Art grows from hobby

Coming from a family of artists, and with a background in conservation and environmental education, Denby Freeland-Cole just thought she might learn an interesting new technique when she signed up for a workshop in Native Hawaiian plant dyes.

But seven years later, her interest has blossomed into a passion for a traditional craft, turning Freeland-Cole into a prolific kapa maker whose work can be found in galleries around Maui, has been shown at local art exhibitions, and has helped dress dancers at the Merrie Monarch Festival.

“It started out as a hobby, and it’s grown from there,” she said.

Freeland-Cole and other Maui kapa artists are now at work on pieces for a hula performance Jan. 18 at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. An accompanying exhibit of the artists’ work, Mohala Hou Ke Kapa, will be on display from Jan. 22 to March 9.

Freeland-Cole said that she participated in her first dye workshop at the Maui Nui Botanical Gardens in 2006, then signed up for a weekend kapa-making workshop the following year. “All the stages of making kapa appealed to me,” she said – from growing the mulberry plants to pounding the bark to collecting natural ingredients and processing them into dyes.

For her wedding in 2008, she created an ambitious 9-by-3-foot kapa blanket – “knowing what I know now, I kind of got ahead of myself,” she said with a chuckle. She and her husband, Robb Cole, wrapped it around themselves during the ceremony, and the piece now hangs in their home.

As she spent more and more time on her craft, Freeland-Cole began entering her pieces in shows. The daughter of well-known Maui painter Betty Hay Freeland, and with several other artists in the family, Freeland-Cole – who is a watercolor painter herself – said it just felt natural to exhibit her work.

In addition to juried art shows around the island, her pieces can now be found at Native Intelligence in Wailuku and have also been carried by Viewpoints in Makawao and Maui Hands in Paia.

But she said one of the highlights of her kapa-making so far was the opportunity to help dress Hilo’s Halau o Kekuhi for the 2011 Merrie Monarch Festival. A number of kapa makers worked together to make costumes for the halau, which gave a special exhibition performance the evening before competition began. Each kapa artist was assigned to dress a dancer.

She said the idea came from a local artisan, who wanted to take kapa off the wall and road-test it as clothing, its original purpose. With Freeland-Cole designing a malo for a male dancer, “You really hope it holds together and stays on,” she said.

Her first child was only 5 weeks old at the time, so Freeland-Cole didn’t know if she’d be able to attend the performance. But at the last minute, the family decided to fly over to Hilo together.

“It was amazing,” she said. “Just seeing it onstage, with all of the dancers dressed in kapa. With the stadium packed and the energy of it all, it was really cool.”

Freeland-Cole previously worked at the Hui No’eau Visual Arts Center, at the Hawaii Nature Center and for the former Maui Coastal Land Trust before taking time off to raise her children. Now she spends several hours a day working on her kapa pieces.

That work includes growing her own wauke (mulberry) plants in a patch behind her Kula home – although she had to prune it back and install motion-activated sprinklers to deter deer after they raided her garden several months ago.

To make kapa, Freeland-Cole strips the outer bark off the mulberry branch, then removes the soft inner bark. She lets it ferment for several days in a bucket of water – a stinky process developed by ancient Hawaiian artisans that softens the fibers and allows them to make the kapa thinner.

After about a week of soaking, she removes the pulp from the water and uses an i’e kuku (kapa beater) to flatten it on a wooden kua (anvil). While the process is described as “pounding,” Freeland-Cole said that’s actually a misnomer. “It’s just a light tap,” she said. “You’re not pounding and beating.”

After she’s flattened several pieces of kapa, she pounds them together to create one large strip. She lets it dry for several days and then prepares dye using natural ingredients – such as milo, olena, koa and kukui. The dye can be applied through submersion or by being painted on.

After the piece is dry and the color set, she prepares more colors for the patterns she will apply to her piece, using handmade ohe kapala (bamboo stamps).

As she’s worked and improved her craft, Freeland-Cole has learned from other island kapa makers. A group of around a half-dozen artisans meets about once a month to talk about their work and share what they’ve learned.

“We’ll all go home and try things, and then get back together and share what we’re working on,” she said. “A lot of the traditional knowledge was lost, so it really is still a big experiment for all of us.”

* Ilima Loomis is a Maui-based writer and editor. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.