By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer (Choctaw Nation), Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015


A lifelong learner, Bernice Akamine (Native Hawaiian) pursued a career in art later in life than many artists. She chose to raise a family, then return to school. She studied at the University of Hawai’i where she rediscovered art and chose to attend the Natural Resource Management Masters Program at Central Washington University, and the Hawaiian Ohana for Education in the Arts.


Bernice is recognized for her work with waiho’olu’u, Hawaiian natural dyes. She lives and creates her art in Volcano, Hawai’i.


Bernice’s weave grew tighter and tighter. She was beading sculptures for an installation art piece while listening to talk radio and thus absorbing discord from around the globe. What was in her heart and mind came through in what she was creating. When Bernice realized the tension within her, she turned to the ocean and sought its beauty. The brilliant shapes and vivid colors of sea creatures became inspiration for her art installation Hinalua’iko’a.

“Creating community and breaking down barriers through or with my artwork motivates me,” Bernice says, “while being able to connect the past to the present through the use of traditional mo’olelo, story or history, embedded within my contemporary artwork inspires me.”

“Creating community and breaking down barriers through or with my artwork motivates me.”

With support from her First Peoples Fund Cultural Capital fellowship, Bernice is continuing her work to preserve culture through producing a color wheel poster from natural dyes created with material from the island. Appealing as wall art, the color wheel poster will draw from 18 native Hawaiian plants commonly listed in historical records as being traditionally used as waiho’olu’u — dye extracted from plants, sea creatures or earth pigments. The poster is the first of its kind, using only plants indigenous to Hawai’i.

Now that the weather has finally warmed, Bernice is beating the kapa, the bark cloth, that is the foundation of the color wheel. She explains, “Living at a slightly higher elevation where it has been very cool and rainy, it has taken months for the wauke, paper mulberry bast, to ferment.”

Bernice wants the color wheel poster to bring to life historical writings with the vast color possibilities one can achieve through traditional practices.

“While the poster is a tool for the present generation, it also preserves cultural knowledge for generations of Hawaiians should we lose any of the Native Hawaiian dye plants,” she says.

Bernice stands firm in the present to create a link to the past. She does it through art that reaches back into history to pull it forward into modern terms with traditional and conventional art. What is in her heart and mind comes out in what she creates.