Photographer promotes the arts on Molokai

Rikki Cooke, Molokai resident, professional photographer and founder and instructor at Hui Ho’olana.

By Imogen Reed

The island of Molokai formed a key part of Richard A. Cooke III’s childhood. It is no surprise, therefore, that the photographer, also known as Rikki, moved back to the island in the late 1980s to teach photography and later, in 1994, set up the Hui Ho’olana arts center on the island.

Rikki is best known for his work with the National Geographic Society. Perhaps because of his location, his first assignment for them was to photograph Molokai itself. Before even taking up his camera, Bob Gilka told him it would be his toughest assignment because it is very difficult for a native photographer to see familiar things in a new light.

This job also gave him the opportunity as a photographer to travel around the world and take photos of some of the most amazing and awe-inspiring scenes, be they of nature or of humanity; often, the two come together.

During this time, he helped produce two books for National Geographic. The first detailed America’s ancient cities and the second, The Blue Ridge Range, was about the Appalachians of Eastern America. According to his website, Rikki also made a photography book for the Smithsonian.

His book writing did not stop there, in conjunction with his wife, Bronwyn, they wrote a book called Molokai: An Island in Time. While copies now cost around $100 each, the book is a lavish love affair with the island and has won several awards and high praise for its beauty.

This love affair caused the pair to return to the island in the 1980s. The Cooke family had been on the island for a lot longer, however. The Cooke family first owned land on the island in 1908. They then built a retreat for themselves on the land in 1967. Upon returning to the island, the pair began teaching small photography workshops.

These workshops began to increase in number and led to the foundation of the arts center in 1994. At this time, it gained tax exemption status as a nonprofit organization on the island and began to formally organize workshops and courses. They now have student accommodations, dozens of teachers and courses that cover yoga, painting, weaving as well as photography. The name Hui Ho’olana comes from the Reverend Lehua Mokuilima, who said that the term was a word of hope. That is what educational institutions are. Hope for the future.

Being based back in Molokai had a profound effect on Rikki. Instead of continuing his then 20-plus year photography career (now 40), he became more interested in the local environment of Molokai and teaching. The many volunteers and professionals who help run Hui Ho’olana advance Molokai spirits and ideas such as ho’oponopono, making things right, and malama ka ‘aina, protecting the land.

This led directly to Butch Haase’s reforestation project on the Cooke land. The plan was simple, beat back foreign species and plant as many native plant and tree species as possible. The Hui Ho’olana Native Botanical Garden now includes the koa acacia trees, which are native to all Hawaiian islands, and plants such as the koki’o, akia and loulu. There are over 25 native species in all and around a thousand have been grown in total.

Being a nonprofit organization, Hui Ho’olana relies upon volunteer work and donations to keep it going. Friends of the Hui is a membership program that helps the organization to purchase plant materials for the botanical garden and buildings to house workshops and traveling students. Fees range from $35 to $5,000 or more and each level of donation gives the donor a new status within the organization from member to founder.

The Hui will be running an April workshop this year. It centers on the idea of rekindling the creative spirit and runs between the 7th and 14th at the Hui. Workshops are not only given by Rikki himself, but also by fellow National Geographic photographer Dewitt Jones and Photoshop expert Jonathan Kingston.

This is an excellent opportunity to develop a hobby outside of working for a courier service, in an office with views of the water cooler or stacking burgers at a fast good joint. Wherever you work on Molokai, you are not far from outstanding beauty. You will be able to say what Rikki Cooke often says to himself: “Today I’m going to go out and take a great photograph.”


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