Viliami Toluta’u: Inspiring artist, teacher & friend
Written by
Alyssa Odom
Viliami Toluta'u has taught at BYU–Hawaii for 28 years.
Image By
Ho Yin Li

After working at BYU-Hawaii for 28 years, Viliami Toluta’u, an associate art professor, will be retiring at the conclusion of Spring Semester 2019. After 28 years at BYUH, Toluta’u said he learned there is special power when people teach others, and when they express themelves, they are creating art.

In 1989, Toluta’u said he took a leap of faith and applied for a professor position at BYUH. “Teaching was never the profession I had planned to get into. I had just wanted to continue creating and selling my art as a freelance artist. However, I had something prompting me to continue pursuing a teaching career.

“I decided to apply for the job at BYUH and decided, ‘If I’m meant to be a teacher, I’ll get this job. If not, I’ll pursue a job as a freelance artist.”

After receiving the job at BYUH, Toluta’u said he received confirmation this was where he was meant to be and he was doing what he was meant to be doing.

After almost three decades, Toluta’u shared Heavenly Father has taught him valuable lessons he only could have learned in the classroom setting as a teacher. “I absolutely love working with so many different students. I have learned from [my students] how everyone has it in them to be an artist. I could not have learned this if I alone was creating art. There is a special power that comes from sharing our skills and teaching them to others.”

Stephanie Eldenberg, a senior from Sweden studying art, has been working as Toluta’u’s teacher’s aid for Spring Semester 2019. She commented on how she has witnessed his love for both art and his students while she has had the opportunity to work so closely with him.

“I have truly felt of his genuine concern and care for students, especially for me,” said Eldenberg. “He has taught me and challenged me to do what I need to do to grow as an artist. I feel like that in itself is going above and beyond what a teacher needs to do. He really cares about each individual and helps us to perform at our best and to enjoy it as we do so.”

As a professor, Toluta’u said he has encountered many times when students have been discouraged in their creation process. “Whenever a student is discouraged, I try to help them understand their art is meant to be different than the person’s next to theirs. Individuality in artwork is key. The most important part is that they create something from the heart. Doing what you love is the true essence of art.

“Art, to me, can be defined in one word: You. What you do, think, and see is different from what your neighbor does, thinks, and sees. You are unique and when you express yourself, you are creating art.”

Toluta’u said he has found great joy in expressing history through his artwork. He is the artist of the sculpture of Jonathan Napela and George Q. Cannon statue in front of the Cannon Activities Center on campus. “Art is a special way of expressing our love and respect for our forefathers. In my sculpture of Jonathan Napela, I depicted him as the strong and happy man that he was known to be.

 “Although he was affected by leprosy and it changed his appearance, it never changed his heart. Art and history go hand in hand. I firmly believe that you can’t create art without a knowledge of history, and you cannot fully understand history without art.”

Before coming to BYUH, Toluta’u studied as a student here, back then known as Church College of Hawaii, and then went on to receive his master’s in sculpture at BYU in Provo. His dream, he said, was to be a freelance artist and to share his artistic talents with the public. After graduation, he moved to Alaska with his family. Eventually, Toluta’u shared how he was prompted to begin sharing his talents through teaching and began to teach art at their local high school. After living in Alaska, the Toluta'u family moved back to Tonga, where he is originally from. Toluta’u had the opportunity to return to where he attended high school, at Liahona High School and became an art teacher there. Afterward, he came to BYUH as a professor.

Date Published
June 18, 2019
Last Edited
June 18, 2019