Akamai Woods: From craft to career
By Treena Shapiro, Ka Wai Ola, April 2017
Seventeen years ago, Syd Vierra stopped by Woodcraft of Honolulu and walked out with a receipt for $1,000 in tools and supplies to be shipped to his home in Kea‘au on Hawai‘i Island.
At the time, Syd had been drawing and sketching for decades but he’d never tried working in a 3-D medium. It was only after looking at photos of large marlin and honu sculpted from koa that he decided to see if woodcraft might be a way to earn a bit of money to supplement his income.
“I’d never even carved one piece,” he recalls. “I never even lifted up the chisel.”
As it turns out, Syd’s passion was ignited by woodturning rather than sculpture. His initial purchase included a wood lathe that could be used to shape bowls inside and out. Working with koa, Norfolk and Cook pine, kamani, milo and kou, and hand-mixing his own dyes, Syd has mastered his craft, earning him the title Kälai ‘Umeke and official bowl maker for the Royal Order of Kamehameha I.
“It’s been the bowls all along,” Syd says. “It’s been the artwork that allows me to pay for my living. I cannot say how grateful I am.”
When Syd last counted in February, he’d shaped 1,631 bowls of such exquisite quality that he was able to build a new home from his earnings. Many of his elegant bowls and urns are in private collections. His signature style can also be found in art galleries across the state – Volcano House, the Honolulu Museum of Art and Martin and MacArthur’s O‘ahu gallery are just a sampling of places to view his work.
“This wasn’t really the destination but the journey has led me to hundreds of people,” notes Syd. “I’m able to connect with people and hear their stories and why they’re interested in my work. I would not change that for anything.”
It was through these connections that Syd began making funeral urns, something he shied away from until he realized his work could help ease people’s suffering. “It’s something divine that I should be doing,” he said. The urns can’t be purchased in stores; every one is custom-made to fit each family’s needs and budget. Those orders are always urgent and Syd will stand at the machine for days to make sure the vessels are ready when needed.
Syd’s great love for his craft makes the hours he spends in the shop feel like a blessing. The shaping alone takes hours, then the sanding, oiling and finishing work take even more. Some pieces are polished to such translucence that light illuminates the solid wood. “I’ll probably do it for a long time to come,” he says. “I just need to remain strong and healthy, to be at peace and let that happiness flow from me into the wood and into the piece so I can make something to share with the world.”
For more information, visit sydvierra.com.