USA, Hawaii: Waikiki Beachcomber's elevator flower art

As the lift rises from the lobby and gradually drains of people, I zone out until the doors open to a giant tree fern stretching its loftiest frond up to the ceiling. A tendril that could dwarf a child, cradling fist-sized yellow spores, unfurls against a wall. Striking black lettering spells out the name "hapuu". This is obviously my floor.

"What began as a decorative concept became a story," Erin Ibarra tells me when we meet at the new Waikiki Beachcomber by Outrigger where she's hand-painted a different native Hawaiian flowering plant into every elevator alcove. The vertical order of these larger-than-life illustrations corresponds with the altitude at which each plant naturally grows. Now complete, it's a 24-mural story. And the name of the artwork? Elevation.

"I've always loved to draw," explains the self-taught artist whose left arm is an inky limbscape of flowers from her birthplace of Wyoming, her former home of New Mexico and Hawaii where she's lived since 2007.

Ibarra says that, as a white girl harbouring no real angst, she never had a powerful artistic statement to make but, on Oahu, found a solid outlet creating chalkboards at the pub where she slung beer. Compelled to "not just make a sign, but make a great sign", Ibarra plays cleverly with words and, in 2D with minimal materials, brings landscapes, faces, steaming coffee, shaved ice, coconuts and poke bowls to life. When craft beer and farm-to-table took off in Hawaii, the "chalkboard queen" went full-time. Now much of what Ibarra produces – also on Maui and the Big Island – can't be rubbed off even if it looks like it can.

Erin Ibarra doesn't always sign her work but that's fitting given chalkboard artists are essentially ghost illustrators. She'd rather be the fairy who channels her ideas into someone else's project then slips away. For her, it's "an honour to be part of other people's success". This is Ibarra's contribution to Hawaii; it's her aloha.

Waikiki Beachcomber guests are welcome to explore Elevation. There's nau, on level 10, with its yellowy-orange fruit used for dying traditional bark cloth. Kou, on six, is a woodcarver's dream. The leaves and flowers of pohinahina, on level two, are commonly used for lei-making. On four you can see naupaka – a plant with coastal and mountain species whose half-flowers are legendary separated lovers.

Hapuu, up where I sleep on level 21, is a rainforest species endemic to Hawaii. It grows at an altitude of up to 1830 metres and can be 11 metres tall with a metre-thick trunk. For Hawaiian people it has long been a source of food, medicine and mattress stuffing. Its tips are particularly delicious stir-fried.

"I've learnt so much," says Ibarra whose eyes have been opened by this project to the range and significance of the archipelago's flowering plants and, in some cases, their tenuous existence. When Ibarra started painting pohinahina she suddenly noticed it everywhere at her daughter's primary school yet it's believed only a single alulu plant remains in the wild. And that bird-of-paradise flower so often associated with Hawaii – it's introduced.

Elevation took six months to complete. The welcome plant Ibarra picked for the hotel's reception, and the last illustration she worked on, has distinctly shaped orange flowers and is called Ohai. "Like oh, hi," she says feigning a surprised smile and giving a little wave.

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TRIP NOTES

Elspeth Callender travelled as a guest of Waikiki Beachcomber by Outrigger.

MORE

traveller.com.au/hawaii

gohawaii.com

thearterydesignco.com

FLY

Hawaiian Airlines flies daily from Sydney direct to Honolulu. Melbourne passengers transit in Sydney. See hawaiianairlines.com.au

STAY

Rooms at Waikiki Beachcomber by Outrigger, where local creatives have contributed to the hotel's B Original series, start from $195 (plus tax) for a double. See outrigger.com; outrigger.com/landing-pages/beachcomber-original

EAT

Maui Brewing Co for craft beer and fresh fusion food. See mbcrestaurants.com

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