LIHUE — Generous, funny and kind. And, without question, an incredible artist.
That’s how master woodturner and lifelong Kauai resident Robert Hamada will be remembered by those who knew him best.
“He was warm, genuine, honest,” said his daughter Ann McLaughlin, who lives in Connecticut. “And he lived his older years independently and exactly the way he wanted — proudly proclaiming that he was 93 with a newly renewed driver’s license and no need for glasses … while I just got bifocals.”
Hamada died Dec. 23 at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu.
“He was signing autographs for his nurses a week before he passed,” McLaughlin said with a laugh.
Hamada was born June 2, 1921, and raised deep in the hills of Kapahi. At age 12, out of necessity, he began turning and working with wood. And over many decades, he perfected his craft.
While Hamada has left this world, he lives on through his incredible works of art. His connection to wood was something few have. While most people don’t see past the bark, Hamada was different.
“I am drawn to trees and wood — its beauty and spirit,” he wrote in a book about his craft, put together by Pattie H. Miyashiro. “Woodturning is a challenge to uncover the treasure cloaked beneath its bark. It’s a sort of personal discovery that I experience because I am the first to see it. Even sections of the same log that lie just inches apart can be uniquely different from each other.”
Hamada was no stranger to awards and recognition. The list is extensive, and rightly so.
One of his incredible wooden bowls — a personal favorite that he cut and turned from a giant milo tree from the Kekaha area — is permanently displayed at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, one of the most-visited art museums in the world. Other pieces — which can fetch tens of thousands of dollars — are on display in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum.
In February, The Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii named Hamada as one of six Living Treasures of Hawaii for 2014. He was honored as a “master artisan of extraordinary fine wood bowls” during the Honpa Hongwanji’s 39th annual award ceremony in Honolulu.
“He feels an obligation to turn the largest piece possible from the best part of the wood of a tree and has the uncanny ability to appreciate and work with the wood’s natural scars and flaws in order to enhance the piece,” the mission wrote in its program. “He is grateful for wood’s imperfections and uses it as a metaphor for life.”
At the ceremony, Hamada presented one of his favorite bowls — cut, turned and sanded from a giant hunk of a milo tree from Molokai, and insured for $100,000 — to Eric Matsumoto, bishop of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission.
Generosity ran through Hamada’s veins.
One man that will always remember Hamada’s big-heartedness is longtime friend and Kapaa resident Stanley Valoroso.
Years ago, Valoroso, a woodworker and saddle maker, saw a classified ad for a lathe in the newspaper. When he called about it, however, it had already been sold.
“I told Bob, ‘Oh, I just missed one lathe that I wanted to get,’” Valoroso recalled. “He said, ‘Jump in my truck, come help me with something.’”
Next thing Valoroso knew, he was looking at the lathe in the back of Hamada’s truck. And instead of driving the purchase back to his own house, Hamada turned into Valoroso’s driveway, stopped the vehicle in front of his house and said, “Where you like put ‘em?”
Without thinking twice, Hamada gave the lathe to Valoroso. And when Valoroso offered to pay him for it, Hamada told him to keep quiet. Valoroso still uses the lathe to this day.
“I’ll never forget that man,” said Valoroso, adding that his friend loved to surprise people.
“If you help him just a little bit, he’ll give you something quadruple,” Valoroso said. “All he wanted was a little respect.”
After The Garden Island wrote a story about Hamada being honored as a living legend, the then-92-year-old Wailua resident drove to the newspaper office and delivered a box full of T-bone steaks, a smoked salmon and a bag of potatoes.
Before focusing exclusively on woodworking, Hamada worked as an engineer at the Coco Palms Resort and Kauai Surf. He was also a breeder of some of the finest big-game hunting dogs in Hawaii.
David Penhallow Scott, author of “The Story of the Coco Palms Hotel,” said Hamada was Grace Guslander’s right-hand man and kept the famous hotel running.
“She couldn’t do it without him,” he said of Guslander.
Scott described Hamada as a genius, incredibly clever and self-made.
“As far as I’m concerned, he was a genius with his woodwork,” he said. “Every piece he’s done was unique and wonderful.”
While Hamada preferred working with milo — calling it a “very friendly wood” that “does what I want the wood to do” — he also worked with kou, kauila, kamani and hau. Most amazing about his creations is their smooth, shiny appearance. All are unfinished, meaning he used no wax, lacquer, varnish or oil. Instead, he spent months hand-sanding each piece. And his calloused hands told the story.
“Feel my hands,” he told TGI in a previous interview. “I don’t have any fingerprints.”
One piece could take upwards of 10 years from start to finish. Some much longer. And right up until the end, Hamada was going strong, with more than 100 bowls in the works, in many different stages of production.
Local author Pam Brown, who interviewed Hamada for a story in her upcoming book, “Kauai Stories 2,” called him a “character” and a true “Kauai guy.” His work — “mind blowing.”
In June, Brown hosted a small reception to honor Hamada and said he was in fine form — witty, funny, profound and very gracious.
“It was really impressive to see the reverence that so many people had for him and his work. They were just hanging on his every word,” she recalled.
“He was just a really, really special guy,” she added.
Much like those he loved, Hamada saw beauty in wood. His job was to bring out that beauty — let it shine.
“In many cases, it’s right below your nose,” he once told TGI. “It’s almost like a woman. You may run into a girl that you see every day and all of a sudden, one day, you see the light. You see the beauty in her. There are other things that makes her beautiful, like her inner thoughts … the things you can’t see from the start.”
And flaws, blemishes and imperfections were simply viewed as part of the beauty and natural character.
“There is something beautiful in age,” he once said. “My policy has always been if you are not happy with that (flaw), go talk to God. He’s the one that put it there, not me.”
McLaughlin said Friday that the family was working on confirming a venue for a memorial service next week. Details will be announced later. In lieu of flowers, the family is asking that gifts be made in Robert Hamada’s name to the Kauai Museum and the Honolulu Museum of Art.
Hamada is survived by his three children (Ann McLaughlin, Donald Hamada and Robert Hamada), his brother Hiroshi Hamada and two grandchildren (Nathan and Tiffany).
Chris D’Angelo, environment writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.