Click to enlargeKOLONE FAI'IVAE LEOSO
1900-1970

During numerous visits to Leone, I would walk around visiting and chatting with friends and sometimes simply enjoying the lovely, quiet village. As often as not, I would end up in the fale of Tui'uli Leoso, where her daughter-in-law, Kolone Fai'ivae Leoso, would be working with a group of ladies making Siapo. They all knew me. Kolone had been one of my teachers (then Kolone Hunkin, a teacher's assistant) at the Sisters School in Atu'u , and she taught me embroidery. They expected me to visit with them and share their breakfast, customarily eaten about mid-morning. Soon, my daughter would be off in the playful care of young girls of the household or under the affectionate watch of a grandmother. I would be absorbed in the talk and the Siapo work of the women. Surrounded by adult women, Kolone sat designing one Siapo after another. Some of these were her own pieces, to be completed by young girls who would learn about Siapo between having to scurry off to bring food, matches or other requested items. Some designs were for women who would complete them for their own use, or to give as gifts or to sell. It was fascinating to watch and, ultimately, to realize that in the course of the apparent atmosphere of joking, gossiping and singing, masterpieces of Siapo were being produced under the direction of Kolone.

She was a stately woman, seldom speaking unnecessarily except to direct those working with her. She would sit in the fale, designing her Siapo, showing what she wanted by placing small marks on the material. With just a dot here and there, she could indicate what she wanted through brief, simple directions . . . "start from there . . . hold that line . . . now close it... continue the line to here. . . bring it around to there.". Her instructions flowed effortlessly and the women followed them explicitly.

At times, Kolone herself would outline the finer designs she wished placed on the Siapo and then leave the coloring to the young girls working with her. She worked quickly. A large pupuni (curtain, or room divider) of six by eight feet would be designed and ready for coloring in half a day. My memories of the Leone Siapo sessions are as pleasant as they are vivid. About nine in the morning, the women would start coming from their homes to gather at the house of Tui'uli. I would be one of the first to arrive, and watched as Tamala came up the road, then Pa'i would come from Sogi way, then old Gatia Fai'ivae would appear from her house. Soon there would be twelve or fourteen women gathered for the daily session.

Tui'uli greeted each of the women and presented each with a faasolo, a flower garland. There was a new one every day. They might be made of clusters of tiny copper-brown seeds from the lagaali tree (Ag/aia sp.) next to her house, combined with small waxy green leaves ofgau laulili'i (Cassytha sp.). She would send the little girls of her household out early in the morning to collect flowers and leaves. Whatever might be available that particular day was artfully formed by Tui'uli into a garland making the best use of the colors and fragrances. Tall, striking and regal, it was evident in her speech, her bearing and her movements that Tui'uli was of high rank. The women would arrive with much gaiety, exchanging warm greetings while finding a place for themselves on comfortable mats over the fale floor, made with small waterworn pebbles and crushed coral. Sitting cross-legged, the ladies had before them their papa, wooden boards, on which bark cloth was stretched and temporarily adhered. The boards, made by the women's husbands to fit their needs, were about twenty inches in diameter with short legs so they could easily be turned for working on the Siapo. A coconut shell containing black dye would be steadied in the loose flooring as each lady prepared to work.

All my life, I never have been able to sit cross-legged, Samoan style. Normally, it is considered rude to sit with one's legs stretched out. My handicap was understood and special permission was granted for me to work at a low table, with a small box beside it on which to place my supplies. It did prove handy as I could store my things in the box.

Everyone in the fale had their task. That of Kolone was to design and, from time to time, correct the work. That of Tui'uli was to encourage, tease and criticize the workers, direct the preparation of food for the umu and food contributed by members of the group to serve at lunch. She made sure that the needs of everyone were met. In the afternoon, a great favorite was suamasi. Hard tack biscuits or crackers were put in boiling water with sugar and coconut milk. Fresh orange leaves were added for flavor, resulting in a delicious pudding-like snack. My nickname in the group was taliga papae, white ears. Although Kolone was only five years older than me, I was looked on, the youngest of the group, as a favorite daughter, one they always could call on for little favors, such as their tobacco or chewing gum. Kolone and some of the other women enjoyed smoking Samoan tobacco and often I would bring some. They would peel off a leaf, hold it over a lit match to toast it, then roll it in a dried banana leaf cut to the proper size, thus producing a cigarette.

