Noted quilt designer John Serrao weaves legacies into his work
John Serrao grew up surrounded by the art of quilting. Three generations of women -- his mother, grandmother and great-grandmother -- gathered with other women to design, stitch and appliqué elaborate Hawaiian designs.
But Serrao wasn't interested: "When I was a young boy, you could find me with a football in one arm leaning over the quilting horses. There would be a bunch of ladies quilting."
QUILT DESIGN WORKSHOP
With master quilt designer John Serrao:
Class time: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Feb. 11
Place: Mission Houses Museum
Eventually, though, he could not help but be captured by the art form, and in a huge way. Serrao is considered the top quilt designer in Hawaii, having designed more than 1,000. His designs can be seen worldwide.
Serrao shares his skills on Feb. 11 in a workshop at the Mission Houses Museum. The class will cover the history of Hawaiian quilting and design. Attendees will design a cushion and wall hanging.
Among his lessons: "The story makes the quilt. Quilters spend thousands of hours working on a quilt. If someone walks past it, not saying a word, that hurts. People enjoy bragging about the story of the quilt. ... It is a part of a tradition to preserve the culture."
The story keeps the quilter going, he said: "A quilt takes thousands of hours to finish. Very few people will leave the story unfinished."
IN 1968, Serrao was trying to send his children to private school on a policeman's pay.
COURTESY OF JOHN SERRAO
Blue dolphin quilt with border, left, quilted by Keiko Sakamoto; Pele quilt, quilted by Gillian Barnett; and Kahili ginger quilt, inset above, quilted and appliquéd by Mie Morimoto.
"My wife had a dream," he said. "Her grandmother visited and said, 'All of the money you need is in the barrels.' We opened up the barrels, only to find nearly 300 quilt patterns."
Serrao started out helping his wife, Paokalani, during her classes. The couple also wrote several books on quilting. When his wife became ill, he started to take over the classes.
At first, Serrao admits, he was apprehensive about his drawing skills: "I don't know how to draw. But most people just need a little shove."
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIIN.COM
John Serrao is the foremost designer of Hawaiian quilts, with more than 1,000 designs to his name.
A visit to America Samoa tested his abilities. "The chief's wife wanted a design with a Samoan woman wearing a headdress with a kava bowl in her hands. I don't draw people," he said. "I'd never drawn a human being. I couldn't sleep all night."
The next day, he began to sketch. "It was the most beautiful young lady with a headdress and a kava bowl in front. I don't know how I did that."
The chief's wife kissed him and said, "'If you have a gift, never deny it, just work with it.' Since then, I've never denied my gift of designing."
Serrao's daughters also found a love for quilting. Cissy helps with demonstrations at various locations each week. When she is unavailable, her sister Tuffy steps in. Serrao and Cissy taught in Japan last week, invited to the Tokyo International Great Quilt Festival as guest artists in Hawaiian design.
"Quilting is the craze in Japan now," Cissy said. "It is a very focused art. It centers you because you are concentrating on each stitch."
Her father's intricate floral designs date back to childhood, when his family owned a lei and flower shop and he had to pick flowers before school.
"Orchids, hibiscus, ginger -- you name it, we had it," he said.
Spirituality and local culture are deeply embedded in his designs, but Serrao said the most important consideration is that it not be too difficult for the quilter. "If the hibiscus leaves are all jagged, they think I'm mad at them," he laughed.
HAWAIIAN WOMEN first learned quilting from the missionaries, who hoped it would help teach their Christian lifestyle, Serrao said. The women began with sewing clothing, then adapted Hawaiian tapa designs into their quilting.
Groups of people would work on the same quilt, he explained: "Nowadays, everyone does their own so it is more uniform."
Serrao's mother was pure Hawaiian and shared the traditions, which were taken seriously. For example: Never sit on a quilt because it is disrespectful. If a sick person sleeps with a quilt, the love from the quilt will heal them. Once a quilt is completed, the quilter should sleep with it for one night before giving it away. And don't copy designs; it is considered stealing a part of the creator's spirit.
Another tradition discourages putting a living creature on a quilt, although sometimes a client will be insistent. "Never make human figures on a quilt ... or the figures will walk and visit you at night," Serrao said.
He warned a woman from the mainland against including warrior images on a quilt, but she insisted that he design one for her. Later, Serrao said, "Her son got sick, and we told her to wrap him in the quilt. He slept like this for a few days. When he got better, he asked, 'Who were those two guys standing beside my bed?'"
SERRAO AND his daughter Cissy conduct demonstrations from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Fridays at Bishop Museum, and 9:30 a.m. to noon Saturdays at Iolani Palace.