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5 Hawaiian Artisans Keeping Traditions Alive

This summer Hawaii became the most-requested destination at Nine Muses Travel! We have such a geographically diverse country, and Hawaii is our most exotically intoxicating of them all. Since July 8th, fully vaccinated Americans can experience the Aloha lifestyle without pre-flight testing, and if you're considering spending winter holidays in Hawaii, contact me right away to secure the availability you need. The rest of 2021 and the winter breaks are filling up - especially rental cars! Below is a great article to learn about five inspiring artisans you can visit and support on your next journey to Hawaii.

Excerpt of June 23, 2021 article below by Michael Shapiro for Virtuoso can be found HERE.

When Hokulea – a replica of the kind of voyaging canoe that ancient wayfarers sailed when they discovered the Hawaiian Islands – arrived in Papeete in 1976, it started a fire throughout Polynesia. The canoe had reached Tahiti from Hawaii without modern instruments, navigating by the stars. It was a watershed cultural moment. Sailors from Hawaii had relearned the nearly lost art of stellar navigation to show that the discovery of thousands of islands wasn’t dumb luck; it had been deliberate, achieved through courage, ingenuity, and an intimate knowledge of the wind and currents, the fish and birds, the stars. Hokulea’s success sparked the Hawaiian Renaissance, a wave of pride that reinvigorated other Polynesian cultural traditions, such as hula, weaving, taro farming – and even the Hawaiian language, which had been on the verge of extinction.

In old Hawaii, material culture was “highly evolved because we had evolved leisure,” says Maile Meyer, owner of Na Mea Hawai‘i, a Honolulu shop, gallery, and gathering place. Blessed with an abundance of resources – and therefore time – “Hawaiians made beautiful things,” Meyer says. “They displayed the highest level of mastery and aesthetics.” Today, Na Mea features contemporary work by island artists and makers who draw from ancient sources while moving their craft forward.

Meyer, herself a maker and Native Hawaiian, points out that what makes a work “Hawaiian” these days isn’t necessarily the genealogy of its maker or how strictly it hews to the past. It’s more about continuity, the transmission of knowledge down the generations through kumu, or teachers, and about mastery. “It’s not Hawaiian if you didn’t learn it from somebody who knew it from before,” she says.

Now, two generations since Hokulea’s first voyage, Hawaiian traditions haven’t been this vibrant and diverse since perhaps the nineteenth century. That’s true not only for ancient practices such as lauhala weaving, surfboard shaping, and lei making, but also for “Hawaiian” things that developed after the islands’ encounter with the West: ukulele, woven hats, hand-sewn quilts. Whereas in the past these arts might have been fading or kapu (sacred, and therefore inaccessible), “the knowledge now is noa,” or accessible, Meyer says. For visitors hoping to bring a piece of Hawaii home, there’s likely never been a better time to connect with exceptional artists bridging the old and new. These Oahu-based artists represent a cross section of the resurgence of traditional Hawaiian arts.

Aloha Comes Full Circle: Meleana Estes

Growing up on Kauai, Meleana Estes was immersed in the tradition of lei making. Her grandmother made beautiful haku lei (think of them as flower crowns), which she had been taught to craft by a master lei maker. When Estes’ family visited her tutu on Oahu, she would be ready for them. “Every time she picked us up, haku. Every Thanksgiving she would make each grandchild and auntie a haku. For every birthday, haku. Every paddling race, all my teammates would have a haku – that’s a lot of love.” At the time, says Estes, she was too busy surfing to really appreciate it. “But now that I’m a lei maker, I understand the gravity of it – it’s a huge amount of work.”

Those labors of love were also an unspoken transmission of culture. Lei have been an expression of aloha and respect in Polynesian culture for centuries; in the past they were often given to alii (chiefs) and bestowed on kii (images of deities). That tradition continues today – statues of King Kamehameha I are festooned with lei on June 11, the state holiday honoring the monarch who united the Hawaiian Islands.

It wasn’t until Estes returned to Hawaii after attending New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology that she heard the call to make lei. “I felt it was my kuleana [responsibility] to share this,” she says. She started teaching workshops at various locations around Oahu in 2015 (during the pandemic, she’s offered private classes either in person or online). She makes all styles of lei, but like her grandmother, she specializes in haku using the wili (to wind) style, in which strands of raffia or twine are wound around flowers and ferns.

