Story by Sheila Sarhangi
Photo by Kyle Rothenborg
“My designs sometimes come to me in dreams,” says Sami Fevaleaki. “When I wake up, I hurry and draw them.” The Tonga native started carving when he was 8, practicing on yams and taro root. “This is normal for kids at home,” he says. “We’d work on the crops, and when we had a little break, we’d sit down under the mango tree and start making shapes.”
Today, his pieces are carved of much tougher stuff: fossilized wooly mammoth and walrus tusk, whalebone, cow bone from local ranches. Fevaleaki’s grandfather was a fisherman and thus also a carver. “He would make his own fishhooks out of mother-of-pearl and turtle shell,” Fevaleaki says. Sami “got so inspired by watching him” that he took his grandfather’s craft of the necessary and raised it to a fine art. Today he’s one of the Islands’ most expert and sought-after carvers; he makes all manner fishhooks but also ornate sharks, dolphins, mo‘o (lizard spirits) and ulua, a prized game fish.
His creations run from $30 to $5,000, and celebrities such as Pierce Brosnan, Helen Hunt and even Lady Diana have worn them. But Fevaleaki’s not interested in money or fame. (In fact, he can be pretty hard to find; sometimes he has a booth at the monthly Waikiki ArtFest in Kapi‘olani Park or the Sunday morning Hale‘iwa Farmers Market, but just as often not).
His art draws on traditional motifs from the Pacific islands he visited—Fiji, Tahiti, Cook Islands, Samoa and Aotearoa— before coming to Hawai‘i to “explore this last area of Polynesia” in the early ’90s. “This is koru, or a fern leaf,” he says, holding up a seven-inch spiral representing a fiddlehead poised to unfurl, a traditional Maori design. In Aotearoa, where the koru fern grows, “it represents a new beginning, regeneration, new life,” he says. But while Fevaleaki pays homage to the cultures from which he borrows, he’s not shy about what he calls “flipping” Polynesian designs, that is, blending them or adding his own symbols.
“My work is very personal,” he says, pointing to one piece that represents the four elements—wind, fire, water, earth. Within it is a circle: “This represents the Hawaiian piko (navel), a very traditional symbol, but also an international symbol: all different cultures, all tied.”