5 Artists Who Will Fill Your Home With Hawaiian Flowers and Foliage Any Time of Year
In the winter doldrums after the holidays and before the warmth of spring, I always find myself dreaming of the many summers I’ve spent visiting family in Hawaii. There’s nothing more immediately evocative of Hawaii’s warm breezes and abundant sunshine than its tropical flowers — plumeria, hibiscus, anthuriums — that, like me, thrive best in the sun. Luckily, even when I can’t get a fragrant lei to lift my spirits, I can appreciate the exquisite work of Hawaiian artists who capture the island’s landscapes so beautifully that I can always fill my home with tropical florals, even in the dullest mainland winter.
Like the scent of a plumeria, Hawaii’s nature is both delicate and powerful. The same waves that sparkle in the sun can pummel you like a grain of sand. Respect for nature is embedded into Hawaiian cultural norms; the first rule I learned at the beach during summers visiting family in Hawaii was to never turn my back on the ocean. Ancient Hawaiians based their society on the same respect, dividing the land into ahupua’a, or “wedges” running from island to sea that allowed them to sustainably manage the islands’ abundant natural resources and thrive for centuries.
It’s no surprise, then, that nature is an equally central theme of Hawaiian art — ancient or contemporary. Turtles drift across canvases; hibiscus bloom in pen and ink. The breadfruit, or ‘ulu, which provided nutrition for Native Hawaiians symbolizes prosperity when stitched into Hawaiian quilts today. And the rich mixture of influences and traditions in Hawaii has resulted in an artistic community that’s as vibrant and varied as the islands themselves.
Read on to hear five artists from Hawaii share how their surroundings inspire their work — that can fill your home with flowers and foliage all year round.
Pat Gorelangton is a prolific Hawaiian quilter — she’s even quilting when I call her on the phone. She quilts with the Poakalani Hawaiian quilting guild, founded by the late Hawaiian quilter Poakalani Serrao and her husband, quilt designer John Serrao. “Most of the patterns I use are from John because they have so much movement and beauty,” says Gorelangton. “I try to keep his style in mind whenever I design my own.”
The precision of Hawaiian quilting is unmistakable, and the quilters are so skilled that they achieve their patterns’ distinctive symmetry by sewing freehand. “You never draw on the quilt. You measure your stitching by the width of your finger, but that’s it. It shows the ability of the quilter, the artistry, to be able to do it by eye and feel,” Gorelangton explains.
She’s often working on commissions for clients, like a plumeria quilt as a wedding gift for a couple married under a plumeria tree. Gorelangton says one type of task brings her particular joy: “I love finishing a quilt that someone’s mother or grandmother or great auntie started and couldn’t finish because they passed away or got too old. It brings the quilt full circle to do its job, which is to give you warmth and comfort.”
Her quilts are imbued with feeling in more ways than one. “It’s traditional to sleep under your quilt after you make it because your mana, your spirit, will pass into the quilt and on to the recipient. So I sleep under every piece, even if it’s a power nap, because I want some of my feelings to pass on to the next person. It’s like giving them a hug.”
In a world of fast fashion, Jana Lam creates vibrant textiles through a meticulous process. “I hand-draw everything so we are slow, slow production,” she explains. “After I hand-draw, we clean up the design on Adobe Illustrator, print it, then sew everything ourselves.”
Her lively prints cover everything from aprons to elegant clutches. And they’re unmistakably Hawaii-inspired. “Even when I lived in San Francisco, everything that came out of me was very Hawaii,” says Lam. “Most of my inspiration comes from our plants and flowers, and I like to throw in geometrical pieces with the natural elements to give it a little twist.”
Lam also finds herself inspired by her fellow small business owners. “I always want to work with everyone,” laughs Lam. “It’s a great sense of community and we learn, help, and collaborate with one another. It’s a really special thing.”
Classic Envelope Clutch, Green Olive over Aqua Double Palm, $54, janalam.com
Aloha de Mele
JT Ojerio, who shares her expressive artwork under the name Aloha de Mele, is an entirely self-taught artist. “I randomly started drawing in 2017 when I was bored and recovering from a surgery,” she says. Born and raised in Hawaii, Ojerio is inspired by what she sees around her — from lush ginger flowers to the way she did her hair for school.
“The way I portray things is as somebody who was born and raised on the west side [of Oahu]. I’m not necessarily catering to the tourist eye. It’s the things I remember growing up — like high buns and adding the flowers to look cute for the cute guy at school, you know?” she laughs.
Yet the specificity of what Ojerio portrays can be surprisingly universal in what it represents for others. “I remember doing a show in Waikiki and an African American woman came up to me and grabbed this print I have of a darker skinned lady with flowers. She was like, ‘Oh, my God, I can never find like Black women with flowers like this, this is amazing. Nobody ever does this skin tone.’”
Ojerio is careful to note that she’s not putting down art that does capture the more popular perceptions of Hawaii, like views of Waikiki Beach. But, she says, “My background gives me the privilege of being able to tap into a little bit more niche ‘isms’ about Hawaii that you don’t know about unless you grew up here. And I’m very lucky I can do that and share it.”
Heitarii 22 – Limited Edition, $300, alohademele.com
Nicole Ferrara didn’t plan to become an artist. “I worked in marketing research. When I realized I was more interested in making the graphs pretty than the actual data, I went back to school for graphic design.” The rest was history — Ferrara now uses her design skills on everything from hand-lettered greeting cards to lively illustrations of flower arrangements.
She often illustrates her soothing botanicals from life — while she can draw a monstera leaf with her eyes closed, more intricate flowers like ginger and heliconia require careful observation. “My yard is surrounded by tons of greenery, so my inspiration comes from all around me,” Ferrara says.
She’s noticed her artwork has shifted a little in the wake of the pandemic. “When I first started, things were much bolder and vibrant,” she muses. “Lately I’m channeling a softer, calmer color palette.” That craving for calm extends to her customers, who gravitate toward her floral prints. “The botanicals seem to resonate with people so much more. We all love pretty flowers, and these don’t die,” says Ferrara.
Lei Ohia, $30, nicomade.com
Photographer Kristen Reyno handpicks flowers, fruit, and foliage in every shade imaginable for her vivid flatlays inspired by Hawaiian quilts and nature. “Growing up in Hawaii, we are surrounded by so much beauty and vibrant color,” Reyno says. While the symmetry of her botanical prints leads some to think they’re Photoshopped or painted, those precise patterns are real — and they’re the result of a days-long, painstaking process.
First, Reyno has to source the materials. And though flowers are abundant in Hawaii, that doesn’t mean they’re readily available. “I never pull things from the mountain or people’s yards,” Reyno explains. “But I have knocked on doors before.” When she covets a rarer flower, that can take weeks — she once spent two months tracking down a North Shore farmer who could supply her with banana flowers.
After “pulling” her flora, Reyno carefully cleans and trims them. Then she heads to her photography studio, puts on music, and lays out her materials, experimenting with designs until she finds one that flows. And while her flatlays are symmetrical, creating them is much more of an art than a science. “Flowers lay different ways, or they’re not all perfect,” she says. She can spend thirty minutes getting one lei in a perfect circle. But the result is worth the effort, says Reyno. “It makes me happy every time I do it.”
Banana Tree Muse, $35, lolapilarhawaii.com