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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, November 30, 2008

Aloha to the queen of feathers

By Lee Cataluna
Advertiser Columnist

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Aunty Mary Lou was a master of Hawaiian featherwork.

Advertiser library photo

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Paul and Mary Lou Kekuewa met in California and collaborated on featherwork projects.

Advertiser library photo

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One of Aunty Mary Lou's students made a big collage of photos of her 150 pictures arranged and carefully overlapped almost like the featherwork Aunty was famous for. In every photograph, she is smiling and beautiful and a word used so often to describe her regal.

Mary Louise "Aunty Mary Lou" Kaleonahenahe Wentworth Peck Kekuewa died Nov. 18. She was 82.

Inside the little Kapahulu shop that carries her name, Aunty Mary Lou's Na Lima Mili Hulu No'eau, memories of a woman who carried herself like the most benevolent royalty alternately bring tears and laughter.

Aunty Mary Lou's daughter, Paulette Kahalepuna, points to the collage and says, "People would ask to take pictures with Mama and she would say, 'Sure! But make sure you send me a copy!' Thank goodness she didn't ask for 8-by-10!"

Aunty Mary Lou was widely known as a foremost expert in the art of Hawaiian featherwork. While her knowledge and artistry were highly respected, she herself was deeply loved. She willingly taught anyone who wanted to learn and filled their lessons with stories of her life and lessons for theirs.

"If you're going to do it, do it right," she would say as she undid rows of stitches that a student sweated over but somehow went awry.

She came to the art of featherwork while volunteering as a wardrobe mistress for the Aloha Week court in the 1950s. The responsibilities included more than just mending and fitting clothing. It was, "Oh, that feather lei is looking ratty. The kahili need freshening." She met her teacher, Leilani Fernandez, through Aloha Week, and learned how to mend, and then make, feather lei, capes, kahili and many other types of adornments.

By 1970, she started teaching what she had learned. She traveled throughout the state with cultural programs to share her knowledge of the uniquely Hawaiian art form. For 25 years, she taught at Bishop Museum. She also taught featherwork in adult evening classes at Kamehameha Schools Kapalama.

The shop in Kapahulu was her home base for the last 17 years, where she and daughter Paulette gave lessons and sold supplies and made dear friends from around the world.

"People have been coming in to the shop to share stories about Mama, to share remembrances and laughter. It is very welcome and it helps us so much," says daughter Nyla McKinzie of Illinois.

The two sisters put their arms around each others' shoulders as they speak of their Mama. They let people tell them how much they loved her even though it brings new tears. They always knew their mother made a great impact on people, and even in her last year as her health declined, they tried to make sure she saw students when she was able. They knew it was a gift to be in her presence.

Kekuewa was born in Pu'unene, Maui, and moved to Honolulu when she was 5. For eight years, she was a boarding student at St. Andrew's Priory starting when she was 8. During the war, her family evacuated to California, and she finished high school in San Francisco.

While living in the Bay Area, her family became a haven for other Hawaiians living abroad, and they continued to practice their Hawaiian culture as best as they could manage, with raffia skirts, crepe paper lei, hula and music.

It was in California where she met her husband, Paul Kekuewa, whom she called the "love of her life." He was a merchant marine on the same ship as her brother, and when she first laid eyes on him, she told her brother, "Invite your friend over to dinner."

Paul Kekuewa made his life on the ocean, first on freighters and then, when his wife insisted he stick to "little ships," as a tugboat captain. He made pineapple runs between Lana'i and O'ahu for Dole, and later worked for Young Brothers.

He was her partner in life and in featherwork, helping to make 10 pair of kahili for the Kamehameha Schools Kapalama Chapel.

"Dad never knew what he was going to get roped into," Kahalepuna says. He died 14 years ago, but his pictures, projects and influence are present throughout the shop.

Aunty Mary Lou was a member of the Wahine Hui a o Kamehameha, the Ka'ahumanu Society, Hale o Na Ali'i, National Society of Arts and Letters and Queen Emma Hawaiian Civic. She was named a "Living Treasure" in 2003 by the Honolulu Honpa Hongwanji and received the 'O'o award from the Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce in 2005. She was Aloha Week Queen in 1975, but to those who knew her, she was a queen every day of her life.

"People would come to the shop to see her and try to back out of the door going, 'You can't turn your back on the queen!' And we would tell them, 'Just go!' " Kahalepuna says, laughing.

Her work was museum-quality and was commissioned for hotels and office buildings. She made the first feather pennant for Hokule'a. She made a feather cape that took 13 years to complete. She and Kahalepuna published the book "Feather Lei as an Art," which serves as both a history lesson and a detailed guide. She always had several projects going at once and her hands were rarely idle. She finished her last project, a lei for a grandchild, in March.

For Aunty Mary Lou, featherwork held many metaphors for the Hawaiian culture: It required discipline, exacting focus, enormous perseverance and a calm assurance the exact opposite of the "happy-go-lucky, hang loose" stereotype that Aunty abhorred.

"We do this for Hawaiians," she would say. "This is the beauty of our Hawaiian people. This is something that makes us proud. We pray when we start, we pray when we're finished. You don't just throw this stuff together."

She is survived by son Paul Kealoha Kekuewa Sr., hanai son Hokualahou Beltz, daughters Paulette Nohealani Kahalepuna and Nyla Uilani McKinzie, plus 10 grandchildren, 28 great-grandchildren and one great-great grandchild.

Kahalepuna plans to keep the shop at 762 Kapahulu Ave. open. "Oh, definitely," she says. "That's how Mama lives on, through sharing the knowledge of her art."

A celebration of Aunty Mary Lou's life will be held at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at Kawaiaha'o Church. The family requests no flowers, but friends wishing to do something in Aunty Mary Lou's honor are encouraged to make a donation to Hospice Hawaii or Hale Hoaloha, a nursing home in Pacific Heights.

Lee Cataluna's column runs Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Reach her at 535-8172 or lcataluna@honoluluadvertiser.com.