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Ancient artistry is a collectible part of the islands' cultural revival, rich with symbolism and folklore

March 12, 2000|JOHN BALZAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER; John Balzar is a roving national reporter for The Times

HONOLULU — Long ago, a demigod named Maui cast his fishhook into the Pacific and pulled up the Hawaiian Islands.

Surely such a prodigious feat required a splendid fishhook.

Today we can guess what it looked like because fishhooks and legend are resurgent in Hawaii and across much of greater Polynesia.

Carved of bone, wood or fossilized ivory, and shaped into ancient patterns, the fishhook is but one display of Hawaii's cultural revival.

The fishhook hooked me. It drew me into something of a modern-day treasure hunt on my Hawaiian travels.

Looking for fishhooks, I caught the taste of Hawaii's splendid crafts renaissance. And I found something I'd been overlooking for years: the glory and the gore of Hawaii's cultural heritage.

Hawaii has always been an escapist destination for me. Thailand and Kenya and even Mexico are places to visit with one's eyes open to culture. Not necessarily Hawaii, or so I thought. After all, this is American turf. So I always lazed on the beach.

But last year, while traveling in the South Pacific, I met a vagabond who had a buttery-yellow bone fishhook dangling from a cord around his neck. It was lustrous from rubbing his skin. He called it his symbolic connection to the ocean. To me it was an object of strange and simple beauty, 2 inches long, with an upswept curve and a careful lashing of twine that appeared seamanlike. It suggested function and art at the same time--which, as it turns out, is exactly its history.

I inquired and learned that 15 years ago, maybe longer, fishhooks began appearing as neck pendants worn by men and some women. I was told that the best are carved by a smattering of artisans in Hawaii and New Zealand, along with some itinerant yachtsmen who ply the tropics.

The shapes, with regional differences, extend back to antiquity, when Pacific natives fashioned bone and shell into hooks and lures, affixing them to plaited fish line by way of whippings in tiny patterns that rival the finest of basketry.

As is often the case these days, knockoffs threaten to spoil the originality of any good idea. One need look no further than the islands' ubiquitous ABC convenience stores to find $5 mass-produced versions of the ancient fishhook on crude cords.

These replicas, of course, lack the artistry and what Hawaiians call the mana, or soul, of hand-carved and properly tied fishhooks, which range from $50 to $150 or more. The good ones, thankfully, still take some work to find.

In seven days of wandering and inquiring on Oahu and Maui, I met two carvers, saw the fine work of two more displayed for sale, and was introduced to the skills of other craftsmen.

As a starting point, a Hawaiian friend gave me the name of Solomon Apio, a carver who works in wood, bone and stone and one of 15 artisans at the Honolulu co-op known as Native Books and Beautiful Things. The showroom in the Ward Warehouse shopping center on Ala Moana Boulevard, between Honolulu and Waikiki, is a source for fishhooks and for carved wooden bowls (the locals call them calabashes), feather leis and capes, quilts and other resurgent crafts. One of the things that distinguishes Pacific calabashes is the range of exotic tropical woods used. Good hand-turned bowls range in price from $200 to thousands. Feather capes, extremely time-consuming to make, can fetch five figures.

Compared with the hyper-commercialism of so much of tourist Hawaii, the co-op proved to be a sanctuary.

On Saturdays, member artists take turns with craft demonstrations at the store. The day I visited, Apio was chipping a grapefruit-sized piece of basalt into a traditional "poi pounder," a pestle used to smash taro root into a paste that is a staple of traditional island cooking. Lee Peer, using exotic materials prepared for fly fishermen, was painstakingly sewing a feathered cape, or ahuula, of the style once worn by Hawaiian royalty. He had already hand-stitched 5,300 red and yellow feathers into the net backing, and the piece was only 20% finished. In the back of the store, students gathered for a class in weaving hats and baskets from palm fronds.

I had planned to stay only an hour, but the morning melted away. I asked Apio how the decorative lashing is attached to the carved fishhook, or makau, which has no eye. He set aside his stonework and took me to a table. From his artist's bag, he produced a roughed-out hook and two thicknesses of fish line. He demonstrated the age-old process of knotting and winding that gives the pendants an elegant finish. Then, several times over, he coached my fumbling fingers through the complicated process.

For the most part, carvers use modern Dacron or nylon cordage. The durable natural fiber of the olona plant, once widely used by native fishermen, is nearly impossible to obtain, although some Hawaiians are trying to grow it as a source of new supply.

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