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Ancient artistry is a collectible part of the islands’ cultural revival, rich with symbolism and folklore

TIMES STAFF WRITER; John Balzar is a roving national reporter for The Times

Long ago, a demigod named Maui cast his fishhook into the Pacific and pulled up the Hawaiian Islands.

Surely such a prodigious feat required a splendid fishhook.

Today we can guess what it looked like because fishhooks and legend are resurgent in Hawaii and across much of greater Polynesia.

Carved of bone, wood or fossilized ivory, and shaped into ancient patterns, the fishhook is but one display of Hawaii’s cultural revival.

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The fishhook hooked me. It drew me into something of a modern-day treasure hunt on my Hawaiian travels.

Looking for fishhooks, I caught the taste of Hawaii’s splendid crafts renaissance. And I found something I’d been overlooking for years: the glory and the gore of Hawaii’s cultural heritage.

Hawaii has always been an escapist destination for me. Thailand and Kenya and even Mexico are places to visit with one’s eyes open to culture. Not necessarily Hawaii, or so I thought. After all, this is American turf. So I always lazed on the beach.

But last year, while traveling in the South Pacific, I met a vagabond who had a buttery-yellow bone fishhook dangling from a cord around his neck. It was lustrous from rubbing his skin. He called it his symbolic connection to the ocean. To me it was an object of strange and simple beauty, 2 inches long, with an upswept curve and a careful lashing of twine that appeared seamanlike. It suggested function and art at the same time--which, as it turns out, is exactly its history.

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I inquired and learned that 15 years ago, maybe longer, fishhooks began appearing as neck pendants worn by men and some women. I was told that the best are carved by a smattering of artisans in Hawaii and New Zealand, along with some itinerant yachtsmen who ply the tropics.

The shapes, with regional differences, extend back to antiquity, when Pacific natives fashioned bone and shell into hooks and lures, affixing them to plaited fish line by way of whippings in tiny patterns that rival the finest of basketry.

As is often the case these days, knockoffs threaten to spoil the originality of any good idea. One need look no further than the islands’ ubiquitous ABC convenience stores to find $5 mass-produced versions of the ancient fishhook on crude cords.

These replicas, of course, lack the artistry and what Hawaiians call the mana, or soul, of hand-carved and properly tied fishhooks, which range from $50 to $150 or more. The good ones, thankfully, still take some work to find.

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In seven days of wandering and inquiring on Oahu and Maui, I met two carvers, saw the fine work of two more displayed for sale, and was introduced to the skills of other craftsmen.

As a starting point, a Hawaiian friend gave me the name of Solomon Apio, a carver who works in wood, bone and stone and one of 15 artisans at the Honolulu co-op known as Native Books and Beautiful Things. The showroom in the Ward Warehouse shopping center on Ala Moana Boulevard, between Honolulu and Waikiki, is a source for fishhooks and for carved wooden bowls (the locals call them calabashes), feather leis and capes, quilts and other resurgent crafts. One of the things that distinguishes Pacific calabashes is the range of exotic tropical woods used. Good hand-turned bowls range in price from $200 to thousands. Feather capes, extremely time-consuming to make, can fetch five figures.

Compared with the hyper-commercialism of so much of tourist Hawaii, the co-op proved to be a sanctuary.

On Saturdays, member artists take turns with craft demonstrations at the store. The day I visited, Apio was chipping a grapefruit-sized piece of basalt into a traditional “poi pounder,” a pestle used to smash taro root into a paste that is a staple of traditional island cooking. Lee Peer, using exotic materials prepared for fly fishermen, was painstakingly sewing a feathered cape, or ahuula, of the style once worn by Hawaiian royalty. He had already hand-stitched 5,300 red and yellow feathers into the net backing, and the piece was only 20% finished. In the back of the store, students gathered for a class in weaving hats and baskets from palm fronds.

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I had planned to stay only an hour, but the morning melted away. I asked Apio how the decorative lashing is attached to the carved fishhook, or makau, which has no eye. He set aside his stonework and took me to a table. From his artist’s bag, he produced a roughed-out hook and two thicknesses of fish line. He demonstrated the age-old process of knotting and winding that gives the pendants an elegant finish. Then, several times over, he coached my fumbling fingers through the complicated process.

For the most part, carvers use modern Dacron or nylon cordage. The durable natural fiber of the olona plant, once widely used by native fishermen, is nearly impossible to obtain, although some Hawaiians are trying to grow it as a source of new supply.

Apio learned his craft from others by the same show-and-tell method, and seemed interested in sharing technique, not guarding his secrets, which was typical among the craftsmen I met. He became an artist in midlife, when the family decided that all gifts for his mother’s 71st birthday would have to be traditionally handmade. This sent Apio searching his culture for objects, then techniques. His son, Alani Apio, a refugee from the corporate world who now carves wood calabashes and writes plays, is one of the younger generation of Hawaiians determined to resurrect island culture.

