An Invitation to Beauty

Dondi Ho was paying attention when her famous father, crooner Don Ho, encouraged her to seek out beauty everywhere in life. She continues to find it, and shares it in paintings and fashions

Don Ho’s daughter, who currently has an exhibition of her paintings and fashions at Kaua’i Museum, gives Dad credit for teaching her to look for beauty

Painting is a way for me to look at everything that rests in the past, and everything that is before me; painting is my prayer made tangible.” Watercolorist and clothing designer, Dondi Ho, is proud to exhibit a collection of her original paintings at The Kaua`i Museum this month. “I think we are constantly being given invitations to see the beauty around us; this work is my response.”

The daughter of Hawaiian music icon Don Ho, Dondi reflects on her father’s influence on her life.

“He always taught me to look for beauty, in everything. He taught me that beauty has no boundaries and he would say ‘If nothing were holding you back, what would you see? What would you do?’ And then when I answered he would just push further, ‘Yes, and then what?’He extended my vision beyond all boundaries.”

Dondi seems to have mastered her father’s advice, as an entrepreneur, artist, and clothing designer. What began 25 years ago as her “private time, to appreciate the beauty and reflect on my life” has become a successful business and body of work. Her watercolor paintings of lei and flora have been transformed into a collection of women’s clothing and pareaus sold at retailers throughout the Islands, and she has plans for expanding into home décor fabrics, product lines and perhaps a book of her extensive portfolio.

Enjoying a reception for Dondi Ho at the opening of her exhibition at Kaua

Growing up in the sparkle of her father’s stardom, Dondi remembers the magnificent lei that would always be worn by the dancers, her father and her family. “Lei were such a big part of my life from such a young age. Every night, my father would wear the most intoxicatingly beautiful pikake rope lei. Sometimes he would give it to you at the end of the show … it was incredible.”

Yet it was only years later that Dondi had her first experience in the making of lei. “In those days, on Oahu, everyone would just buy their lei from a store. It wasn’t until I came to Kaua`i that I gathered and made my first lei.”

The experience inspired Dondi, giving her a far deeper appreciation for the flower garlands than ever before.

“It was here on Kaua`i that I learned to wili and kui delicate materials. I was so amazed at the complexity of the process, all the energy and time that goes into gathering and preparing the flowers; the beauty of the plants overwhelmed me. A friend took me up to Koke`e to gather maile. I had never done that in my life, but I had grown up wearing them. It was a transformative moment for me.”

Dondi soon began channeling her love of flowers and lei into a more permanent form: painting.

“I began by painting directly onto fabric,” she says, “making gifts for family and friends. Then the watercolors started and I began to design and print on a larger scale.” Dondi’s work is colorful and intricate, framing the strands of lei into tight patterns of buds and petals: the lime-green pakalana, the twisting kika, the delicate ginger and a rainbow of plumeria.

The artist’s earliest memory of holding a paintbrush was with her mother.

“She would whisk me away from all the spotlights and shows and take me to the Honolulu Academy of Arts for classes, to museums and designer’s show rooms. She exposed me to so much culture and art. She just added so much style and beauty to our lives … the dinners she would make, the tables she would set. Even after she passed away, my father would talk about her cooking and her style.”

Dondi, like her family, danced and sang, but even through her years at Kamehameha Schools, her friends would remark on her illustrated term papers. “I would always turn my work in to the teacher with drawings of flowers in the margins. My friends talk about that to this day!”

When asked why she moved to Kaua`i, Dondi smiles.

Dondi Ho dances hula at her father’s show in 1978

“You know, I came here when I was 16 with my father for a show he was doing, and I felt the island just open its arms to me. I never forgot that amazing sense of love and welcoming.”

She describes her move to Kaua`i as another “invitation that comes from my faith in Ke Akua.” She describes a favorite verse from Isaiah 61: “He says he’ll give you garlands for ashes. This is extraordinary to me — we all have challenges, but it is a real gift to see the beauty in the face of adversity. This is what my painting and my family are for me.”

The proud mother of three children, Dondi has seen one of her life’s greatest challenges turn into her greatest blessing. On the eve of her son’s fifth birthday, Tai was tragically struck by a car passing their house and suffered permanent brain trauma. “My son Tai has shown me that sometimes the most challenging things in our life become our most beautiful gifts. Tai contributed these beautiful easels for my show, he made them from his own bamboo stand.”

Dondi chose to raise her two sons and daughter in “the exquisite beauty of Hanalei. I have known the extremes of life, the world of my childhood and Oahu is something I cherish, but the natural wealth of this island, the beauty, is something I wanted my children to grow up with.” Dondi’s other son, Kaina, takes after his grandfather in song and guitar, but works currently as a firefighter on-island. Her daughter, Bianca Kulia Kaleinani, grew up dancing and now lives on Maui, teaching in a Hawaiian immersion program. “The plumeria I paint are always for Bianca reminds me of making lei for her many hula and Tahitian dance performances. The flowers strewn all over our living-room floor … their amazing smell filling the house.”

Dondi uses a single phrase to start every painting, “What lei would I give you?” She often paints on-site, even when she is planning on turning the painting into fabrics for a clothing collection. “Like for the Marriott collection, I went to the hotel site and asked the question. The kauna (hidden meaning) behind every painting is the feeling of love or beauty that comes directly from that place.” Dondi says only when she hears “that pure voice answer back” she puts brush to paper. “Then that prayer becomes tangible,” as either art or fabric.

Dondi’s love for designing clothing also came from her mother.

“She was such an amazing mom,” Dondi recalls. “She taught me to sew in the summer of sixth grade. She would buy piles of beautiful fabrics for me, and I started sewing my own clothing. I knew they had cause for approval … because my older sister Donnalei would want to wear my dresses to school the day after I would wear them! That started my love of design.”

As a professional designer, Dondi has “had the privilege of retailing my collections at some of Hawaii’s finest stores. As the demand for my hand-painted clothing grew, I began printing my original floral watercolor paintings into limited edition fabrics for my design collections of summer dresses, contemporary mumuu and corporate uniforms.” Her corporate designs have been selected by Waikiki Beach Marriott, Waikiki Hilton Grand Vacations Club, Grand Hyatt Kaua`i, Kaua`i Marriott and many others; while some of her retail clients have included Liberty House, McInerny, JC Penney, Tahiti Imports and Alion.

The current collection of 20 paintings exhibited at Kaua`i Museum were completed over the past 25 years, and are available for the first time in fine-art giclee prints. She titled the exhibit Beauty Has No Boundaries.

“My collection of water-color paintings are a reflection of my time spent in gratefulness … marveling at the beauty we are gifted with each day … They are my painted lei of peace, garlands of joy and fragrant flowers of hope … It is true that love and beauty have no boundarie.”

As she stands with one of her most colorful canvases, expressing her gratitude for everything that has led her to do this work, one of her father’s songs plays over the gallery speakers. She pauses as tears flood her eyes.

“You can hear his heart in every song,” she says. “I am so grateful for my father’s life. I loved him dearly. I just adored him. His music touches me deeply.”

Dondi says she doesn’t paint every day, but she “admires, and is watching. I am so inspired by Hawai`i’s immense beauty. I have begun to plant my own pikake,” and she says she always paints with the live flowers as her model. “We are constantly being invited to see, to be grateful … I am always trying to follow and accept these beautiful invitations given to me everyday.”

The exhibit runs through Aug. 6 at Kaua`i Museum on Rice Street. 245-6931.

For more information on the museum and exhibit: kauaimuseum.org. For more information on Dondi Ho’s work: dondiho.com.

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