story by Lynn Cook
photos by Dana Edmunds
John holds a smaller quilt by Susie Sugi
Yards and yards of white material drift like a tropical snowfall across long tables. Until a few minutes ago, the room was buzzing with conversation. Now it’s silent; the moment is here: An intricate silhouette of breadfruit leaves, a pattern cut from a single piece of soft cotton, is carefully unfolded. As his students watch, John Serrao guides each branch and fruit into place, creating a detailed landscape where once there was only a solid background. Now begins the work that will take up to a year to complete. Pinning, basting, appliquéing and quilting: Under Serrao’s supervision, each stitch becomes an act of love—for the process and for the person who will eventually be enveloped in this handmade quilt.
John Serrao is the first to admit that his current profession is somewhat incongruous given his previous career: A giant of a man, his height and stature speak more to his thirty-some years with the Honolulu Police Department than they do to designing quilts. In his time, he’s dealt with the far-from-lovely side of life: Gang fights, drug users and dealers. He’s stood security duty for everyone from local government officials to international statesmen, from Jackie Kennedy to Elvis. But for many of those same years he had this other life, creating patterns of intense beauty, each with its own story to tell. Get him talking and it doesn’t take long for the gritty tales of life as a plainclothes cop to give way to ethereal discussions of the philosophy of quilting. Ask him about his art and he’ll say he designs dreams.
In fact, it was a dream that started it all. Back in the mid-1960s, the Serraos were struggling. John’s wife, Poakalani, who had been born with only one hand, was a stay-at-home mom: With four children in private schools and elderly family members to care for, a policeman’s salary didn’t go very far. There were a lot of sleepless nights … and then the dream.
“One morning, my wife comes in and says she has seen her late grandma,” John recalls. “And grandma was demanding to know why we were struggling so hard, because all the money was in the barrel. We thought and thought, but we couldn’t figure this dream out. Finally my wife went to the closet and pulled out an old barrel—
I didn’t even know it was there.”
Poakalani’s grandmother, Caroline Correa, was born on the Big Island during the monarchy era. A highly respected quilter and pattern designer, tutu Correa had spent the period between 1901 and 1940 traveling throughout the Islands, visiting friends and family, quilting and exchanging patterns. Inside the barrel were 300 full-sized Hawaiian quilt designs.