“I’m grateful for the beauty lei bring to everything,” Estes says. “A lei completes the aloha, completes the moment.” While she admits she has a natural feel for color, she’d be the first to say that she’s only one of many artists making beautiful lei these days. “The spirit of lei is so vibrant in Hawaii right now,” she says. “I’m lucky to be a part of that.”

Stitches In Time: Pat Gorelangton

With a blended family of three children born within three years of each other, Pat Gorelangton needed some quiet alone time. She signed up for a quilting class at a craft store in Kailua, started stitching, and never stopped. Thirty-five years later, Gorelangton is one of the islands’ most prolific makers of Hawaiian quilts. A queen-size quilt, which requires about 1,000 hours of hand-stitching, would take most artists a year to finish; Waikiki-based Gorelangton estimates it takes her about three months. “I’m quilting eight to ten hours a day. It’s a passionate obsession or an obsessive passion,” she says, laughing. “My husband is very patient.”

Christian missionaries, who arrived in 1820, taught Hawaiian women to sew using fabric, thread, and steel needles. Legend has it that the first Hawaiian quilt design was serendipitous: A woman laid some fabric under a breadfruit tree and noted the shadows its broad, lobed leaves cast. She cut the design out of dark fabric and appliquéd it to a lighter backing. That story might be apocryphal, but it speaks to the motifs common to Hawaiian quilts: symmetrical patterns, especially of plants, that convey a connection to nature.

“In the old days, Hawaiian quilt patterns were guarded and passed down through families,” Gorelangton says. These days, a quilter can buy patterns in craft stores or trace them for free at the Wai‘anae Public Library on Oahu. Gorelangton studied with master quilter John Serrao, who encouraged her to create her own patterns. Since she started, Gorelangton estimates that she’s made close to 150 quilts.

Though a Hawaiian quilt is a work of art – Gorelangton’s have been exhibited in Milan and are headed to Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum next year – they’re made to be used. They even come a little broken in: Upon finishing a quilt, Gorelangton spends a night sleeping under it “so that my mana [spiritual energy] can pass from me to the quilt and on to the owner,” she says. “I learned about that tradition many years ago. It’s like the quilt giving you a hug.”

Riding the Plank: Tom "Pohaku" Stone

Don’t call the spot where Tom Pohaku Stone shapes surfboards a “workshop” – unless you consider a pair of sawhorses under a guava tree in Kahaluu a workshop. Pohaku (Hawaiian for “stone”) has no need for a typical shaping bay. He uses no foam or fiberglass, no gloves or respirators. Instead, he shapes his boards from wood, by hand and eye, the way Hawaiians did for centuries before Captain Cook observed hee nalu, or “wave sliding,” in 1778. As technology progressed in the twentieth century, foam and fiberglass became the materials of choice, and the wooden boards surfed in old Hawaii – 20-foot-long olo ridden by chiefs; mid-size alaia, the board of choice for everyday folk – disappeared. They were preserved as wall decorations or museum artifacts, but no one surfed them.

Now 70, Pohaku shaped his first traditional wooden board almost 30 years ago, when few were interested in reviving this lost art. Not that he initially was, either: He did it for his father, who had made a board for Pohaku when he was young – too young to appreciate it. “He handcarved that thing – I watched him do every bit of it. In the end I told him I hated it,” Pohaku recalls, shaking his head. “Later in life you think, ‘Holy crap, what was I saying?’ ” So, in his late 40s, he carved a similar board from memory and presented it to his father “to let him know that I embraced his knowledge before he passed away.” Pohaku would later learn that shaping wood boards was part of his lineage – his father, his grandfather, his uncles.

Since then, he has shaped hundreds of boards. He uses the same woods that Hawaiians did before contact with the West – balsalike wiliwili, ulu (breadfruit), and beautiful but heavy koa – and cures them using traditional techniques. But those woods are rare or expensive, so for collectors interested in a more affordable Hawaiian board, Pohaku uses lightweight paulownia wood.

A word of caution for the intrepid wave rider who wishes to paddle out on one of these boards: A finless wooden plank is not the easiest thing to surf. It takes practice and finesse. But for those who dial it in, it’s a sweet ride, Pohaku says. “Sometimes you want to glide instead of shred – to just feel it.”

High Notes: Joe Souza

Like most public-school kids in Hawaii, Joe Souza learned to play ukulele in the fourth grade. Most drop it after learning a few chords, but not Souza. He learned to play, then to build, and went on to start one of the islands’ most successful manufacturers, Kanile‘a ‘Ukulele, in a little factory in Kaneohe. That’s no small accomplishment given the number of superlative luthiers turning out Hawaii’s indigenous stringed instrument, in a market lately buoyed by a worldwide ukulele craze.

