Guide carves a message through indigenous sculptures from salvaged wood
Releasing the mana in the wood, Tonu Shane Eagleton begins to unveil an octopus
Four years ago, self-styled "global tribesman" Tonu Shane Eagleton laid down roots, establishing a woodcarving workshop on the mauka side of Windward Community College. From ʻIolani, the workshop spills into the backyard, where logs and trees, once headed for landfills, are prepped for milling. Nearby, two large canoes, one made of koa, the other of monkeypod, await finishing.
The whirring of sanders and pounding of mallets permeate the building. An ʻohana of students turn discarded wood into artful and functional objects—intricate woodblock carvings, bowls, benches, pahu drums and furniture. The students range in age (from 16 to 82) and skill, but their shared passion for wood brings them here Monday and Wednesday evenings.
Cori Wilbanks is making her first major piece, a bench made of monkeypod with a lotus flower carved at one end. Dowels will secure the sculpted legs to the irregular slab of wood.
"I love the fact that we use recycled wood," she says. She also likes the group’s camaraderie. "Everyone helps each other."
First-time students begin carving immediately with a chisel and mallet. As they gain confidence, they progress to more advance tools, letting their creativity flow.
Covered in sawdust and working under bright lights, Jim Bassett of Kahaluʻu carves a whale from a large slab of opuma wood. "If you flip it over, you’ll see two dolphins," he says, demonstrating proudly.
"A tree has a life force that shaped it and made all those interesting patterns you can visualize as sculptures, furniture, musical instruments," says Eagleton, who often speaks of nature in animistic terms. "I’m just a guide who teaches people how to see the images in the wood and release the mana (spiritual energy) through their carvings."
A New Zealander of Polynesian and English descent, Eagleton first tapped into the mana as a young boy. He whittled sticks with a small knife given to him by his Fijian mother.
"I felt the energy of trees in discarded wood," he says. Eager to see the world, he left home at 16 and traveled through Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, eventually settling in the San Francisco Bay area.
Cori Wilbanks, sculpting a monkeypod bench, appreciates camaraderie with fellow students like Faʻauuga Toʻotoʻo, background
There, for nearly two decades, he worked with the Ohlone Indians and Culture Conservancy, a non-profit group dedicated to preserving indigenous cultures. His environmental art can be seen worldwide, including the Czech Republic, where his healing poles depict endangered species carved from trees destroyed by acid rain.
Eagleton was able to reconnect to his Polynesian heritage through tthe opportunity of teaching at Windward. In 2002 he started offering non-credit classes in woodcarving through the community college’s continuing education program. Last year, through an Alu Like grant, he taught at-risk youths and purchased a mill.
The program was officially named Na Kukui Hoʻoulu o Naʻauao (Program for Knowledge and Enlightenment through Trees) by Hawaiian kupuna "Auntie" Malia Craver.
Eagleton hopes to partner with community groups, expand the project and train teachers. UH Mānoa’s Pacific Business Center Program and its Program for Organizational Incubation are providing technical and managerial support and securing grants to develop workshops in other Pacific islands.
"The goal is to get the program on a stable financial grounding, and to do it in a way that preserves the spiritual concept," says center Director Failautusi (Tusi) Avegalio. "It fits with the kinds of things we do"—promoting cultural, educational and professional growth and creating livelihood opportunities that incorporate responsibility, respect, renewal, confidence and sustainability.
Eagleton has incorporated Hawaiian values into his program in recent years. "I’ve always been on a spiritual journey," he says. He is dedicated to working with Hawaiians and the greater Pacific family to honor and perpetuate cultural traditions and values through woodworking.
"I’m no expert in Hawaiian culture or the Polynesian race, but I’m connected with people who are," he says. Advisors include Dennis Kauahi of Queen Liliʻuokalani Children’s Center and Craver for Hawaiian traditions, educator Emile Wolfgram for the protocols of Polynesia-at-large and master carver Tuione Pulotu, recently named a Hawaiian Living Treasure, for canoe-building and traditional designs.
"Every island has wood that’s being thrown away. A program like this could provide the skills for people to become economically self-sufficient or supplement their incomes," says Eagleton. "Ultimately, my goal is to show many how to create a self-sustaining wood carving program."
You might say he’s recycling lives along with trees.
For information on upcoming classes, call 808-235-7351 or 808-956-2495.