Golden Thai buddha statues welcome guests at the iconic Mauna Kea Beach Hotel competing for attention with the white sands of Kauna‘oa Bay and the snow-capped mountains of dormant Mauna Kea Volcano.
There are many national treasures from the Asia-Pacific in the hotel’s specially curated $2-million art collection, which famously boasts a 12th-century pink granite Buddha resting under a Bodhi tree.
However, thanks to the vision of the Mauna Kea’s founder Laurance S. Rockefeller, two of the most precious collections displayed at the luxury hotel come from Hawai‘i. The property boasts one of the state’s most significant mid-century modern collections of specially commissioned Hawaiian kapa, patterned cloth made from the pounded inner bark of paper mulberry trees. It also houses the largest standing exhibit of mid-century modern Hawaiian quilts in the state.
Rockefeller commissioned these collections after the hotel’s art curators struggled to find pre-nineteenth century Hawaiian works of art to include among Mauna Kea’s thousands of art objects. Many early examples of Hawaiian art had decayed because of their fragile materials. Others were destroyed following the overthrow of the kapu system and the arrival of the Christian missionaries. As a result, Rockefeller focused his Hawaiian collection on kapa and quilting—art forms that were still alive, however minimal.
Rockefeller commissioned master quilter Meali’i Kalama, who was a member of the Kawaiaha‘o Church, to create 30 Hawaiian quilts. The colorful quilts, which took more than 20 women more than 30,000 hours to stitch, where hung tapestry-style in the hotel’s corridors.
He also hired Mary “Aunty Malia” Blanchard Solomon to create 14 pieces of kapa for the resort. At the time, Solomon was one of only a few native Hawaiians practicing kapa making, which after the advent of modern cloth and missionary influences had given way to quilt making. To learn the lost art, Solomon studied kapa samples at Bishop Museum and traveled to the South Pacific.
The hotel’s Asian art, which includes a 14th-century carved wooden Buddha from Japan’s Kamakura period, still draws the most attention. However, Hawaiian art has taken on new importance during the Mauna Kea’s second half century in business. The hotel’s current owners, Japan-based Prince Hotels & Resorts, expect to spend about $1 million, roughly half the insurance value of the property’s entire art collection, on a partnership with Bishop Museum to restore and pre- serve the kapa and quilts.
As the restored Hawaiian works return to the hotel, Henderson says they are repositioned to protect them from UV rays and to bring them greater prominence. Each quilt or kapa plays as much a part of conveying the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel’s meaning as the property’s architectural nuances, which include distinctive blue-tiled walkways, lava-rock walls, tropical gardens and sand-colored cement foundations.
The textile arts, which utilize ancient patterns in a mid-century modern way, depict the hotel’s past and present as well as its commitment to the local community. Henderson says time has brought greater understanding of how Rockefeller’s investment in native Hawaiian art aligned with the Hawaiian Renaissance movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which brought Hawaiian cculture—from navigation and language, to music and art—to the forefront of the state’s consciousness.
That’s part of the reason that the Bishop Museum team is working hard to repair years of sunlight and insect damage, says Alice Christophe, Bishop Museum ethnology collections manager.
The Mauna Kea’s investment in the care of the kapa and the quilts demonstrates their value—which can’t be defined without taking into account the Hawaiian sense of place and cultural pride that they impart, Christophe says. The importance of keeping the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel’s kapa accessible was conveyed in April 2018 when kapa artists and practitioners attended the Mauna Kea’s unveiling of three restored kapa, she says.
Kapa maker Verna Apio Takashima brought the kapa stamps used by Malia Solomon to the event. The Manaola ‘ohana blessed the return of Solomon’s kapa, and other local artists including: Ka‘iulani de Silva, Wesley Sen, Bernice Akamine, Roen Hufford and Kana‘e Keawe turned out to pay their respects.
Solomon was such a pioneer that there wasn’t enough modern-day bark cloths to satisfy Rockefeller’s commission—each of the sheets would have required beaten inner bark from up to 10 wauke (paper mulberry) trees, Hufford says.
To complete the order, Solomon put out the call for materials and acquired plain bark cloth that was roughly 200 years old at the time, says Mauna Kea art docent Patti Cook. Solomon replicated historic patterns from snippets of designs that she had seen in her travels and at the Bishop Museum; however, Cook says that the artist elevated the art form by arranging the patterns to form a distinctly mid-century modern composition.
Solomon’s works are so dynamic that Cook has made them a routine stop on her Saturday morning art tours at Mauna Kea. It doesn’t take knowledge of kapa to appreciate them.
“They could hang on the wall at a museum of modern art,” Cook says during a recent art tour that highlighted some of the Mauna Kea’s most famous art works along with its kapa and quilts.
Weiping Tien Price, a hotel visitor from Kaua‘i, nodded in agreement, but later noted with pleasure that the hotel continues to display its treasured art works as if they were in a home just like Rockefeller intended.
“The accessibility of the art makes us all feel equal here,” Tien Price says. “This is where Hawai‘i and all worlds connect. There is harmony in the kapa and quilt patterns. There is harmony everywhere— that’s the magic of this place.”