It was a crash course in how to make Hawaiian jewelry that changed Beau Jack Imua Key's (Native Hawaiian) mind on artistry. Key, who is a First Peoples Fund Artist in Business Leadership Fellow and lives in Honoka'a, Hawaii, was in a gallery 12 years ago when he tried on a piece of jewelry made out of traditional mother of pearl.
"I asked how much it cost," he recalled. "It was $675. I didn't want to pay that, so I started making them."
It didn't go well right away, he admitted. Key, who is now an accomplished carver and jewelry maker, worked on technically challenging fish hooks inlaid with mother of pearl. The work to master the art form and then refine it was eye opening, he said. "I didn't really understand what goes in to art," he said. "Now I appreciate everyone's work. You look at the quality and you know how much time went in to it."
It was enough to make him want to continue.
Key's ancestors were known masters of carving adornments out of ivory, wood, mother of pearl, bone and coral. Black basalt was often carved in to implements and weapons, but rarely for adornments. The adornments Key has seen are beautiful, which has motivated him to create his own.
With the support of First Peoples Fund, Key purchased stone carving equipment with a goal to unveil his new pieces at the MAMo Wearable Art Show on Maui earlier this summer. The equipment came in time for Key to have just seven weeks to carve the five pieces. With no days off from work, he worked feverishly at night until he finished. "It was pretty intense."
Key's design ideas sometimes come from something as simple as a drawing in his notebook. "In Hawaii, the carvers carved for royalty and the royalty would want something that no one else had and that's what I try to do," he said.
Some elders have mixed reaction to the adornments because they are something new, he said. "Some absolutely loved it, some didn't like it," he said. "My ancestors that are gone, I think they would smile."
Key said he doesn't get discouraged if not everyone is onboard with the progression of carving in his art. He's focused on his goals—creating something new while honoring the past. "My ancestors... they innovated and did new things. Our people sometimes are stuck in being just traditional. But tradition is the ability to adapt. Our ancestors adapted to what was before them, whether it was for art or for implements."
Having the support of First Peoples Fund has encouraged him to continue.
"I can't express it in words," he said. "They've given me the confidence to know I can do it."
As a result, Key has stepped out of his comfort zone—including taking a trip to New Zealand this January for an Indigenous gathering. First Peoples Fund has reinforced the fact that support from other Native artists is important for growing his artistry and business.
"It's like a brotherhood," he said. "This was a one-year fellowship, but really it's a lifetime fellowship."