When the young mother of two set sail with her husband for the South Pacific in 1979, she had no idea that one day she’d work at preserving Lahaina’s rich cultural heritage. After marrying a man from Hawaii who owned a sailboat, the family decided to sail from California to the South Pacific. But she never made it to the far reaches of the Pacific. The woman jumped ship with her children on the Big Island and has lived in Hawaii since.
The woman is Theo Morrison, the Lahaina Restoration Foundation’s executive director. Today she’s known as one of the Westside’s busiest people, protector of Lahaina history and organizer of big events that are somehow lucrative, cultural and fun (the latest of which, Plantation Days, takes place in October).
But her degree is in fine arts (she’s originally from California and studied textile arts at California College of the Arts in Oakland). While living on the Big Island, Morrison opened a gallery where she could sell the baskets she made, which were more like fine art than a mere container. She grew the business and eventually began selling baskets throughout the state.
After about seven years, she decided she needed a change and moved to Maui. She began working with Village Gallery, where she designed and weaved only high-end baskets. Though she had become one of the biggest basket-makers in the state, Morrison said that it was time to move on.
“My frustration with the basket thing was, it was just too small,” Morrison told me. “I wanted to reach out to more people but I didn’t know how to do it. I remember doing this big craft fair in Oahu and these people were raving about my baskets–how everyday they looked at it and how happy they were. I thought, that’s ok, but I want to do something where thousands of people are happy, not just one. And then I did it. It was never about me. It was always about the group, the committee, the community. I am just the catalyst.”
She still weaves today, but it’s not baskets that she’s making. Morrison’s work at the LRF calls on her to weave the history and culture of West Maui through a maze of bureaucratic grant-writing, city planning and event development.
I recently sat down with Morrison at her office, which is located on the top floor of the historic Baldwin Home Museum on Front Street, the oldest house still standing on the island. Walking up the wooden stairs, I didn’t expect that an executive director would have an office in a building that was built in the mid-1830s. But Morrison’s not a typical executive and the LRF isn’t a typical nonprofit. She greeted me with a warm, confident handshake. A simple desk sat against one wall, facing away from an ocean-view window.
Her responsibility at the LRF is simple: preserve Lahaina’s unique cultural heritage.
“Theo learned a long time ago that the rich cultural heritages of our little seaside town are also the keys to its economic vitality,” said David Allaire, the LRF’s president. “Our historical eras of the Hawaiian Monarchy reigning in Lahaina followed by whalers, missionaries, merchant traders and the plantation era give us our unique combination of cultural wisdom. Theo has been the most creative one yet in finding ways to tell that story not just through our sites and museums, but by holding events combining art, music, dance and storytelling.”
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Morrison’s fresh-washed face sparkles as she talks story about her life’s passions. Her warm smile is punctuated by the twinkle in her eyes as she describes the paths that brought her to LRF, which included previously running the LahainaTown Action Committee (LAC) and Lahaina Bypass Now (LBN).
Her enthusiasm is evident in the way she expresses herself with her hands. Her long fingers–topped with un-manicured nails–are those of an artist, but they look like they could also belong on a farmer. That’s fitting; in addition to her work at LRF, she also owns and operates an egg farm.
Morrison’s background in art came together with community service in the early 1990s when she got involved with the LAC’s annual poster contest. Economic development was the primary focus of the LAC but the volunteer group was running out of steam, Morrison said. She realized that the LAC could benefit from having a full-time executive director and urged them to hire her. Their response: “We don’t have funds for a full-time employee.” But that didn’t dissuade her. She told the committee to hire her and she’d find a way to pay for it.
One of Morrison’s first projects at the LAC was to decorate Lahaina for the winter holidays. Then she worked on expanding the town’s notable Halloween celebration. She also saw the need for a Visitors’ Center that would be informative while producing revenue.
At the LAC, Morrison organized events highlighting the town’s heritage like the celebration of Chinese New Year, the Taste of Lahaina, the Fourth of July Fireworks and the International Festival of Canoes. “I started doing events to bring people into town,” she said. “They weren’t Mickey Mouse events. And because it was a novel idea, people loved it.”
