Posted On November 5th, 2014 -

‘Living treasure’ helped to revive kapa-making

Timothy Hurley / thurley@staradvertiser.com

Puanani Kanemura VanDorpe, who helped revive the ancient Hawaiian art of kapa cloth making and became a leading authority on the subject through many years of exhaustive self-study and experimentation, has died at the age of 81.

“She was devoted to the material achievements of her ancestors,” said Fred Kalani Meinecki, assistant professor of Hawaiian language and Hawaiian studies at Windward Community College. “Her handiwork was painful and persistent, and she gave it her utmost.”

VanDorpe, who died in Kona last month, is credited by many as reviving kapa, having learned about the Fijian equivalent while living on that island in the late 1960s. She brought her newfound interest back to Hawaii in the 1970s and helped rev up the art form here during the Hawaiian renaissance, inspiring generations of new kapa-makers.

With her work displayed in such institutions as the Smithsonian and Bishop Museum, VanDorpe in 1991 was declared “a Living Treasure of Hawaii” by the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii.

With no living Hawaiian kapa-makers to teach her, she reinvented the art by consulting with scientists and scholars and by gathering information from books, legends, chants and museum examples.

Meinecki said VanDorpe conducted more than 1,000 experiments in the production of kapa and some 300 experiments in the use of Hawaiian dyes on kapa cloth. In the process, she rediscovered different kapa-making methods employed in producing cloth made from mulberry tree bark.

She used only traditional natural resources, including bark and root scrapings, saps, resins and berries. She also commissioned local artists to fabricate traditional kapa tools.

“You can read a book, but the book really doesn’t tell you how it’s done exactly, the step-by-step. You have to do it yourself to find out,” she told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 1999. “The books were written by people who were observers, not people who actually made the kapa. I basically had to figure things out by myself. It’s all hands-on experience, and I had to make a lot of mistakes.”

A Maui resident for many years, VanDorpe and her students made kapa cloth for the reburial of bones discovered at the Honokahua construction site of the Ritz-Carlton Maui in the late 1980s. She also made kapa for the reinterment of St. Damien’s relic, having traveled to Belgium to retrieve it, and was blessed by the pope.

Viewing will be 9 to 10:30 a.m. Monday at Oahu Cemetery Chapel in Nuuanu. Visitation with special presentations will be 10:30 to 11 a.m. Service will be from 11 to 11:30 a.m., with lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

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