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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, July 12, 2004

Sculptor recycles wood, spirit

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

KANE'OHE — Trees have life even after they've been felled, and some of that life goes into the human hands that work their wood into things of beauty.

Wood sculptor Tonu Shane Eagleton collects logs and turns them into cultural touchstones.

Bertha Drayson commuted every Wednesday from Maui for the woodworking classes.

John Dalire, of Kaunakakai, Moloka'i, works on a project at Hale 'Iolani.

Photos by Rebecca Breyer • The Honolulu Advertiser

Wood sculptor Tonu Shane Eagleton believes this, and he has won some passionate converts to the idea. He has just finished an inaugural series of woodworking classes aimed at turning wasted logs into cultural touchstones, and is looking for sponsors so the project, officially dubbed Na Kukui Ho'oulu O Na'auao, can grow (see box).

"In our culture," he said, "we have to be getting our hands involved. We have lost touch with our culture by getting away from that."

The New Zealand-born Eagleton has his indigenous roots on the Fijian island of Rotuma, but he calls himself a "global tribesman." His interest in native cultures has taken him from the Czech Republic to North Africa to San Francisco, where he worked as an artist with the Cultural Conservancy, a Native American nonprofit.

A few years ago, he said, he felt the call to connect more closely with the Pacific and after moving to Hawai'i, he established woodworking classes in Hale 'Iolani, nestled in the mauka reaches of the Windward Community College campus.

To the right of 'Iolani, a more traditional hale is going up, using mangrove cuttings donated by Kamehameha Schools. It's next to a growing log pile that Eagleton is collecting from trees cleared for subdivisions or downed by storms.

There are coconut stumps en route to becoming pahu drums, mahogany and albesia being transformed into canoes, kamani and monkeypod that people are working into tables and bowls.

All of the wood drifted ashore or drifted into Eagleton's collection as donations from tree trimmers and builders — prized artistic material that otherwise would have gone to the landfill.

"It's recycling wood, and when people do that they feel a sense of recycling themselves, their spirit," he said. "If we can instill that sense of stewardship in our kids, then they can learn respect for yourself, respect for others."

Eagleton's students are people who have either indulged an abiding love for woodworking or have always wanted to try. Alika Lincoln, an Aloha Airlines employee, has been flying in Wednesdays from Waimea, Hawai'i, for the classes.

"I came here with the intention of learning to make a rocking chair," he said. "I haven't got there yet, but I've made a poi pounder, kava bowl, weapons ... "

More classes

• Na Kukui Ho'oulu O Na'auao ("Program for Knowledge and Enlightenment through Trees") is planning classes for this fall in traditional hale building, various woodcraft skills, smithing and carpentry.

• It also is seeking grant support under the Pacific Business Center Program.

• Information: 956-2495.

He also had plans to turn an irregular wood slab into a table but instead gave the piece to Bertha Drayson to complete her bench project.

"I couldn't believe he gave it to me!" said Drayson, who commutes from Maui. "That's how everyone is in this class."

In fact, several students used the term "community" rather than "class" to describe the enterprise. Collective responsibility is all part of the cultural lesson, Eagleton said.

This was part of the basis for a one-year grant from Alu Like Inc., an agency that supports native Hawaiian programs. That grant has ended, and Eagleton is searching for new seed money.

Windward will remain home base, where an expanded series of classes — including smithing and tool-making — is being planned. A new partnership with the University of Hawai'i Pacific Business Center Program will provide organizational support to the Na Kukui project, which ultimately hopes to help students create their own woodcarving businesses.

At the final class last week, Eagleton found himself consoling students who worried that their new family was breaking up.

Not so, he said. The seeds have been planted.

"This is a beginning, not an ending," he said. "It's the trees that bring us all together."

Reach Vicki Viotti at vviotti@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8053.