For 90-year-old lau hala weaver and teacher Gladys Kukana Grace, weaving is less about technique than feeling.
"Weaving comes from within," she said. "Just weave and your hands take you where they want to go."
In September, Grace’s hands — and the magnificent lau hala hats they have created over the years — will be taking her to Washington.
Grace — "Auntie Gladys" to her students — is one of nine recipients of the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship presented by the National Endowment for the Arts to American artists who show a strong dedication to preserving culture for future generations. In addition to an invitation to the NEA’s awards ceremony at the Library of Congress, National Heritage Fellows receive $25,000 to continue their artistic work.
Although Grace does not have any specific plans for her prize money just yet, she hopes to use some of it to continue teaching students across the state about the art of lau hala weaving.
"No. 1 is to take care of all my students," she said.
For more than 30 years, Grace has been a steward of the art form and a major force in its restoration. Since she started giving private lessons — free of charge — on the front porch of her home decades ago, she has taught hundreds of students the art of lau hala weaving and given rise to a new generation of weavers and teachers. She now gives an annual workshop through Ulana me ka lokomaika’i, a weaving club she founded in 1997 with the help of a few students, which enrolls about 100 new students annually and has a waiting list about two years long.
"It was kind of a rare thing to find someone to teach you," said Marcia Omura, a student of Grace’s since the 1980s who now teaches at the workshops. "The art of lau hala weaving is alive and well because of her efforts."
Once a skill handed down from mother to daughter and kept strictly within the family, lau hala weaving was becoming a rare talent in Hawaii by the 1980s. There were fewer people learning the craft and fewer people willing to teach it.
According to Frank Masagatani, an early student and co-founder of the weaving club, Grace helped him absorb the skill in a way he could not have gotten out of any book.
"When I started, everybody was taught in Hawaiian, and trying to figure out what she was saying was difficult," he said. "Her philosophy is ‘Listen with your ears, look with your eyes and don’t ask too many questions.’"
Grace grew up in the small South Kona town of Olelomoana watching her grandmother weave lau hala hats. During the Great Depression, she said, families in Kona would weave the hats to trade them for food at the local market.
"If you wanted fresh food, you had to make hats," she said.
Although Grace learned the basics of hat making growing up, she did not get passionate about the craft until she retired from her job at the Pearl Harbor Naval Exchange. Her husband had fallen ill, and Grace was looking for supplemental income when she said she was beckoned back to the craft.
"I thought, ‘Where am I going to get help?’" she said. "I heard this voice saying, ‘What are going to do with your lau hala?’"
Grace’s work with lau hala weaving has earned her a long list of state and national awards. In 2008 she received a Keep It Hawaii Recognition Award from the Hawaii Tourism Authority for her contributions to Hawaiian culture. Her work was also showcased last month as part of the Bishop Museum’s Maoli Arts Month Awards.