The co-op bookshelves provide a source of mythology and anthropology that gives meaning to the baskets, bowls, fishhooks and other articles of the polyglot Polynesian and Marquesan peoples who began settling Hawaii 1,500 years ago.

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“When you look, you will see that all of these objects are more beautiful than they had to be,” he told me.

Example: the wooden bowl used to collect a king’s dinner-table waste. It was believed that anything that had touched the lips of royalty could be used by enemies to invade one’s spirit, so refuse needed to be carefully disposed of. Rather than use a plain bowl for the process, islanders fashioned a polished, thick-walled wood calabash with intricate ivory inlays--ivory, as it turns out, from the teeth of enemies slain in battle with the king.

“In our past, even an object with so lowly a duty became a work of art,” the younger Apio observed.

Similar, if less grisly, symbolism is attached to many objects. In this regard, the workaday fishhook is unique: I could find little evidence of its historic use as adornment, meaning that its symbolism is entirely contemporary--that is, it can be whatever one wants. Some Hawaiians view it as a symbol of the native sovereignty movement or a way to express affinity with the workingman. Two popular native musicians, Keali’i Reichel and the late Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, are pictured adorned with fishhooks on their album covers.

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New Zealand artist Stephen Myhre explains in his book “Bone Carving Techniques and Concepts” that the fishhook passed from function “to the higher cultural value of ritual, and then on to a symbolic level” for Pacific peoples. He writes, “The fishhook is accessible on three different levels: It is the provider of food; it is the focus for ritual and magic; and it represents the abstract concept of abundance and plenty.”

On Maui, I visited the gallery of the Maui Crafts Guild, in the village of Paia. No fishhooks were displayed among the contemporary objects, but I was told that one member of the guild was also a carver. I was given the name and phone number of Rob Spenser, who invited me to his garage workshop 15 minutes away.

Spenser abandoned his pottery bench and devoted an hour to showing me fishhooks. He is assembling an inventory for display and sale. Where Apio’s hooks are finely polished and slightly stylized, Spenser’s are more rustic and businesslike. He fashions cords from sinew used by archers for bowstrings. Both men charge $65 for a large, 2-inch hook.

Spenser, a part-time artist and full-time firefighter, next took me into his house to show me his small collection of ancient hooks and also to unfold a magnificent tapa-cloth bedspread that has been passed down in his family--cloth painstakingly pounded from the bark of the mulberry tree.

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Never had I been treated with such authentic aloha. All I did was voice an interest in Pacific crafts.

More than once I was told that a scattering of hand-to-mouth artists can be found selling fishhooks at public markets and crafts shows. I encountered none this visit, but saw some of their work on the necks of passersby. By now I had enough exposure to judge a few of these pieces as top-notch.

In the town of Lahaina, at a shop called Whaler’s Locker, I found beautiful fishhooks carved of fossilized ivory, the work of two former Southern Californians, Larry Courtney and Trenton Pickens. For $90 I splurged on a small hook of fossilized mastodon ivory.

Most island artisans trace their inspiration to a single source: the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. It houses more than a million cultural objects of Pacific peoples, a revelation for the traveler.

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When I visited, a half-dozen artists were stationed on the lavishly landscaped grounds to show visitors the variety and techniques of island crafts. Regularly scheduled behind-the-scenes tours allow detailed examination of ancient objects. The museum gift shop contained one of the largest displays of high-quality bone fishhooks for sale that I saw anywhere.

Thanks to the fishhook, Hawaii has been transformed for me.

I have not changed my mind about the anonymous, escapist, people-watching pleasures of everyday resort tourism. But intimate encounters with island artists, their native heritage and crafts added scope to my last visit. More than ever, I’m eager to get back.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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GUIDEBOOK

Finding Island Art

Getting there: American, American Trans Air, Continental, Delta, Hawaiian, Northwest and United airlines fly nonstop from LAX to Honolulu; round-trip fares start at $522.

American, ATA, Delta, Hawaiian and United fly nonstop from L.A. to Maui; fares start at $622.

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Where to browse: Bishop Museum, 1525 Bernice St., Honolulu; telephone (808) 847-3511. Admission $14.95 adults, $11.95 youths and seniors. Behind-the-scenes tour, $15 extra.

Native Books and Beautiful Things, Ward Warehouse shopping center, 1050 Ala Moana Blvd., Honolulu; tel. (808) 596-8885.

Maui Crafts Guild, 43 Hana Highway, Paia, Maui; tel. (808) 579-9697.

Whaler’s Locker, 780 Front St., Lahaina, Maui; tel. (808) 661-3775.

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Tip: Check local newspapers for ads for crafts fairs; some feature quality work of native and native-inspired artisans.

For more information: Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, 2270 Kalalaua Ave., Suite 801, Honolulu, HI 96815; tel. (800) GO-HAWAII (464-2924), fax (808) 924-0290, Internet https://www.gohawaii.com.

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