From the first time we met, 40 years ago, Ira Ono has intrigued and inspired me. I was a starry-eyed teenager, starting my broadcasting career at KMVI Radio; he was a dashing young artist and dancer, one of the many colorful characters in the Maui arts and entertainment world. There’s just something about Ira, something beyond simple charm and charisma.
People say the same thing about my mother. She and Ira both seem to twinkle with an extra spark of life, or love, or love of life. Maybe that’s why I’ve always felt drawn to Ira despite our vastly different backgrounds and lifestyles. We’ve had less than a dozen conversations over four decades and, except for our most recent encounter, each lasted just a few minutes. Yet I’m always left with a sense of having reconnected with a long-lost friend, a kindred spirit.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., Ira Kaufman first visited Maui in 1968. Smitten by the island, particularly Hana, he moved here, changed his name to Ono, and built a remarkable career combining his talents in both visual and performing arts. He co-founded Hana’s first art gallery as well as Maui’s first craft gallery, Touchstone, while also choreographing and performing dance. In the early 1980s, he began creating jewelry from recycled items, which led to his founding of the “trash art shows” on Maui, Oahu and Hawaii island. He continues to serve as juror for The Art of Trash exhibition on Maui every April.
Ira moved to Volcano village over 30 years ago, but I still think of him as a Maui boy who just happens to be doing his thing over there, for now. He’s the founder and owner (he prefers the term “caretaker”) of Volcano Garden Arts, an indoor and outdoor gallery featuring the works of over 100 Hawaii artists. The main structure is a century-old redwood farmhouse, which also houses a gourmet vegetarian cafe. A walking tour of the gardens reveals even more treasures: trees laden with quirky birdhouses, sculpted masks peeking out from flowerbeds, a rustic and romantic guest cottage with fireplace and hot tub.
Visiting Volcano Garden Arts one afternoon in early May, I felt much the same as when I first met its caretaker: intrigued, inspired and instantly enamored. Unfortunately, I missed Ira by about 20 minutes, according to the ladies at Cafe Ono. After a delicious bowl of miso-ginger soup and a stack of sweet potato chips, I left a brief mahalo note for Ira and made a mental note to book myself a weekend getaway at his retreat, sooner than later.
The next morning, at Hilo Airport, I was pleasantly surprised to see Ira at the boarding gate. I introduced him to McAvoy Layne, with whom I was traveling and performing “Twain Meets Tita,” and the three of us enjoyed an hour of chatter before our flight. Ira was coming over for just a couple of days, to conduct an artist workshop and to visit friends, but he made time to attend our TMT performance at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center the following evening.
Next Saturday, Oct. 22, Ira will return to Maui to lead an intensive, all-day workshop at Hui No’eau Visual Arts Center. The Business of Art with Ira Ono will cover business and marketing fundamentals for artists, including pricing strategies, copyright basics, branding, etc. For registration information and costs, contact the Hui at firstname.lastname@example.org or 572-6560.
Like performing artists, visual artists are not often known for their business acumen. Ira is a rarity. Not only is he a gifted artist and a successful businessman, he is happy to share his knowledge and gifts so that others may succeed.
I won’t be attending The Business of Art, but I’m hoping for a future workshop in which Ira would share some of his twinkle. He could call it The Art of Being Ono.
* Kathy Collins is a storyteller, actress and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is email@example.com.