Souza’s kumu, Peter Bermudez, gave him free rein to explore possibilities. The result: innovative instruments that balance tone, playability, aesthetics, and sustainability in a way that’s made Kanile‘a (Hawaiian for “joyful sound”) stand out in a “sea of uke brands,” Souza says. Their quality has attracted some of the best players in the island entertainment business and beyond, such as Willie K, Sean Na‘auao, and Cas Haley.

The ukulele wasn’t always synonymous with Hawaiian music. Descended from a Portuguese instrument that arrived in the islands in the late 1870s, it became established in Hawaiian culture once King Kalakaua, himself an accomplished musician, included it in royal performances.

Kanile‘a builds its instruments with a greater mission to care for the land. “We follow the olelo noeau, the Hawaiian proverb: He alii ka aina, he kaua ke kanaka,” says Souza. (The land is chief, the people are its servants.) To that end, Kanile‘a is restoring forests on its private land on Hawaii Island, to protect the native species that provide precious wood like koa and iliahi (sandalwood). Kanile‘a plants a koa for every instrument it builds, with 25,000 trees in the ground so far, “to make sure that a hundred years from now an ukulele can still be built,” says Souza. “It’s the vehicle that allows us to do things that are much bigger than us: to restore our forests, and to do what we see as important to being Hawaiian, to who we are as a people.”

Paths Intertwined: Ipolani Vaughan

A fortunate misfortune led Ipolani Vaughan to weaving. Some of her friends were headed to Kona for a weaving conference, and she tagged along. Inspired to try even though she’d never woven before, Vaughan found herself, by accident, in an intermediate/advanced class. “I was totally lost and frustrated,” she says. A woman overheard Vaughan talking herself through the struggle in Hawaiian and sat down to guide her. While the pair conversed in Hawaiian, an audience gathered to watch. “Come to find out she was a master weaver, Lily Sugihara, very well known on the Big Island,” recalls Vaughan. On her return to Oahu, she says, “I was led to my kumu, and here I am today.”

That kumu was master weaver Aunty Gladys Grace, a renowned figure in Hawaiian weaving, in particular of papale, or hats. Woven hats are found throughout the Pacific, but, as with surfing, the art reached its apotheosis in Hawaii. And like many traditional arts, it was fading: A generation ago, there were only about ten papale masters left, including Aunty Gladys. Determined to keep the craft alive, they resolved to make it noa, accessible to a new generation.

Aunty Gladys’ forte was anoni, a technique using two colors of leaf plaited into complex patterns. “She must have seen something in my hands,” Vaughan says, “because normally you had to make ten papale before she let you do anoni. She let me do it on my second.” Vaughan became a skilled hat maker, but “I wanted to do something different,” she says. So she started covering things: water bottles, then hat boxes, then more complex things, like footstools, inventing new approaches to weave onto these odd shapes. While she still makes papale, she’s known mostly for covering unusual shapes, especially large containers – not only hat boxes, but cases for travel. Now Vaughan is teaching the next generation. But, she says, her students won’t learn to make anoni papale until they make ten hats. “I’m going to carry on what my kumu instilled in me,” she says.

Where to Stay on Oahu

Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina

At Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina on Oahu’s rugged western coast, guests can learn lei-making, weaving, ukulele-playing, and more as part of the hotel’s Wayfinders program. The 370-room property is close to, but just far enough from, Waikiki’s bustle, with thoughtful (and playful) touches ranging from traditional open-ocean navigation excursions with local guides to mai tais served in Spam cans. Virtuoso travelers receive breakfast daily and a $100 resort credit.

Ritz-Carlson Residences, Waikiki Beach

The 552-room Ritz-Carlton Residences, Waikiki Beach is packed with features that help families – or anyone on an extended Hawaiian sojourn – feel at home: in-room kitchens, washers and dryers, and an on-site Dean & DeLuca market for grab-and-go dining. The hotel is partnering with the Hawaiian Legacy Reforestation Initiative as part of the new Malama Hawaii program, which allows travelers to care for (malama) the community, in this case through donating to or participating in reforestation efforts on Oahu. Virtuoso travelers receive early check-in and late checkout, breakfast daily, Honolulu Museum of Art access, and a $100 hotel credit.



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