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Sunshine Superman: Crafting pareo out of Hawaii flora with artist Bozo Pualoa

Heliography artisan Bozo Pualoa, in Ahupuaa o Kahana, selecting flora for his design students. Photo by Ryan T. Foley for HAWAII Magazine.

Bozo Pualoa III leads me deeper into Kahana, a remarkably untouched, 5,300-acre ahupuaa (early Hawaiian mountain-to-sea land division) on Oahu’s verdant windward coast. More than 25 miles and thousands of residents removed from the cacophony of Honolulu, Ahupuaa o Kahana is a popular hiking spot, but today we’re blazing our own trail through its valley forest.

Pualoa and I stop under a canopy of java plum and strawberry guava trees, a thicket of kupukupu and lauae ferns at our feet—mine in sturdy hiking shoes, his bare. The 6-foot-plus 63-year-old never wears slippers, much less shoes.

“I’m the oldest of eight—two brothers and five sisters,” Pualoa says, explaining how tight family finances were during his childhood in Laie, a few miles north of Kahana Valley. He shrugs off the thought, a trait I’ll discover is part of his friendly, no-worries demeanor.

Pualoa is a Native Hawaiian textile artist who handcrafts Polynesian pareos (wraparound skirts, similar to the Malay sarong) using heliography, a print process employing light-sensitive dyes to capture images on cloth. The process is simple. Pualoa’s take on it is a bit more involved.

Once, sometimes twice, a week, Pualoa drives from his Waianae home, on Oahu’s west side, to Kahana Valley—an almost 100-mile round-trip—to gather ferns, palm fronds and strawberry guava leaves. Then, home in his backyard, he shows visitors and residents how to place the fresh-picked foliage on blank cotton pareos and mist them with colorful, non-toxic dyes from a spray bottle. Place the work in sunlight, lift the leaves one to three hours later and voila! You’ve created your own unique, naturally patterned pareo.

Pualoa has crafted these bright, flowing wraps using this traditional heliographic method and flora-collecting process for more than two decades. Sometimes his clients join him on his forest sojourns, but, usually, he prunes in solitude.
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