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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, October 28, 2002

Reshaping history

By Tanya Bricking
Advertiser Staff Writer

Think "Antiques Roadshow" minus the appraisals.

Hawaiian artisan Sol Apio shows off the kou wood bowl that he and museum conservator Valerie Free spent more than three months restoring.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

And think about being bowled over by bowls.

That combination of curious calabash collectors is what Bishop Museum is looking for tonight, when it asks people to pull cracked bowls from their cabinets and listen to free consultations from Hawaiian artisan Sol Apio and museum conservator Valerie Free.

Apio and Free have firsthand experience repairing the Humpty Dumpty of broken bowls to museum-quality standards.

Their task? Restore a centuries-old Hawaiian poi bowl that had suffered so much weather damage that the bottom had fallen out and it was held together only by an engraved silver band. The footnote: It's a priceless family heirloom with ties to Hawaiian royalty, so be extra careful.

The bowl, made of kou wood and about 10 inches high and 19 inches in diameter, has an estimated value of more than $75,000, not counting its historic significance. It was presented to the son of High Chiefess Kino'ole upon his celebrated return visit to Hawai'i in 1917.

Kino'ole's father, Ho'olulu, was chief of vast areas, including Hilo, and was a close adviser to King Kamehameha I. Kino'ole's grandfather, Kame'eaimoku, was one of the sacred royal twins depicted on the Hawaiian coat of arms. Kino'ole married Hilo businessman Benjamin Pitman, who moved to Boston with their three children after her death at age 30. The bowl had been handed down through generations of the family in Massachusetts.

"It was clear the years had not been kind to it," said Noelle Kahanu, project manager for the museum's cultural resources and collections care.

"Uncle Sol" Apio, a renowned woodworker, and Free, an objects conservator in charge of the museum's conservation department, agreed to team up on the puzzle. They built a humidity chamber to allow the bowl to swell, used clamps to close a quarter-inch crack, and spent more than three months piecing it back together.

"I knew we could stabilize it," Free said. "I didn't know how good it would look. I was surprised we managed to close those cracks, because there were so many of them."

But the bigger accomplishment was a cultural one, Free said. Because it wasn't just about a bowl. It was about a bowl with deep spiritual ties to the Hawaiian people.

"Just to hold it, it was a good feeling," said Apio, who would wrap the bowl in a blanket his grandmother used to wrap around a quilt that she made for him. He also used wood provided by his son to fix the bowl and brought his granddaughter into the workshop to help.

"I think the more people here even get to touch it, it's putting the mana (supernatural power) back into the piece," he said.

He and Free became personally attached to it.

"It's like giving birth," Free said. "You spend so much time with it, and you coax it, and you give it new life, and then it leaves. It's like watching your children go."

The bowl will be returned to the Pitman family in Massachusetts, but you can see the bowl and learn more about your own wooden treasures from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. today at the Bishop Museum, 1525 Bernice St., Paki Conference Room II. Call 848-4190 for more information.