Roen Hufford: Hawaiian Kapa Artisian & 2023 National Endowment of the Arts Heritage Fellow

Roen Hufford at the National Endowment of the Arts, October 2023
Roen Hufford at the National Endowment of the Arts, October 2023

NEA Heritage Award Winners Gather in DC

In October 2023, some 30 indigenous artisans from North American and the Caribbean gathered in Washington DC for an auspicious occasion. For the first time since the COVID pandemic, four years of heritage award recipients, or “fellows,” of the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) met in person.

They spent the week communicating their inspiring stories of creativity and resilience. Sharing stories of passion, expression, and preservation of their indigenous cultures. Forging connections with each other in meaningful and touching ways. An one-of-a-kind experience for all 30 creators of fading traditions in the fine arts, music and spoken word.

Roen Hufford: 2023 Hawaiian Heritage Award Fellow

Roen Halley Kahalewai McDonald Hufford, innovative artisan of traditional Hawaiian barkcloth, or ka hana kapa, is one of nine 2023 fellow recipients. She made the 5,000-mile trip to DC from Hawaii to attend the award events. On the island of Hawaii (the Big Island), she lives on a 10-acre property called Honopua Farm with her husband Ken Hufford that includes her residence and kapa-making studio.

Once in DC, she met Francis “Palani” Sinenci, Master Hawaiian Hale Builder from Maui, and 2022 award recipient (pictured above). The two like-minded Hawaiian artisans bonded about the complications of preserving traditions amidst a modern world dominated by mass, factory-produced household goods.

Making Kapa

Ka hana kapa, or kapa, is decorative barkcloth that Hawaiians made prior to the arrival of colonists for clothing and blankets. They used kapa for all phases of life, from swaddling newbowns to wrapping bones during burials. While kapa was necessary, makers infused their own decorative sensibilities onto the cloth.

Roen, with the help of volunteer artisan students, makes the fabric for kapa by hand. First, she cultivates mature wauke (paper mulberry) plants that are grown on the farm, and strips the bark from its stems. Then, she and her students process the fibers, beating them repeatedly with wooden tools on stone and wooden anvils.

To create the final product, Roen uses plant-based dyes and inks to create intricate, decorative patterns ranging from spirals to monocromatic dots and lines. Roen describes the kapa-making process in more detail on her web site.

“There is always a part of us, the heart of being Hawaiian, that makes us want to know what our ancestors went through, ” Roen said in an NEA-produced video tribute. Kapa making helps us to realize “what life was like for people before Western contact.”

A Lei-Making Legend

Roen, of Hawaiian descent, follows in the footsteps of her mother, Marie McDonald, a premier Hawaiian artist in her own right. In fact, Marie preceeded her daughter in becoming an NEA heritage fellow recipient in 1990.

Marie specialized in art of lei making. Among her myriad accomplishments includes publication of several books on lei making. Ka Lei: The Leis of Hawaii, published in 1985, is considered the authoritative source on the subject.

Roen’s Artisan Journey

Roen’s parents started Honopua Farm in 1978 as a flower farm. In 1990, Roen and Ken moved to the property located near the town of Waimea. A few years later, they began growing organic vegetables, eventually establishing a small, successful farm business. They supplied produce to local restaurants, health food stores and farmers markets with the help of employees.

During the past 30 years, they’ve adopted and raised four children while overeeing both the vegetable and flower businesses. During this time, Roen began learning about kapa from her mother, who had become an accomplished kapa maker.  This interest grew, coinciding with a desire to wind down and eventually retire from the organic vegetable business.

Today, the couple shares the farm with several of Roen’s family members. (Roen’s parents are now deceased). These include her niece, who continues to sell flowers and vegetables to the community. 

Decades ago, Roen’s mother planted the wauke plants. She’s expanded those wauke patches, providing her and her students with ample material to beat kapa.

“I view each kapa I make as an opportunity for me to express countless design ideas and to improve on the quality of my work,” Roen told her healthy passport.

In the past, Ken led tours of their property and his collection of some 1,000 model airplanes and 7 classic cars, all coupes made from 1935 to 1957. Pictured below are his silver-white 1937 Buick Special coupe straight 8, and the 1938 Oldsmobile F series straight 6.

Roen and Ken may resume farm tours in the near future. More information about the farm and tour udpates can be found on the Honopua Farm Facebook page.

Success Without Compromising Passion

Roen creates larger-than-life kapa pieces, some of them six feet or more in length, that have been sold to businesses, museums and private collectors. As the demand increases, she remains focused on the passion and creativity that drives her artistry.

“I have to make something with these hands,” Roen said in the NEA tribute video. “It’s part of the innate sense of curiosity in all of us. To transform it, somehow, into something else. We want to add to our life. Every piece of kapa is part of that journey.”

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