After a lifetime of patient learning, Marie McDonald’s time is now. Widely acknowledged as one of Polynesia’s living masters, Marie’s kapa skills are some sixty years in the making and exist outside the standard kapa genealogies—she is completely self-taught, a process that began in 1948 when she returned home from the Mainland with a college art degree. “I really wanted to be a painter,” she says, but, in part to ease her father’s apprehensions about economics, she instead became an art teacher. At the same time, she became her own student.
“When I came home, I started to delve into my heritage, and I came across a couple of things that I really wanted to study and perfect: lei-making and kapa.” (It’s worth noting that Marie is also one of the world’s experts on Hawaiian lei-making, having published two highly regarded authoritative books on the subject.) As for kapa, it’s been a long and circuitous route: The year she came home from college, she used some Hawaiian kapa motifs to illustrate menu covers for hotel restaurants. “So that was the start, but you know how it goes,” she says, “Over the years you leave things and go to something else, only to come back.”
Over those years, layer by layer, her skills accrued. In the 1950s, while teaching at the Children’s Center in Ala Moana Beach Park, she began experimenting with plant-based dyes while to helpping children participate in an annual Easter egg contestdecorate Easter eggs—it was a natural progression, given that she was already experienced with batik (wax-resist dyeing), as well as with dyeing wool for weaving. “When you’re an art educator, you have to be good at everything,” she says with a chuckle. “Or at least reasonably good at it.”
During this period she also grew her first wauke in barrels at the Children’s Center, but lacking the proper tools, she had no way to process it. It wasn’t until 1973, when she and her husband moved to the Big Island’s Waimea district, that she began to get serious about kapa. “By the 1980s, my plants were growing, and I’d got some tools together and I decided, ‘I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna make the mistakes and I’m gonna have some nice things.’ And so I started, and in the 1990s I began to get some acceptable things.”
Touring Marie’s workspace, the accumulation of six decades of life and work, is a remarkable experience. Pulling out various dyes, she explains their provenance with the patience of a teacher: “This yellow is noni; this yellow is turmeric, ‘olena: See the difference? This greenish yellow is ma‘o, this blue is ukiuki.” Then there are the tools—some made by her deceased husband, others by master woodworker Solomon Apio, one by Kana‘e Keawe, but most by her own hand. She picks up a small, three-pronged bamboo tool. “This is a tool for striping; I recently figured out how to use it, and I love it. … Sometimes tools don’t look that interesting, but if it works, it’s beautiful, yeah?”
Marie exactingly adheres to traditional techniques, using only those materials, tools and dyes that her ancestors would have. But unlike those who faithfully reproduce the ancient techniques, watermarks and dye patterns, Marie has modernized the imagery. She still uses ‘ohe kapala to create repeating patterns that in turn produce a larger image, but for those who know kapa, there is no mistaking her work with that of her ancestors. “The work that I do, I think it has the same Polynesian feeling, but the way I put things down, the way I divide my space, that’s me,” she explains. “As artists we express ourselves, and we should express ourselves here, in our own time.”
For example, the three illustrations from the Hawaiian creation chant Kumulipo she made a few years ago. One depicts the creation of starfish, another the more general honua (birth); another, the god Lono. “I like the ocean and I like the sky,” she says, simply. “I do these things that are still geometric, but they also have movement and motion.” She places heavy emphasis on that last word, and for good reason: The work is bold, alternating between the literal—the clearly defined starfish—and figurative, as in a swirl of patterning to represent the chant’s refrain—as she roughly translates it: “The water flowed and the fields were planted and the gods appeared.”