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“We are like the tree. The tree is like us,” said Kona resident, master weaver, and “living treasure” Aunty Elizabeth Lee, the founder and director of Ka Ulu Lauhala O Kona, an organization dedicated to perpetuating the art of lauhala weaving, using the leaves, or “lau,” of the indigenous pandanus tree, or “hala.”
“Think of your roots. Where do you come from? The roots are the grandparents. The seeds — those are the children,” said Lee. Metaphors like these were sprinkled throughout a “Talk Story” session with Aunty Elizabeth, as she described the connections between artist and plant, teacher and student, past and present.
This talk was part of the Symposium on Sustainability and Traditional Pacific Arts: The Art of Lauhala, held this past weekend, May 3 and 4, at HPA’s Gates Performing Arts Center. The event included lectures, films, discussion panels, demonstrations, and workshops.
Growing up in Kona, Lee spoke Hawaiian as her first language, and learned traditional, practical skills, including gardening, making poi, and lauhala weaving. When she was young, woven objects like baskets and mats were used in everyday life, and special items like “papale,” or woven hats, were bartered or sold to make extra income.
“A hundred years ago in Hawaii, every family would have at least one lauhala weaver,” said Pohaku Kahoohanohano, a Maui weaver. Today, less than 10 percent of Hawaiian families have someone who knows this traditional craft, he said.
Kahoohanohano credits seven different teachers with his lauhala weaving education over the past 20 years.
“Only three of those teachers are still alive,” he said. “And those others that are gone —- if I hadn’t learned from them, they may never have shared their talent.”
“In the past, the value of these indigenous arts was in ceremonial purposes, or in some cases, as barter for other goods,” said Deacon Ritterbush, project coordinator for UH-Hilo’s North Hawaii Education and Resource Center. Her goal is to realize the economic potential of these art forms, and to support indigenous artists in adding value to their work.
“Lauhala weaving is a template for how to live in concert with our planet,” she said. “This is not a greed-driven, rush-driven business. Traditional Pacific arts like lauhala weaving, carving, shell work, and cording are true ‘eco-arts’ — they come directly from the earth, unprocessed, or processed with only natural elements, and when their usefulness ends, they degrade and return to the earth.”
Margaret Lovett, longtime Kauai resident, started weaving lauhala 30 years ago, and now sells her artwork to supplement her retirement income. At this year’s Merrie Monarch Festival, she sold dozens of hats for $300-$500 each.
“There has been a renaissance in traditional arts,” she said. “The market is growing as people begin to understand the value of handmade items.”
“The practice of signing your work has just recently caught on,” said Ritterbush. Some of these lauhala hats have become collector’s items, and people want to know the weaver, to know the story of the artwork.
“You are buying so much more than just a hat,” she said.
The 18th Annual Ka Ulu Lauhala O Kona weaving conference will take place May 15-18, at King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel. Walk-in registrants are welcome. Cost is $225, plus a $15 membership fee. At the event, there will be a daily craft fair for visitors with a variety of lauhala artwork on display and for sale. For more information, call 938-0806 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.