Gladys Kukana Grace, a master lauhala weaver and recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship Award, died on Thursday, Jan. 17 at Kuakini Medical Center. She was 93.
Grace, better known as “Aunty Gladys” to those she mentored, was a master lauhala weaver who learned the art from her maternal grandmother while growing up in the small town of Olelomoana on Hawaii island’s South Kona coast.
She was in 1919 to a family with a skill for weaving hats in a technique of light and dark contrasting patterns known as “anoni.” It was a craft taught from one generation to the next, with no written instructions.
In 2010, Grace was one of nine recipients of the National Heritage Fellowships presented by the NEA to American artists dedicated to preserving culture for future generations.
“The NEA joins Aunty Gladys’s family, friends and students in mourning this loss while celebrating her life and contributions to Hawaiian culture,” said the NEA in an issued statement yesterday.
The NEA’s National Heritage Fellowships archive will keep Grace’s biography and interview posted on its website, along with an audio clip of her talking about weaving hats and video of her at work.
During an interview with the NEA in 2010, she explained that “you weave with the goodness of your heart within.”
“If your heart is good, clean, and your spirit is good, then you are able to learn to make a hat and make beautiful hats and your hat will look how beautiful you are,” she said in the interview. “And if you don’t feel good, you’re angry with anybody or you’re not a pleasant person, your hat will show everything on it. So I teach them, weave with how you feel inside you and it makes you become a good person.”
Though she grew up weaving, Grace took a hiatus from it while working 25 years as a sales clerk at the Pearl Harbor Navy Exchange and raising her family.
She began weaving again after retiring in the early 1980s, and went on to teach the art to hundreds of students throughout the isles.
The knowledge of techniques and patterns were typically closely guarded family secrets, but Grace would teach it to anyone with a desire to learn because she wanted to keep traditional lauhala weaving from becoming a lost art.
She gave private lessons from her front porch and taught classes and workshops throughout Hawaii.
Aunty Gladys’ lessons included where and when to collect leaves from a lauhala tree, how to prepare them as well as how to master the complex patterns of weaving.
One of her favorite nuggets of wisdom for her students was that “weaving lauhala is like weaving a relationship.”
From 1988 to 1998, she was part of the Hawaii State Foundation on Culture and the Arts’ Folk Arts’ Apprenticeship program.
In 1997, Grace, along with one of her earliest students, Frank Masagatani, founded a weaving club — Ulana Me Ka Lokomaika‘i — which continues to meet today.
Grace was a featured artist throughout the Pacific Islands and the U.S., including the Bishop Museum and Smithsonian Institution. Though her works were sought after by collectors, she preferred to give them away to family, friends and students.
Besides being a National Heritage Fellow, Grace was also the recipient of the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s “Keep It Hawaii” Kahili Award in 2008 for perpetuating the Hawaiian culture.
Last year, the Honolulu Museum of Arts presented “Ulana Me Ka Lokomaika‘i: To weave from the goodness within,” exhibiting her works as well as the those of her students.
“Aunty taught us all to live life well and to work from the heart,” said Sara Oka, curator of textiles for the Honolulu Museum of Arts, in an e-mail. “She was tiny in stature but had the ability to garner an enormous respect, a genuine reminder that each person has the ability to change lives and make a difference. We will be forever grateful for her gentle spirit and for her willingness to share what she loved doing. Preserving her legacy has been a huge responsibility, but one that will continue, even though everyone is heartbroken in saying aloha to a wonderful woman.”
Service arrangements are pending.