The Polynesian Polymath

From weaponry to ‘ukulele, artist Keith Maile has carved his niche
Story by Lesa Griffith. Photos by Dana Edmunds.

It’s a sunny April day, and Keith Maile is on duty at the annual Maoli Arts Movement exhibition. Among the array of pieces on display throughout the Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ new Nā Lama Kukui Gallery is a gleaming ‘ukulele, the wood grain on its back and top symmetrically matched. Ringing the sound hole is an iridescent blue circle of paua, the shell of a New Zealand sea snail.“This one I’m keeping,” says Maile, the man who built the instrument.

The striking golden wood is root koa cut in the 1950s, he says. “That’s why it looks so different—the burls make a unique grain. It’s been sitting around waiting to be made into an ‘ukulele all these years.” Not only is it pretty, it plays; ‘ukulele godfathers Joe Souza of Kanile‘a ‘Ukulele and Kimo Hussey tried out Maile’s uke, “and it passed the test,” Maile smiles.

The Islands are home to a cadre of Hawaiian woodworkers making everything from koa bowls to streamlined paddles, from ancient weaponry to resonant ‘ukulele. But while most wood artists develop a specialty, Maile tries his hand at everything.“If it’s Hawaiian in nature, I’ve probably made it,” he says. “And if I haven’t, I will get to it eventually.” On the cover of the MAMo exhibition program is his interpretation of a Hawaiian carving in the collection of the British Museum. Hewn from a single piece of dark-brown milo wood, the ceremonial ‘awa (kava) bowl is supported by three ki‘i, or human figures. Titled “Ekolu Kanaka” (Three Men), it took the award for best sculpture at the annual Hawaii’s Woodshow in 2012. Maile’s ihe, or short spears similar to the kind used in pre-contact Hawai‘i, are in demand by private collectors.

Though fairly new to the craft, Keith Maile, pictured here with an ‘ukulele he built using koa harvested in the 1950s, is already making a name for himself among Island musicians. On the opening page, Maile examines the finish on his fifteenth ‘ukulele.

What’s even more unusual than Maile’s range is his late start in the craft: He didn’t even begin working in wood until 2007 at the age of 54, when a friend gave him a koa wood makau, or fishhook. “It was special,” says Maile. “There was something to that hook.” That something inspired Maile to call Bishop Museum, which has more than a thousand makau in its collection, to see whether it offered classes on making them. Maile was soon talking with Marques Hanalei Marzan, the museum’s cultural resource specialist and also a well-known fiber artist. Marzan encouraged Maile to come down to the museum on Wednesday afternoon, when an informal group meets over lunch and works on various traditional arts projects. “I went the next week and I haven’t stopped going,” says Maile. Today, only nine years later, Maile has students of his own.

“Keith is a perfect example of a lifelong student of Hawaiian arts,” says Marzan of his former student. “He continues to learn new things each day, strives to hone the skills and knowledge he possesses and shares that which he has learned. As one of his many teachers, my only requirement was that he pass on the knowledge that I taught him. Mission accomplished.”

Ancient Hawaiians were skilled woodworkers who took their craft far beyond mere utility. They roughed out wood bowls called ‘umeke, for example, with stone and coral tools. They would sand them with coral, lava and pumice stone, sometimes using sharkskin, the natural equivalent of superfine sandpaper, and then rub the vessel with kukui oil to achieve a beautiful finish. The Hawaiians were also intimately familiar with the properties of various woods and their uses.‘Ōhi‘a lehua, a tree that ancient Hawaiians believed was a manifestation of the gods Kāne and Kū, was used for carvings of religious figures; the super-hard kauila was prized for making spears and tools such as digging sticks and kapa (bark cloth) pounders. Koa was the choice wood for canoes and surfboards.

When he took up his craft, Maile was tapping into a long tradition, though Hawaiian culture wasn’t something he grew up with. “There wasn’t a lot of Hawaiian going on in the house,” says Maile, whose half-Hawaiian father served in the Navy and went on to work for Pan Am while his Chinese mother stayed home to raise the kids. “My dad grew up in a time when it wasn’t so cool to be Hawaiian. That generation threw off the culture, put on the American persona and ran with that.” Even his full-Hawaiian grandfather never mentioned “even once anything about the culture,” Maile says, though some of it was practiced if not taught. At his grandparents’ house in Waimānalo on weekends, Maile’s grandfather would take him dragnet fishing at Bellows early in the morning. “We’d drag all the way back to near their home. I carried the heavy fish. As soon as we got back to the house, my grandmother cleaned the fish and we’d have breakfast.”

But if Hawaiian culture didn’t figure much into his upbringing, the arts did. Maile’s father painted—landscapes, seascapes, the family dog. His mother made feather hatbands and wove lauhala, the dried leaves of the pandanus tree. And when he met his future wife at Leeward Community College, she was a fine-art student. Maile himself is a gifted drummer; he’s played in countless bands since he was a teenager, though his tastes ran more toward Grand Funk Railroad and Led Zeppelin than the Sunday Manoa or Kalapana. But as for the visual arts? “I’m not very artsy,” says Maile,“but I know what I like when I see it.”

