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Kapa maker grows her own wauke and the next generation of traditional Hawaiian artists

Roen Hufford kapa maker
Zoe Dym
Roen Hufford stands in front of her decorative kapa piece titled "Ka Ua" (left) and her mother's kapa (right).

A Native Hawaiian kapa maker was selected for the 2023 National Endowment of the Arts’ National Heritage Fellow — the nation's highest honor in folk and traditional arts.

Roen Hufford has been involved with Hawaiian arts for her entire life. She learned how to make the traditional fabric from her mother Marie Leilehua McDonald — who won the same award in 1990 for lei making.

"I was overwhelmed. I cried because my mother wasn't here to see it," Hufford said about receiving the fellowship.

McDonald studied art education at Texas Women's University. She was inspired by how much her classmates knew about their hometowns in Texas, and began looking into Native Hawaiian art when she returned to the islands.

McDonald passed down her knowledge of Hawaiian art to her daughter.

Hufford began working with kapa by helping her mother gather materials. She was only allowed to make kapa after she was familiarized with the wauke, or paper mulberry, plant used to make the bark cloth.

Her mother taught her everything she knows, and Hufford uses the same teaching methods with her students. If her students do something wrong, she never tells them "no," and instead asks them to try again.

Hufford beats kapa out of wauke she grows on her 10-acre farm in Waimea on Hawaiʻi Island. She says her knowledge comes from direct experience with the plant.

"Kupuna would tell you 'Oh, the flowers spoke to me,' or, 'The forest spoke to me.' And that's just kind of a lovely way to put it," Hufford said.

"But once you touch the material and you move it around, it tells you what it can do, what it is not able to do, what it wants to do. And then you create something — you change it from that plant into this useful practical material."

Hufford’s kapa is on display at the Bishop Museum through October.

Zoe Dym is a news producer at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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