “As a hobby, you can paint when the spirit moves you, but if you want to be a professional, you move the spirit.”

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