SSU Professor and Alum Exhibit Shell Leis at Hawaiian Museum

Rick Luttmann, Professor of Mathematics, and his long-time partner Chuna McIntyre, SSU alumnus (1991 Art Studio), have loaned their extensive collection of Ni'ihau Shell Leis to the Bishop Museum in Honolulu for a public exhibition that is running from October 26, 2013 to April 14, 2014.

Sixty of their pieces are included in this exhibition. They have been collecting these leis for nearly 25 years.

Ni'ihau is the smallest of the seven inhabited Hawai'ian islands. It lies southwest of Kaua'i and is in the "rain shadow" of Kaua'i, whose summit is one of the wettest places on earth. Since Ni'ihau is a very dry island, the residents are unable to make the festive floral leis that other Hawai'ians construct for celebratory occasions. But their island is blessed with a different treasure: small brightly colored shells, which Ni'ihauans for centuries have strung into elaborate necklaces. The organisms that produce these shells live elsewhere as well, but nowhere do they produce shells of the high quality, richness, luster, and variety of color as off the shores of Ni'ihau. This may have to do with the chemistry of the off-shore water, since there is virtually no run-off from the island.

The process of producing a Ni'ihau Lei is very extensive. First, the shells must be gathered from the beaches -- typically after a winter storm has washed up many shells. Then they must be sorted and cleaned. Then each shell must have a small hole poked in it -- a process that results in the breakage of approximately 1 shell out of every 3. Then they must be strung together into beautiful leis. Both craftsmanship and artistry are involved: it takes great skill to sew the shells together properly, as well as great artistic talent to choose the color and stringing patterns that best set off the beauty of the shells. Many of the stringing patterns imitate well-known tropical flowers, such as pikake, heliconia, coconut, and wili-wili.

The Bishop Museum has augmented the Rick and Chuna Collection with many leis from its own collection, including treasures from 19th-century royalty such as the leis of Queen Emma, Queen Kapi'olani, and Queen Liliu'okalani. The Museum has also incorporated an exhibit on the organisms that produce the unique Ni'ihau shells, and have even included a small bit of Ni'ihau beach sand and a magnifying glass for patrons to use to search for shells.

Luttmann and McIntyre are delighted that the premier anthropological museum of Hawai'i has collaborated in making this magnificent cultural art form better known to the residents and visitors of Hawai'i.