Issue 10.5: October/November 2007

The Ipu Guy

story by Jennifer Crites
photo by Macario


Michael Harburg’s art has its roots in both the past and present. Literally. That’s because his canvas is a plant—a gourd, to be exact. And his technique—well, that comes from the island of Ni‘ihau, circa AD 1600.

The process goes like this: Harburg sketches a design on the oversized fruit, then carves it into the green skin. He shaves off patches of skin and pours dye inside the hollowed-out shell. Then the gourd takes over, drawing dye through the rind via osmosis. The dye stains only the areas of the surface where the skin’s been left on. “I do only half the work,” says Harburg. “I etch a cartoon and Mother Nature does the rest.”

The result is stunning—and historically significant. “This method developed only on Ni‘ihau—nowhere else in the world—and then vanished at the end of the 19th century,” explains Harburg. “It was lost until Dr. Bruce Ka‘imiloa Chrisman figured out how it was done.” During a chance meeting on the Big Island in 1997, Chrisman laid out the basics for Harburg, who had no formal art training. Several years later, after considerable trial and error, Harburg had mastered the exacting technique.

Today, Harburg will tell you that he’s the foremost practitioner of the technique, but he’s not being immodest: “It’s simply by default; no one else is doing it.”

At first he copied the early patterns he saw in museums—geometric designs that embellished water bottles, canoe bailers, musical instruments, carry-alls and a host of other practical items the ancient Hawaiians made from the versatile gourd. Designs from the mid-1800s featured floral patterns and even English names—a nod to visiting New England whalers who took the containers home as souvenirs.

These days, stylized mangoes, turtles and double-hulled canoes float across Harburg’s ipu (gourds), some of which he grows in hexagonal molds and other shapes. “You have to cultivate them,” he says. “You’re forming a relationship with the living entity.”

That’s just some of the wisdom Harburg imparts while demonstrating the Ni‘ihau method at National Park Service events and when teaching classes at Bishop Museum’s Amy Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden in Kealakekua and the Kona Art Center. At other times, the “ipu guy,” as he calls himself, can be found meticulously scrimshawing gourds at Ipu Hale Gallery, which he opened in Holualoa in 2003 to perpetuate the Ni‘ihau art. “I have an obligation,” he says, “to pass this tradition on to others.”

Ipu Hale Gallery