Honoring the Masters
By Zenaida Serrano
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Zenaida Serrano
Beginning this month, Bishop Museum is honoring four "masters" who have championed the cause of Native Hawaiian arts with an exhibit of their works. This year's recipients of the Maoli Arts Month Awards 2008, featured in "Celebrating Our Masters," are master lauhala weaver Elizabeth Maluihi Lee, painter David P. Parker, sculptor Henry "Hanale" Kila Hopfe, and painter and arts organizer Al Lagunero.
The exhibition is part of Maoli Arts Month, featuring art from Native Hawaiian artists.
We spoke by phone with Lee, the eldest and only woman among the MAMo Award recipients this year, who has been a lauhala weaver since she was a child.
The Kailua, Kona, resident, 79, is now somewhat hard of hearing, but with the help of her daughter-in-law, Terri Lee, she talked about the roots of her artisanry.
While her intentions are serious — the elder Lee spoke more than once about her concern that lauhala weaving might be a dying art — the weaver spoke with a cheerful tone, punctuated by some laughter between the women.
Born on Jan. 26, 1929, in Holualoa on the Big Island and hanai from birth by Kinoulu and Haleaka Kahananui, who were farmers, Lee said she learned lauhala weaving to help her family supplement their income.
The Kahananuis sold and bartered with their lauhala hats. At age 6, Lee began assisting her mother with preparation of the lauhala. By age 10, she was weaving on her own.
But the work turned into an avocation, and Lee became known as one of the foremost practitioners of the art. In 1993, the weaver was named a "Living Treasure" by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. Lee's hats once sold for 20 cents; now, coveted by collectors, they can sell for more than $1,200 each.
"She feels it's important to keep the tradition alive," Terri Lee said. "She's thankful and grateful for all the haumana (students) who keep the art going."
Elizabeth Maluihi Lee's work is not confined to hats. She also weaves half-moon purses, mats, coasters and fans.
In 1995, she founded the organization Ka Ulu Lauhala O Kona to preserve and ensure the growth of the traditional art of lauhala weaving. The organization has about 300 members from Hawai'i, the Mainland and Japan, and its annual event now attracts nearly 200 weavers; Ka Ulu Lauhala O Kona's next conference will be May 14 to 17 at Kona Village resort.
"She dreamt it up because she saw the art (of lauhala weaving) dying and she wanted to bring it back," Terri Lee said. "She's done that."
Reach Zenaida Serrano at firstname.lastname@example.org.