Maui Artist Keeps Stone Carving Traditions Alive

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When Hōaka Delos Reyes’ son challenged him to make a pōhaku ku‘i ‘ai without tools, the Maui artist discovered there were few kälai pōhaku experts who could teach him to make a poi pounder without a hammer.

In ancient Hawai‘i, stone-on-stone carving was used to create mortars and pestles for medicine, clubs and other weapons for battle, ki‘i for heiau and ko‘i to make wa‘a. Pōhaku were also used for cooking in the imu, or to lay a foundation for a hale. But when Delos Reyes asked kūpuna about traditional stone craft techniques that rely only on wood, stone and shell, few remembered how to build without metal.

It took years to find a teacher but finally George Ka‘elemakule Fujinaga agreed to train him, on O‘ahu. To Delos Reyes, it was a blessing. A faithful student – and the last taught by Fujinaga – Delos Reyes learned how to make a traditional pōhaku ku‘i ‘ai, then went on to become a master practitioner himself.

Today, large stone sculptures, intricately carved and steeped with culture, can be found throughout Delos Reyes’s yard in Ha‘ikū, where he also has a large covered workshop. In June, Delos Reyes and his wife Maile welcomed Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustees and staff to their home to learn about the art of kālai pōhaku and to make kūkui hele po, or lamps shaped from stone.

Delos Reyes offers workshops upon request so that others, particularly kanaka maoli, can carry on the stone-carving tradition. “I’m more than willing to do the workshops and share and give of myself so that this lives on and on. No e mau, no e mau, forever and ever.”

After the workshop, we asked Delos Reyes to share more about his craft.

What was it that was special about pōhaku that called you?
“He ola pōhaku, he make pōhaku,” stone gives life and stone takes life. That’s an old saying. When I say it gives life, it’s because we cook with it. It makes medicine. Stone takes life in warfare: sling stones for battle, the ma‘a, war clubs… as bashing stones to bash the canoes. So stone has those qualities about it. It’s what you do with it, where you take it, and learning how to use it that gives it life.

When you’re preparing to take on a large work, what is it that inspires you?
What inspires me is when people like yourselves share your mo‘olelo, your stories, your experiences. I think about it and it starts to activate in my mind and then it starts to be created through my hands. And through that, the story or experience that you share with me lives on.

When we are gone, the stones are still here. You shared that the act of making a kūkui hele po (traditional stone lamp) is one that teaches certain lessons. What are some of those lessons?
The pōhaku teaches you about yourself. It teaches you your strengths and weaknesses. It disciplines you. It’s not you who shapes the stone, it’s the stone who shapes you. It teaches you every step of the way… about your self-discipline. So if you are weak, it will make you strong. If you are strong, it will humble you to be patient.

What do you hope people take away from a workshop such as this?
That they walk away with the knowledge of doing kālai pōhaku with the sense of knowing that their minds were activated to do the work. By doing, knowledge is learned, right? Ma ka hana ka ‘ike. So for me, those who did today would continue the work of yesterday, which is today for tomorrow in perpetuity… so this will never be lost.

Why do you think it’s important to have that connection to the past?
The past is what has given us what we have now to live by. Our kūpuna left this so that it would be in perpetuity. If it’s forgotten, then it’s the loss of our language, our culture and our traditions. It is who we are as a people.

Reach Hōaka Delos Reyes at limahana@gmail.com.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.