The Art of Aloha

By ‘plugging’ clay, Yotsuda removes air pockets before working with it

Carol Kouchi Yotsuda had her hands full even before signing on to lead the Garden Isle’s Aloha Festival celebration ‘Let Us Show You Aloha — Kaua‘i Style’

Carol Kouchi Yotsuda has a new project: coordinating the “Let Us Show You Aloha – Kaua’i Style” festival taking place in September and October. It’s funded by Hawaii Tourism Authority, which gives each island its own grant to celebrate Aloha Week as they see fit.

Not that Yotsuda didn’t already have enough to keep her busy – she’s an impresario, artist and co-founder and volunteer executive director of the Garden Island Arts Council, now in its 33rd year. She’s involved in art workshops for adults in ceramics, pastels and life drawing, and organizing concerts year-round. She also co-founded a grassroots Hawaiian music program called E Kanikapila Kakou (“Let’s play music together”), now in its 28th year. GIAC also has a program called Van Go!, a mobile classroom that rolls out materials to work with keiki on numerous art projects. Right now they’re making ceramic tiles of sea creatures for murals that will decorate the rebuilt Lydgate Park’s Kamalani Pavilion when it rises from the ashes next summer after having burned to the ground in 2007.

Yotsuda on the night she was named a Living Treasure of Hawaii

So why take on this new project? Because she wanted to show how much aloha Kaua’i people have to share. In fact, the festival called to her.

“I go to all these meetings and conferences, you know, and anytime you come into contact with people, a question always comes up, ‘Well, where is the aloha? So what is this aloha spirit?'” says Yotsuda.

“That really bugs me, because I live so much surrounded by aloha. I feel like if I fell out of the sky that all these hands would reach up and clutch me, that I would-n’t fall because I have such a sense of being surrounded by aloha. And because I know that experience and I hear people talking about the lack of it, I can’t understand. If they’re living in the same place as me, how can there be a lack of it?”

A designated Kaua’i and Hawaii Living Treasure, Yotsuda took the lead and reached out. Key players came together and the result is “Let Us Show You Aloha – Kaua’i Style.” Happening at three locations around the island on various dates this month and next, the festival will present programs featuring hula, music, talk story and two pa’ina.

All of the details are neatly wrapped in a special insert tucked into this issue of MidWeek Kaua’i titled ARTS, published by GIAC.

Yotsuda, whose considerable talents could easily extend to managing the entire festival and every detail of it by herself, says, “It would miss the point of getting people to share their own kind of aloha, because if I did it, I’m sharing only my concept of aloha.

Yotsuda and Eric Sazaki go all ‘American Gothic’ for an Art Walk event

“There are unique differences in the way that people exhibit and express aloha, and I felt that should become a tangible thing. It cannot just be words. It has to manifest itself in shows and concerts, cultural practices, music, dance – all are tangible manifestations of how people share aloha.”

Sharing aloha, it seems, is a natural in all of Yotsuda’s work, not just this festival. A visual artist with stunning credentials and installations around the state, and with artwork on view at Hawaii State Art Museum and in private collections, she always has empowered others on her own journey through art.

As an art teacher with the Department of Education for most of her 38 years in the system, she’s touched several thousand people. It’s nearly impossible to walk down any street on any island without someone hailing her to say “Eh, Mrs. Yotsuda, remember me?” And, of course, she does.

As a young artist/teacher living on a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific, being married and raising three children on two teachers’ salaries didn’t support extensive travel, art workshops abroad or internships on the East Coast in new media and the like.

Yotsuda’s solution was creative and beneficial to others as well as herself: She invited artists to come here.

Yotsuda outside her Art Pod studio in Niumalu

From Japan, Korea, Germany, Australia and the Mainland they came, bringing their world, their treasures and their talent to lay at the feet of Kaua’i artists. She maintains worldwide connections requiring what many may feel is a prohibitive amount of correspondence, but which Yotsuda takes in stride.

When it became apparent several years ago that organizations were scheduling events on top of each other, she developed a master calendar, an arts and culture clearinghouse. Anyone can e-mail her to ask if there’s an existing event on the date they’re considering for their own. An additional outcome from that is a twice-monthly listing of arts and culture events she sends out to thousands.

She considers the calendar a form of aloha in her life.

“I can go anywhere in the state and meet a new musician who says, ‘Oh, you’re the one who sends the calendar,’so apparently the calendar really gets out all over the place. And when I even mention my name, there are people on many islands, who say, ‘oh, you’re the one who sends that calendar.’

That’s Carol at far left in this 1944 family photo from the Arkansas internment camp

“So I think that calendar is pretty unique, and that feedback to me is a feedback of aloha, because they’re telling me thank you for that. And when they come running up to me at a concert and tell me, ‘If you didn’t tell me about it, I would have missed this,’ that is another show of aloha.”

Judging from the number of lives she’s touched, it’s clear where those clutching hands are going to come from should she ever fall from the sky.

She won’t, but the sky very nearly fell on her and her family.

Born in Wailuku, Maui, to the Rev. Tadao Kouchi, a Buddhist minister, and his wife Harumi Kouchi, Carol Junko Kouchi Yotsuda is the third child and eldest daughter of seven children. At age 2, she was shipped with other Japanese-American families to the Mainland, where her family was interned in a relocation camp in Rowher, Ark.

For three years, life was barren, bleak and colorless – until the family returned to the Islands to live on Lana’i, where colors popped in the eyes of the 5-year-old. Her father was reassigned to Waimea, where, Yotsuda says, “I lived in Waimea Public Library and then ran up and down the valley – that was an excellent childhood, because I was so close to nature those years.”

Yotsuda celebrates her birthday with children (from left) Jody, Geri and Seji

It took going away to UH-Manoa for Yotsuda to experience for the first time the Japanese tea ceremony, live theatre, performances and musical concerts. She worked for three years as a volunteer backstage in the old Farrington Hall Theatre, doing set construction, costumes, props and everything connected with theatre. In the years since she has gone on to design stage sets, work in multimedia, and she continues to engage in new experiences.

Yotsuda married Daniel Yotsuda and has three children: Geri Akemi, who married Robin Gomes and lives on Oahu; Jody Chiemi, who is married to Mel Conjugacion and has two sons, Tai and Kea, all of whom live on Oahu; and Gavin Seiji, who with wife Marisa Marshall lives on Kaua’i. All are gifted with artistic talents, as are her four brothers, three of whom are Kaua’i residents.

Co-founding and sustaining GIAC has brought much into Yotsuda’s life, as well as taken much of her time, which she’s happily invested. She sees a solid organization that’s thriving and has strong leadership.

As she looks ahead, Yoshida can see something else.

“Part of what I’d like to be able to do is to have less community responsibility and hang out in my studio and just play,” she says.

“This is a studio that took years and years and years of working and dreaming, and getting the money and building it. It’s finally a place where I can do art and everyone can come and do art.”

There she goes again, sharing the aloha.

Wouldn’t you know it?

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