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Friday, July 19, 2024 85° Today's Paper

Lee Cataluna

Master feather worker had vibrancy in life and her art

Jo-Ann Kamuela Kahanamoku-Sterling was the kind of lady who told you exactly what she thought but hinted that her best adventures were too good to share.

"I won’t answer any questions about anything I did before I was 50!" she told me when I interviewed her in 2008. "I was naughty."

Kahanamoku-Sterling, 80, was an artist, a teacher, a Hokule’a crew member and a wonderful storyteller. She was the daughter of Samuel Alapai Kahanamoku, brother of Duke Kahanamoku, and carried that famous family name with great style. She died on June 11 in her Big Island home. Her ashes will be taken on a final journey on Hokule’a from Waikiki tomorrow.

She was a member of the Polynesian Voyaging Society for decades starting in the late ’70s. She went on numerous voyages, including the 34-day sail from Hawaii to Tahiti in 1980. She thought it might have been her destiny to travel. She had a birthmark on her left leg, a sure sign, according to old Hawaiian beliefs, that she was always up to something, always going somewhere.

Kahanamoku-Sterling did her best to live up to that prediction. She grew up both in Hawaii and Tahiti, where her mother was born. She lived in New York for several years, worked in Los Angeles, lived on Maui, then Molokai and finally found the island of Hawaii was varied and changeable enough to suit her nature.

Her connection to Hokule’a is what brought her to feather work. The feather work, she said, is what brought her peace.

She started learning feather work in the 1980s and became one of the master feather workers of our time. Her capes and kahilis are in galleries and hotels around the islands. A 4-by-5-foot feather cape in blue, yellow and black is on display at the King Kamehameha Golf Club on Maui. To make such a large piece, each tiny feather was placed one at a time, a process that could take months of constant work. For an excitable person like Kahanamoku-Sterling, that intense focus and dedication was soothing.

Kahanamoku-Sterling liked to tell the story about that cape.

"A man asked me, ‘How do you make this?’ and I answered him, ‘With glue!’"

She liked to surprise people that way. "It is an ancient art form, but I’m a contemporary artist," she said. Traditionally, the feathers were sewn on. Glue wasn’t traditional, but neither was she.

For a time, Kahanamoku-Sterling taught feather-work classes to a group of senior citizens on Maui. One day she realized that none of her students had ever been to the Bishop Museum or Iolani Palace, so she told them, "OK, gang, we’re all going to Honolulu!"

On the trip she was touched that her students wept seeing the museum and the palace for the first time, so she planned more trips, eventually taking the entire bunch to Tahiti. It was something none of them ever thought they’d do, but with Kahanamoku-Sterling leading the way, all sorts of adventures suddenly seemed possible.

Lee Cataluna can be reached at lcataluna@staradvertiser.com.


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