An Accidental Artist’s Success

Linda Dela Cruz
Wednesday - May 07, 2008
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Kawehilani Chun strings a clay flower lei
Kawehilani Chun strings a clay flower lei

Kawehilani Chun’s first name means heavenly adornments, so it’s no wonder she eventually came to find her true calling making lei, earrings and beads with her company Ohana Expressions.

Chun, who grew up on Guam, worked in the banking industry for 10 years before she fell into her crafting business. A friend introduced her to polymer clay, and Chun started making some barrettes as a way to relieve stress, and gave some to her hairdresser to give away. When she visited the hair-dresser a month later, she gave Chun money with a note from customers asking for more.

“It just snowballed from there,” says Chun, who started the business in 2000. “At one of my first craft fairs, it was like a fish frenzy. People were all gathered with my stuff in one hand and money in the other hand.”

Chun, who had never really paid attention to flowers before she started her craft, now has her own garden so she can copy the flowers’ details onto her unique designs.

“People are wearing lei as a fashion now,” she says. “I used to buy pearls and gold, and now people are wearing lei. On the Mainland, they call it a flower necklace.”

Chun likes listening to her customers. Advice from one is to put the lei in a plastic container with a few of the real flowers in the refrigerator, so the scent of the real flower will soak into the polymer clay.

When she’s not busy with her floral creations, she caddies for her daughter, Stanford University junior golf player Mari Chun, who is an inspiration for her many designs.

For her daughter’s Aloha Week program, Chun made a baby puakenikeni lei, which has become a very popular seller. Also because of her daughter, she created a haku lei for the golf ball so players who hit the ultimate hole-in-one can cherish their glorious moment even more every time they look at the ball.

“Another time, my daughter had asked me to make some earrings for her, and then her classmates would ask her where she got them,” notes the affable Chun. “Then those earrings became something my customers also liked.

“My customers and I talk story and laugh and laugh and laugh! They’ve become my ohana.”

Her ohana also includes her husband, Waipahu High grad Alan Chun, and her son Darren, who are very understanding, as her production studio is the family’s Pearl City living room.

Chun’s love of flowers has branched out into her own line of custom beads that she sells to other jewelry crafters. Her future goals are to launch her website this year with photos of her products and a listing of her craft fairs.

Her creations can be found at the Mission Houses Museum and at Iolani Palace. As a member of the Pacific Handcrafters Guild, she makes it a point to participate in its craft fairs, especially the one in July at Thomas Square. She also attends the Made in Hawaii Festival in August. A member of the Native Hawaiian Maoli Arts community, she is happy to represent her culture at the Native Hawaiian Nuuanu Street Market from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. May 10 on Nuuanu Avenue and Bethel.

Not only is her first name significant to her livelihood, her business name is, too. Ohana in Japanese is flower, and ohana in Hawaiian means family.

She says some customers buy the lei to drape on photos of their loved ones.

“My lei becomes a part of their family,” says Chun. “Which is so good because my company name is Ohana Expressions.”

For more information, call 456-3583.


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