One reason I enjoyed being part of the Leone group was the relaxed atmosphere of their sessions. There never was any tenseness or hard feelings. Nor was there jealousy. The women, living the Samoan way, Fa'a Samoa, were secure in their positions in the community. The Leone Siapo makers did not look on their work merely as a job or a duty, even though the Siapo they created was of considerable economic importance to their families and, consequently, to the village. They came together and combined social with economic purposes, enjoying both. In their friendship, their work, there was a graciousness and style, unaffected and innocent. It was beautiful watching them and falling into their chatter and banter, everything from the latest gossip to the old stories and legends they had known all their lives. Each day seemed filled with productive work, made easy by the fun. One of the ladies working on her Siapo might begin a song, usually with some rather pointed but good-natured teasing from the others about the quality of the singer's voice. Before long, another woman would put aside her work and be up on her feet doing a dance, stimulated with enthusiasm by the rest of the group. While working, no attention was paid to rank or status. Only at meal time were the traditions of Fa'a Samoa followed and the women, then sitting in their respective positions in the fale according to rank, were served accordingly, with the lauhu (plate of food) going first to the wife of the highest ranking chief.

From the fale, Ie afolau o Leoso (guest house of Leoso), we could see the beautiful London Missionary Society Church (now the Congregational Christian Church). The striking thing about the church, in addition to its twin bell towers, was its stained glass windows, with bright reds, blues, purples, yellows, oranges and greens. These windows, some of which were visible through the open front doors, radiated their colors throughout the church. The tower windows (now missing) especially inspired Kolone.


1925 Mamanu Kolone Leoso.

The patterns and colors of the glass windows directly influenced the Siapo creations of Kolone. I can remember watching her, lost in thought, staring at the church windows. Turning to her blank bark cloth, she would divide the space into sections similar to those in the windows and then start to place her symbols within these spaces. It is my opinion that the church windows also were the source for Kolone originating the use, all in the same Siapo, of multiple colors, that is, brown, black, yellow and red used together at the same time. As simple as it seems, it was a creative break with tradition. Previously, most freehand Siapo was painted with two colors, brown and black, with yellow used infrequently.

Some of the church windows no longer exist. Those which remain continue to brighten the church and every time I see them, they remind me of Kolone. Through my export business, I developed a market in Honolulu for Leone Siapo. First, I sent samples because the Leone pieces were different than the brown Siapo I had been shipping. Orders came in right away and I bought pieces from the ladies, at the going price of fifty cents each for a thirty-inch piece, round or square. The pace in the fale normally was unhurried. The exception was just before boat day. Every three weeks the steamer from Hawaii would come in and the women would go down to the Fagatogo parade ground where they would sell their work to the passengers and crew members. There always was heightened activity as the ladies finished up as much Siapo as possible to sell. Things were even more hectic if I had to ship a large order to Hawaii. At times like this, the women would take their Siapo home to work on in the quiet of evening.

Each village had special handicrafts that they offered for sale. Some villages devoted their efforts to woven baskets, mats or grass skirts. Leone was famous for freehand Siapo and it was popular with visitors. Selling their Siapo was the principal way the women of Leone had of making money on their own. At Leone one day in 1929, watching the Siapo work, I realized I ought to make a Siapo of my own. Since I was going to be in town for a few days, the women provided materials with which I could try my hand at home. One thing they didn't give me was soga, the bark glue used to attach the ua to the wooden board. This glue forms a tacky bond between the board and the bark cloth but makes it easy to remove the cloth from the board. I pasted my material to a counter in the store so I could work on it between customers. Unfortunately, I used starch adhesive, used to adhere permanently the sheets of ua to each other, rather than soga. The use of soga had eluded me because the Leone women prepared their boards at home. My first effort does not exist today because when I tried to remove the Siapo from the counter, it came up in shreds. I also had not learned that I could easily have soaked it off with just clear water! The women in Leone laughed and joked for days about my stupidity when I joined them next. They patiently showed me how to prepare the soga and adhere the u'a properly.

