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LIHU’E – Writer and photographer John Wehrheim came to Kaua’i fresh out of college in 1971 to produce a three-part series for the Sierra Club called Paradise Lost.
More than half a century later, a new exhibition of Wehrheim’s photos at the 14th-century Stone Bell House Museum in Prague will bear the same name.
Featuring 132 prints, screenings of Wehrheim’s film The Edge of Paradise, and a lecture series led by Wehrheim, the exhibition will take Kaua’i through the 1970’s with a focus on Taylor Camp.
“It was never paradise,” said Taylor Camp’s Wehrheim. “But it was really damn good.”
Over the course of several years, Wehrheim documented the rise and fall of the camp — a North Shore commune where hippies lived rent-free and often shirtless in tree houses on the land of Howard Taylor, brother of movie star Elizabeth.
The prints on display in Prague range from portraits of the campers (including Kung Fu Bill Malapit, brother of Mayor Eduardo Malapit, who later led efforts to close the camp) to nude volleyball scenes and aerial views of the Na Coast of pali
While Wehrheim viewed the camp as “a successful experiment,” he said his goal in documenting it was “not just to do hippie propaganda.”
“Almost everyone at Taylor Camp was running from something,” he said.
He described campers’ drug addictions and a deep sadness among those who found that despite living rent-free in the most beautiful place on earth, they were still unhappy.
Over the decade, Wehrheim watched the camp transform from a loose colony into something more organized, with local government — he described it as “democracy through vibes” — infrastructure, criminal justice system, and newly growing families.
“In many ways, it evolved into something very similar to the communities these people fled from,” Wehrheim said.
The Taylor Camp hippies eventually became a political force. When it looked like the camp was about to close, they arranged a mock meeting with Wehrheim’s wife and her favorite politician, JoAnn Yukimura, before leaving the camp, which allowed her to “make credit for getting rid of the hippies.” “.
“It was important that it ended then, because it probably would have morphed into something less idealistic,” Wehrheim said.
Looking back at the camp, Wehrheim sees a creation that could only have existed at that time and place.
“The interest and the demand are there – but that would not be possible now,” said Wehrheim, referring to the higher cost of living and the burden on today’s youth. “We graduated from college absolutely free. How many young people now have that opportunity?”
The idea of bringing the project to Prague came from Czech-born Adam Ligas, who was instrumental in putting the exhibition together.
Ligas arrived on Kaua’i in 2016 where, in an unexpected twist of fate, he met a Czech couple at Art Cafe Hemingway who gave him a job and introduced him to Wehrheim and his work.
“There are so many things hidden in these photos,” Ligas said. “It’s not just about hippies.”
When he returned to the Czech Republic, he was determined to bring Wehrheim’s work to his home country.
“I just drove around Prague with his book and asked if people wanted to do something with the book and the beautiful photos,” Ligas said. “Everyone said no because I had no experience.”
Eventually he managed to attract interest from a gallery in Prague and received funding from the American Embassy.
Ligas was excited to show a piece of Kaua’i to a European audience unfamiliar with the island.
“If you say Hawaii (in the Czech Republic), everyone sees a beautiful woman dancing with coconuts,” Ligas said. “No one knows more than that.”
The exhibition will be on view at the Stone Bell House Museum in Prague on October 11th.