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An ‘educator’ in heart and soul: Marie McDonald receives new lifetime achievement award

Updated: 
August 8, 2017 - 1:15am

WAIMEA — One of Hawaii’s most respected floral kupuna and well-known kapa makers, Marie McDonald, of Waimea, was recently named one of 10 “Living Treasures of the Hawaiian People” by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

Those nominated were selected by a group of cultural experts and practitioners. While other organizations honor living treasures, Hawaiian organizations didn’t have their own program to honor their kupuna and esteemed elders until now.

The inaugural class was celebrated during a ceremony at the Pomaikai Ballrooms at the Dole Cannery on Oahu in June.

As a known and respected Hawaiian artist and scholar, McDonald was a perfect choice to be named a Living Treasure. Her legacy may best be described as a lifetime of researching, studying and learning — a vast knowledge passed on to others.

On a recent quiet day at the family farm in Waimea, her first-born daughter, Roen Hufford, spoke on her mother’s behalf. At age 91, McDonald doesn’t always feel up for visitors and now spends her days in a comfy chair, reading. She’s cared for in her home by her daughter, Susan Olsen, and son-in-law, Larry.

McDonald was born on Oahu where her father worked installing telephone lines around the North Shore. A promotion led to a family move to Molokai, where he worked as superintendent of the phone company.

“Everyone thought they were rich,” Roen said, “but they had 10 children. My mother once told me that their house in Kaunakakai had a dirt floor, which they swept and mopped.”

McDonald went to Kamehameha Schools, and upon graduation told her father she wanted to go to college to study painting. While he acknowledged her artistic talent, he suggested that she think about a degree in education instead “because you can always get a job as a teacher.”

Hufford said, “I think my grandfather was very wise in that he realized she had this innate teaching sense in her, and that is what I think led her through her entire career.”

McDonald made it to college, attending Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas. Graduating with a double major in art and art education, she returned home and began work as a playground director for the City and County of Honolulu Parks and Recreation Department. She worked under both mayors Neal Blaisdell’s and Frank Fasi’s administrations, retiring as an arts and crafts specialist.

During McDonald’s tenure, the department supported many large lei-making contests and was called upon to support a national league of cities meeting in Honolulu. The meeting was attended by all the governors from the different states, and even the U.S. president came and spoke. McDonald worked with the director of the Honolulu Botanical Gardens, Paul Weissich, to install a wall of orchids for one meeting. That got taken down and was replaced the next day with a wall of palms with palm fruits. The attendees loved it.

The department also made wood rose corsages for all the wives of the attending delegates. There were hundreds of them, so McDonald enlisted people on the playgrounds and senior citizens to help make them.

Various circumstances led McDonald and her husband, Bill, to Hawaii Island in 1973. She went back to education, teaching art and Hawaiian studies at Kohala High School. In 1978 they started their own flower farm, Honopua, which the family still operates today.

McDonald and Hufford were also teaching lei making, and during this time McDonald wrote her first book, “Ka Lei,” in 1978 which many consider the definitive source book on lei making.

She coauthored a second book, “Na Lei Makamae,” about rare pre-contact leis that was published in 2003. It received the Samuel M. Kamakau Award for Hawaii Book of the Year. Weissich, her friend from her Parks and Recreation days, did the writing while McDonald made the leis and arranged them for photography sessions. The models in the book were all part Hawaiian — many of them Waimea families — and no introduced plant material was used for making the leis. The leis were from different islands depending on the plant material.

In 2011, when she was 85 and being interviewed about another accolade she’d received, McDonald was asked why at this point in her life she didn’t just sat back, relax and retire.

“We are Hawaiian, we are art-trained, we are curious and we are living,” she answered.

McDonald had more work to do.

She next conceived a novel idea — making clothing out of kapa as was done in the past. She envisioned the kapa being worn by members of the prestigious Halau O Kekuhi at the 2011 Merrie Monarch Festival.

To make the project authentic, McDonald stipulated to her kapa makers hui that the kapa had to be made in the traditional way and the dyes needed to be natural. That meant acquiring the wauke plant, from which most kapa is made, and then performing all parts of the kapa making process from growing and harvesting the plant to the actual beating of the cloth. Because the kapa was going to worn and not just displayed, it had to be more soft, thin and pliable, which translated into hundreds of hours more work.

The project took 29 kapa makers from across the islands several years to complete, and it spawned several accompanying activities including a documentary titled “Ka Hana Kapa,” which aired on Hawaii public television in February 2015. The film featured interviews with kapa practitioners including McDonald and Hufford, and in a chicken-skin moment showcased the appearance of the Halau O Kekuhi at Merrie Monarch led by Kumu Nalani Kanakaole, attired in the original kapa cloth made specifically for them.

Another lifelong goal for McDonald, achieved when she was in her 80s, was a one-woman show of her kapa work at the Academy of Arts in Honolulu. Titled “He Ho’ala Ana/An Awakening,” it was held Nov. 20, 2008 through Jan. 18, 2009.

“It’s basically unheard of to have a living artist show at the Academy of Arts, much less a Hawaiian one, but she did it,” Roen said, adding that most of the pieces in the show were sold.

The State Foundation on Culture and the Arts acquired many, which are now on display in the Honolulu Art Museum and other places through the Art in Public Places Program. Reassuringly for Hufford and other art followers, this means her mother’s art work will be preserved for future generations.

Kapa maker Sabra Kauka of Kauai nominated McDonald as a Hawaiian Living Treasure.

“Marie’s passionate wish for Hawaiian artists has always been for them to express new visions using traditional techniques,” Kauka wrote. “She expects people to produce more graphic, dramatic, vivid and strong work … to be creative in their own right, to have crazy ideas and to act on them.”

Another supporter, Patti Cook, of Waimea Middle School, commented on the mother’s and daughter’s community efforts, in particular their contributions to Malaai School Garden.

“Both Marie and Roen have been and continue to be incredibly generous in their support of Mala’ai. They have contributed every year in many ways, including the garden’s annual Art &Sol Benefit Art Auction,” she said. “They have also come and taught students to carve gourds and pound and print kapa, and helped them plant their first patch of wauke. Both are ‘educators’ in their hearts and souls and it shows.”

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