My first successful Siapo was my second. I proudly gave it away as a gift. Many years later, I realized I had forgotten to whom I had given it. Just a few years ago, during a trip to Honolulu to present a workshop, I was invited by an old friend, Henry Zuberano (who once lived in Samoa), for drinks. After showing me his extensive art collection, he remarked that he had a gift for me. It was my "first" Siapo! I was indeed happy to have it again after fifty years. Neither my family nor I grew our own u'a so I did not have my own supply of materials. Each of the ladies in Leone, however, had her own patch of paper mulberry plants. One of them might remark at the fale that they would not be with the group tomorrow as they had to weed their ua. I would volunteer to go along, watching, learning and helping with the gardening. Then, when it came time to harvest the u 'a, I would help again and would be given u'a in return.

People constantly requested of Kolone Siapo and designs and since there was a steady flow of supplies in payment it was unnecessary for her to grow or gather materials. An indication of her recognition is that some people brought fine mats as payment for work requested. The talents of Kolone were in demand for decorating bed linens. People would bring her sheets and pillowcases on which she would print designs from her own stencils. She would line out flowers and names on the pillowcases which the owners then would embroider.

There were several other talented designers in the Leone group but none of them could match the constant output of Kolone. One designer was a man. Vailu'u never joined the group, but he would design pieces in the evening at home and his wife, Pa'i, brought them in the next day to color. It was the first and only time I had seen a complete design drawn out. The other ladies would tease her when each day she brought a new design, saying "Why don't you bring Vailu'u to make our designs?". The Leone group continued to work together until World War II began. Government regulations were imposed, there was no transportation, no lights. Siapo making came to an abrupt halt. New ways of making money became possible, if only by fermenting and selling home brew and taking in washing from the troops. After the war, and with the planting of u'a stopped, new work such as cleaning up the island and other jobs became available. When the war started, I was unable to ship orders out so I had supplies on hand. Siapo that Kolone and I made during the war years were used locally. Kolone had trouble getting her supplies in later days when making of Siapo declined and she remained one of the few practicing the art. With so few people in American Samoa working with Siapo at that time, supplies became hard to obtain. She often came to my house to ask if I had any ua or dyes. As I was traveling back and forth between Savai'i, where they still were making Siapo, I managed to obtain enough materials for both our needs.

Kolone reduced her output in her last years, but continued to create Siapo, one of the last Leone women to do so. One of her proudest moments was the presentation of a unique piece she made for Lady Bird Johnson during her visit with President Johnson to American Samoa in 1966.


1966 Mamanu Lady Bird Johnson Piece.

Tui'uli was a strong influence on my early Siapo work, as much so as Kolone, from whom I learned techniques. Tui'uli was poetic in the way she expressed herself. Soft spoken, she was clear and precise with every word. Even when angry at someone and scolding them, she did it graciously. But you could feel the impact of her voice. Her words always right, her expressions beautiful. Tui'uli passed on just before the start of the war. Kolone died in 1970. The fale in which we worked has been replaced and breadfruit trees have grown up to block the view of the church.

Kolone cut hundreds of stencils for herself and for others to use with contemporary materials, and made probably as many designs for embroidery work. In her designs for the freehand method of Siapo, she evoked the essence of Samoan life through her imaginative use of the traditional symbols used by generations of Samoan artists before her.

The colorful Siapo of Leone lives on, as they are the basis for much of the creative work that I and my students carry on today.