When she was a young girl, one of Kiani Yasak’s favorite pastimes was watching her paternal grandmother, a gifted artist, at the easel. “She used acrylic paints to create beautiful Maui landscapes,” Yasak said. “My favorite ones were her paintings of Kula – where I grew up – with the narrow country roads, hillsides of Haleakalā and jacaranda trees in bloom. The colors were so vibrant, it was like you were there.”
From ages 7 through 16, Yasak studied with acclaimed Maui fine artist Philip Sabado, and entered art contests in school winning several of them. Today, she is the owner, founder, and creative force of ʻOpihi Maui, which specializes in hand-painted wooden signs, magnets and ornaments adorned with Hawaiian words and illustrations.
Yasak launched the company in January 2012, five months after she started teaching social studies for Ke Kula Kaiapuni ʻo Kekaulike, a Hawaiian language immersion program at Kalama Middle School in Makawao.
Yasak is also a product of Hawaiian immersion education and has danced with Hālau Kekuaokalāʻauʻalaʻiliahi for 15 years, performing at the Merrie Monarch Festival eight times.
“Dancing hula and being fluent in the Hawaiian language have kept me closely connected to my culture,” Yasak said. “I started ʻOpihi Maui as a side business to perpetuate Hawaiian culture, values and language; to share my love for art; and to make people happy.”
Feeling good is easy when you look at ʻOpihi Maui’s products, which come in about 35 different designs. Colors are typically bright, cheerful blues, greens, pinks, oranges, yellows and lavenders. Illustrations include iconic local images such as shells, whales, pineapples, shave ice, the shaka sign and tropical plants and flowers.
Some designs feature just one or a few Hawaiian words such as aloha, mahalo, and e komo mai. Others share short messages: e mau ana ke aloha (love shall endure); e hoʻohemo i kou kalipa (please remove your slippers); and e ola mau ka ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (perpetuate the Hawaiian language). Realizing many of her customers aren’t fluent speakers of Hawaiian, Yasak provides English translations or combines Hawaiian and English words for some designs.
Her dad, Mike, a painting contractor, has been an invaluable supporter from the beginning. “We get most of our scrap wood from building contractors and job site dumpsters,” Yasak said. “Rather than have it go into the landfill, we repurpose it to make our products. We want to do our part to mālama the ʻāina.”
Redwood and pine are their usual materials, but recycled wood can be “any kine,” Yasak said. “We’ve also worked with rare and coveted koa and ʻōhi’a.”
Mike handles most of the prep, including planing, cutting, and sanding the wood. He makes keyholes on the backs of signs so they can be mounted flush against a wall. All products have a protective clear coat finish. Yasak does the creative work, using exterior paint so they can be displayed indoors or outdoors.
“Everything is hand done; I don’t use stencils,” she said. “Every piece we make is an original work of art, they’re sturdy, they’re gender-neutral and appeal to all ages. They celebrate all kinds of occasions – weddings, birthdays, moving into a new home or opening a new business.
“When my students graduate from eighth grade, I give each of them a sign that has our school’s name on it, the year they’re graduating and a frame where they can put a nice picture of themselves with classmates.”
ʻOpihi Maui products are sold online and at select stores, including Na Mea Hawaiʻi on Oʻahu and on Maui at Sunkissed Wahine in Kīhei, Paradise Now Hawaiʻi in Wailuku and at Ports, the sundry shop at the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea. Yasak also sells her products at special events on Maui, including the Made in Maui County Festival and Hoʻomau, an annual fundraiser for immersion schools on Maui.
Online customers can even customize orders by choosing the font, wording, colors and/or design they want at no additional charge unless they are requesting an intricate logo or color that’s not normally in stock.
Large retail companies have approached Yasak about carrying ʻOpihi Maui products, but she doesn’t want to make major changes just to meet demand. For instance, she would have to stencil designs instead of hand-painting them to increase production. And since she and her dad both have full-time jobs, time is already tight.
“I considered it, but that’s not what we’re about,” Yasak said. “What’s important to us is doing what we enjoy, making people smile and showing what it means to be Hawaiian and live aloha.”