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Guest Artist: Cheryl McElfresh

Cheryl McElfresh Brings Lāna'i to Life in Her Watercolors

From teacher to "beach-er,"artist paints all over islands


On a bright Saturday morning about 20 years ago, Cheryl McElfresh was selling her artwork in the shade of the expansive banyan tree in Lahaina on Maui. She watched with amusement as a couple wrestled a seemingly endless parade of suitcases off the ferry from Lāna’i. She followed their struggles as they pushed and pulled those bags across the harbor and into the crisscrossing shadows of the great banyan. But instead of calling for a cab to the airport, the couple began unpacking beautiful paintings, pulling one after another out of their endless suitcases.

And that is how Cheryl met Mike and Kathy Carroll. But let’s back up a little further to when Cheryl met Hawaii. In July 1959—a month before the islands became a state—she visited with her family, flying from their home in San Diego, California. It was the start of a long romance, but it would be 30 years before she made it back to the Aloha State. She and her husband Keith fell in love with Maui and spent a decade splitting their time between there and the West Coast until they made the leap to full-time Maui life in 2002.

The couple lives in Kihei so they can be close to the water—Cheryl canoes and kayaks every week. The water also inspires her watercolors, which she’s been creating for most of her life, and which the Mike Carroll Gallery has been showcasing for most of its “life.” Her mother—also an artist—encouraged Cheryl to paint from an early age. Over the years, she’s worked in almost every medium, from watercolors to oils to acrylics and pastels. She estimates she’s sold over 2,000 original paintings from when she first joined a co-op gallery in San Diego’s Balboa Park neighborhood in 1987. 

Cheryl studied fine art at the University of Washington after first getting her BS in early childhood education from San Diego State University. She taught art to students in second, third, and fourth grades. “I enjoyed teaching art ... I’ve always been impressed with children’s art,” she says. “Children should always be encouraged” in creative pursuits she said, noting that art therapy can do wonders for kids struggling with issues. “Having the freedom to express themselves and then talk about it is very helpful.”

On that morning 20 years ago in the shade of the banyan began a friendship and an artistic kinship that continues today. Mike and Kathy invited Cheryl and Keith to Lāna’i for a camping trip to Hulopo’e Beach. The pair had been to Lāna’i before, but this friendship renewed their interest. In fact, Cheryl and Keith bought and renovated a plantation house on Caldwell Avenue in the early 2000s. “Mike called one morning and told us that a house three doors down from them was available. We raced to catch the next ferry and bought it that day,” Cheryl recalls. 

And when Mike and Kathy Carroll opened their first gallery—around the corner from where it is now—they invited Cheryl to exhibit her artwork. As an artist who has lived on Lāna’i, of course Cheryl has taught workshops at the Lāna’i Art Center, sharing her expertise in watercolor painting and monotype printmaking. She also paints with thePlein Air Painters of Maui, an informal group of artists who’ve been gathering every Wednesday for 25 years to paint in the open air. They pay no dues, there’s no set instruction, it’s just “a great opportunity to meet and share with others,” Cheryl says. “We all contribute to new painting location ideas.” 

“Watercolor remains my favorite medium, but I’m also enjoying painting more abstract works in acrylics and watercolors,” she says. “With the plein air pieces, I’m attracted to the color palette, the shapes and the atmosphere. These paintings encourage the viewer to participate with their own interpretation.”

Cheryl continues to love Hawaii, and especially the islands of Lāna’i and Maui. In fact, she’s painted on just about every beach on both islands, taking advantage of the fresh air and the spectacular ocean views. Enjoy Cheryl’s vivid watercolors and acrylics in our online gallery.