09 Dec 2015

Ancient Fibers

Dalani Tanahy

by Carol Chang; photos by Oliver Koning

To watch a skilled Hawaiian kapa artist like Dalani Tanahy is akin to seeing a chef concoct a favorite dish: “Take the bark, shred it and boil it for a week,” she might tell her students, who hang on every word.

“Kapa is cloth made from a tree, and it’s all its many components and its rarity that keep me interested,” explains the Makaha resident, who left her job teaching kapa at Ka‘ala Farms to plunge completely into the ancient art. That means growing her own wauke (paper mulberry) trees for the precious bark, making her own tools to shape it into cloth and experimenting with dyes from nature to decorate it for display or practical use. “I’m like a mad scientist in the kitchen,” she adds, referring to the endless search throughout the Islands for just the right colors or hues to adorn the delicate fabric she creates. “You have to use what you’ve got” is her motto.

For all this effort and attention to detail, she reasons, it should be respected and valued more than the artist who needs only simple, store-bought supplies: “Is kapa not worth more than a painting? Hello!” Besides learning patience and physical stamina over her 15 years in the art, Tanahy’s creative talent in kapa design is now known and respected across the globe. Just witness her soaring panels at Disney’s Aulani Resort as well smaller touches that add warmth to the guest rooms.

Tanahy commands thousands for her elegant cloth art and travels Hawai‘i—as well as the world over—to teach or display it. Yet she admits the craft keeps her humble. “At the end of the day, I still have to sit on my butt at home, all by myself, and pound and pound and pound,” she professes. Lately the teaching part of kapa has grown more appealing to her. Her students now learn to create and gather their own materials, if they want to perpetuate the art as she does. And the new generation, including her own granddaughter, whom she’s now teaching, will be all the better for it.

Peek into her world at kapahawaii.net

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