Growing Up Gifted

A pair of former child prodigies talk inspiration, art as language, and the evolution of their craft.

Text by Lindsey Kesel
Images by Chris Rohrer

Kahi Ching, Artist

Before he was old enough to wield a pencil or paintbrush, Kahi Ching was interpreting the world around him with an artist’s eye. “I was drawing things in the sand. I would draw with burnt wood or carve into a potato with my fingernails,” he says. At 5 years old, he began to collect treasures from the beach fronting his Kāne‘ohe home—sea glass, driftwood, glass bottles, rocks, and wood scraps—arranging them neatly and sketching what he saw.

As he grew, Ching’s drawings became more intricate. In grade school, he struggled with dyslexia, and making art allowed him to express what words could not.

“Drawing and painting, that was my language, and that is still my language today,” he says.

He would sit on the beach and study the sky, the ocean currents, and the texture of sand. He spent hours contemplating the journey taken by a piece of wood or sea glass in order to translate every detail into his art, to tell the story of the object through the grain of the weathered wood or the shininess of the glass.

“I pay attention to everything,” he says. “Curiosity is the best inspiration for finding the truth and the beauty of the cosmos.”

At 11 years old, Ching created his first oil painting, a seascape, which became his first piece to sell. A breakout student of the gifted art program at Castle High School, he was painting sets for the theater department and putting up murals on the school’s walls. At 18 years old, he won a national arts contest with his pencil drawing, Curios. The prize included a scholarship to the Rudolph Schaeffer School of Design in San Francisco, where he says, “The experiences of talking story and riding the BART did as much to expand my thinking as art school.”

Over the course of his life, Ching’s art practice has taken many forms, each an extension of his ongoing quest to capture “the beautiful lines all around us,” he says. He has experimented with sign painting, ceramics, wood sculpture, concrete furniture, and public art, and for a time he ran his own gallery.

His latest endeavors include creating a 12-foot-tall glass, metal, and stone sculpture for Hilo Union School, mastering the Japanese art of bonsai in his home garden, and experimenting with music. After he finished designing and painting a mural at Turtle Bay Resort in 2020, Ching was asked if he played guitar. Always up for a challenge, he wrote his first song on the spot and played it for a small audience.

On the cusp of turning 60, Ching regards getting older as an opportunity to see more of what he calls “the linework or heartbeat of life” and to mentor other aspiring artists. “Now I’m learning how to be an elder, so I can share the wonder of what is—look at that color, listen to that song, smell that fragrance!” he says. “I’m talking story with my children and my neighbors and learning about other cultures. All of this is in the linework of my art.”

Grace Nikae, Classical Pianist

A true-to-form prodigy, Grace Nikae took her first piano lesson at nine months old. Two years later, she was playing complex concertos and reading Mark Twain novels.

“You don’t realize what you’re doing is not like everyone else. It’s the most natural thing in the world,” she says. “But our way of perceiving patterns is different. It doesn’t simply apply to musical notes but also math, language, reading words on a page.”

Nikae made her professional debut with the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra at 8 years old. At 14 years old, she was offered early university acceptance but chose instead to continue her education at ‘Iolani School. She played Carnegie Hall before her 18th birthday and, at 21 years old, began studying under renowned Ukrainian pianist Alexander Slobodyanik, “a profound influence who helped me transition from child to adult artist.” Then Nikae embarked on an international concert career that spanned two decades and showcased her music in elite concert halls from London to Tokyo.

Playing piano has always been a journey of self-discovery for Nikae: “Music gave me a voice to say things I couldn’t say with my real voice, to explore the great themes of existence—what does it mean to be an individual, to love, to grieve, to search for something more?”

She found inspiration in the many artists and intellectuals in her family, including a mathematician uncle who solved a theorem he’d been working on for 25 years. “I remember when he finally solved it, it was so beyond my understanding,” Nikae says. “I was so struck by the amount of concentration and the amount of passion. Even when he couldn’t see a result, he continued to believe and search.”

Seeking a way to connect with others more directly through music, she served as a cultural ambassador for the U.S. Department of State and as an artistic ambassador for UNICEF Spain, helping children in impoverished areas in India, Nepal, and Ghana develop their artistic voices. In 2014, she renounced the rigors of touring to forge a new path, one she hoped would bring her greater fulfillment.

“This art belongs to you, but very often, the world makes the artist feel like they have an obligation to give that art to everyone else,” she says. “I wanted to be able to find out who I was when I walked away
from the piano.”

Since then, Nikae has published nine novels under a pen name and founded Gracefully Live, an organization that helps business executives develop leadership skills and shift their companies’ internal culture toward empowerment.

“I went from being a young girl who led an entire orchestra to going head-to-head with executives to get them to lead hundreds of people in the right way,” she says. “I’m working with people so they can realize their truths and become their fullest self. In many ways, that’s what I had done with myself through my art all those years.”

Nikae still plays piano every day, and she enjoys the perpetual challenge of performing her favorite pieces for benefit concerts and other charitable causes that have personal meaning to her. Now, making music is about building relationships with her listeners, where both artist and audience are united and enriched.

“Every time you play, you discover another layer, another nuance, new ways you want to express it that you couldn’t fathom before,” she says. “There’s always, to the very last breath of life, an opportunity to grow.”