The koa wood makau Maile was given in 2007 turned out to be his entrée into both woodcraft and Hawaiian culture—both of which the next generation is carrying forward. Maile’s elder son, Daniel Kapalikūokalani Maile, is a culture educator at Bishop Museum while his younger son, David Maile, is pursuing a doctorate in American studies with a focus on intercultural communication as it relates to the social histories of indigenous people. And both are skilled at making makau.

Four years ago Maile and his family moved back to his childhood home in Maunawili, a suburb of midcentury tract homes nestled in the lush and spectacular hills above Kailua. When he’s not at his day job as the owner of Maunalani Design Group, a t-shirt wholesale and silk-screening business, Maile plans his projects in this unassuming ranch house. Behind his house is a strip of yard planted with plumeria and bird of paradise where Maile does some of his work. A workbench flanked by ti plants and covered with scraps of bone and wood hugs the house. “You’ve heard of shade tree mechanics? I’m a shade tree artist,” he chuckles.

These weapons hew more to traditional forms, though Maile uses a system of wooden pegs like those seen above to affix the teeth to the body, while ancient Hawaiians more commonly used lashing.

Inside the house, wood is everywhere. The dining table doubles as an ‘ukulele microfactory where five instruments are in production. Two shelving units are full with ‘umeke of all different sizes and an arsenal of Hawaiian weapons. Maile picks up a leiomano, a classic Hawaiian weapon resembling a hairbrush studded with shark teeth. “This is made of uhiuhi, which is extremely rare,” he says. “It’s really dense. It will not float.” Lift it and it feels more like stone than wood. This leiomano hews more faithfully to ancient tradition, but some of the weapons are inventions, things that he says “could have existed, but I put my own spin on them.”

Some more traditional Native Hawaiian artists have inevitably challenged such departures. “Any time you’re re-creating items from the past—if you’re a diligent crafts-person—then you’ll learn why the material was selected and for what purpose,” says G. Umi Kai, who has been making traditional Hawaiian weaponry since 1968 and was one of Maile’s teachers. “The history comes back because you start to understand the thinking process, the limited resources, the object’s function—without that, then your implement cannot be effective.” With that in mind, Maile is always careful to distinguish the “known pieces” from the “fantasy pieces.” Yet he believes there’s a place for invention: Giving his students freedom to veer from traditional, he says, opens up their creativity.

“Umi Kai is one of the chief weapon makers and teachers in Hawai‘i,” says Maile. “He is awesome. But I don’t always follow the things others do. I’m kind of out there. What’s nice is being able to take from anyone who teaches, then you can do what you feel comfortable with.” He cites the technique of using lashing to secure shark teeth to leiomano—the method preferred by strict traditionalists. While Maile is skilled at lashing, he often prefers pegging, i.e., securing the teeth with small pegs, a method that ancient Hawaiians also used, if infrequently.

“I also like tradition,” Maile says while bringing out a sleek, glossy ihe about six feet long and made of dense kauila wood. “This is like something that you would find in Bishop Museum.” The spear’s tip sports two rows of staggered barbs, which is why he chose to make it—for the challenge. He chiseled the points, then sanded for hours to round and taper them. The natural sheen was attained solely by rubbing the spear with his hands.

Maile has a regular gig making items for koa wood art emporium Martin & MacArthur. He fulfills a steady stream of custom requests from collectors, so it’s hard for him to focus on one thing. But if he could, he says, it would be ‘ukulele. Though Maile started making ‘ukulele only recently, he’s now vice president of the ‘Ukulele Guild of Hawai‘i and religiously attends his Thursday lesson in Kalihi with his teacher, Emil “Sonny” Bader.

When he started making the instruments, it took him eighteen months to make four. He completed his last four ukes in just six months. “I’m not in a hurry, but it just seems like it’s coming a lot faster,” says Maile. “I had a different teacher for each of my first four ukes; there was no continuity. I built number five with Sonny Bader, and I’ve finished six with him. There’s a continuity now. I’m experimenting with different tone woods. My concept is to keep it local. Along the way as I’m building I try to use just Hawai‘i things, things grown here, whether it’s koa or sugi pine, a tree that was introduced from Japan and is now commonly found in our forests.”

He points to a half-finished ‘ukulele made of “5A koa,” the highest grade, he says, with lots of curl in it. “The wood alone costs $250 for one set,” says Maile. Add the shell inlay, the hardware and the time and technique, and the starting $1,500 price tag sounds like a bargain. With his work in galleries, winning awards and in demand by private collectors, Maile says there’s no turning back for him. “It’s no longer a hobby,” he says. “I can’t stay under the radar anymore.” HH