Story by Catharine Lo
Photo courtesy Honolulu Academy of Arts
In the early 1980s, after working for twenty-five years as a salesclerk at the Pearl Harbor Navy Exchange and raising a family, Gladys Kekuna Grace turned in earnest to ulana, or lauhala weaving. She became an expert weaver of papale (hats), relying on methods she had learned decades earlier from her grandmother. Her passion was irrepressible; “I wanted the hats to come alive,” she said. Recognizing that ulana could become a lost art, she devoted her life to teaching, and in 1997 “Aunty Gladys” co-founded a weaving group with her student, Frank Masagatani. They named it Ulana Me ka Lokomaika‘i, which means “to weave from the goodness within,” and this was the philosophy they practiced.
“If your heart is good, clean and your spirit is good, then … your hat will look how beautiful you are,” Aunty Gladys explained when she was recognized as a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts. Now through January 29, 2012, the Honolulu Academy of Arts is paying tribute to Aunty Gladys with an exhibit that includes more than seventy hats as well as a display of the materials and tools involved in ulana and stories from Aunty’s students.
“It’s not just about the weaving,” emphasizes Gwen Kamisugi, one of Aunty Gladys’ longtime students, who wove two of the hats in the exhibit. A teacher herself, Kamisugi passes on essential lessons Aunty taught, from planting and maintaining the hala trees that provide the leaves to de-thorning and cleaning the lau (leaves)— all done with respect and admiration. Repeating the most valuable lesson she has learned from Aunty Gladys, Kamisugi says, “Weaving is about relationships. When you meet other people, you weave them into your lives. Leaves — just like family, friends — they’re not all perfect. You learn to work with what you have.”
Other students share stories of a teacher with endless patience who challenged them to push themselves. Margaret Lovett remembers receiving a woven baseball cap from Aunty and the directive to “figure this out”—and make another just like it. Happy Tamanaha remembers the joy of gathering lau with Aunty on Hawai‘i Island. And Judi Moore was so taken by all that she learned from Aunty Gladys that her license plate now reads “MAD-HTR.”