The International Festival of Canoes, which ran for 10 years, remains a highlight for Morrison. The celebration of sailing canoes began as a five-day craft exhibition, eventually turning into a two-week festival that featured carvers from across Polynesia building canoes in town. The idea for the event was sparked during a conversation with Michael Moore from Old Lahaina Luau and Jerry Kunitomo, the owner of Lahaina Pizza Co.
Kunitomo, who got involved with the LAC in 1994 when he opened his restaurant (at the time, it was a BJ’s Pizzeria), said that after Taste of Lahaina and Halloween reached such success, they needed to create an event that would bring locals back to the Lahaina corridor. “We chose canoes as a symbol of past and present,” Kunitomo said.
“There was no celebration of how important the canoe as a vessel was to Hawaii,” Morrison added. “At the time, all you ever heard about were racing canoes. But Hawaii wouldn’t have been settled if there hadn’t been canoes–if the Polynesians hadn’t gone long distances.”
The event proved to be economically viable while embracing West Maui’s heritage. It exemplified how culture and commerce can come together in a positive manner. “That was my job–to provide means for the merchants to make more money,” she said. “That’s the bottom line. That event is a perfect example of how you can be totally cultural and do this really cool thing and at the same time you can do economic development.”
Morrison attributes much of her success to the fact that she keeps her mind open about other people’s ideas. She told me the story of master carver Mike Tavioni, a Cook Islands cultural icon. After the first festival, he said he was not going to leave the island until he launched his canoe. So they organized a private launch ceremony for his canoe. For the next year (and all subsequent years), they held a sunset launching ceremony for all 10 canoes, which became one of the festival’s most popular events.
Kunitomo said that through the event, the canoe carvers taught them how to celebrate the culture within the vessel. “Every culture around the world has an indigenous people,” Kunitomo said. “They were able to effectively share those individualities despite the culture of the spectator. I remember during the launch/birthing ceremony, Japanese, Spanish and Chinese-speaking visitors all crying in excitement, while not understanding the chants. It’s very cool how culture can be interpreted. Language does not have to be a barrier.”
Though her work at the LAC was rewarding, Morrison wondered if there was something else she could do. “I had been doing the same thing seven days a week for 15 years,” she said. She’d always wanted to have a farm, so she became a farmer. Her son owned some land in Launiupoko, and she began growing vegetables and raising chickens there. Growing produce was a bit more challenging than she expected, so Morrison focused on raising eggs.
But the town soon called on her to take another executive directory post–this time, at Lahaina Bypass Now. “I don’t know anything about roads,” she said, but took the job when she realized that she would be working with the community just as she’d done at the LAC. “It was a different subject but the same concept,” she said.
At the time, the community was divided on the idea of a bypass road and there was an uproar over widening the highway. Morrison brought in paid consultants who suggested that they hold a charrette, a collaborative session utilized in land use planning. During the multi-day sessions, designers, municipal officials, developers and residents would provide input and try to come to some sort of agreement.
By the end of the week, there was agreement in the community, paving the way for state approval. “The government doesn’t want to go forward when there are conflicting ideas,” Morrison said. “The state is more inclined to go forward with a project if the community has come together and made a plan. When you have a well respected, strong non-profit or community group–and you have government–sometimes you can benefit from bringing in experts. If you work with the community, you listen to the community. You hear what they want and then you provide it for them. Then you meet your goals. You can’t just say, ‘You have to drive less.’ That was my big takeaway from the Lahaina Bypass Now project.”
Cheryl Sterling, the HTA & Cultural Programs Specialist at Maui County’s Office of Economic Development, agreed. “Morrison has demonstrated leadership through a commitment to bring the various stakeholders–merchants, preservation, cultural groups, government–to the table to openly discuss Lahaina’s issues and explore solutions,” she said. “By engaging as many interests as possible, people are aware of each other’s perspectives and objectives, and the outcome is more reflective of the greater community’s best intentions.”
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Sterling said Morrison understands that our Hawaiian heritage is the foundation upon which our multicultural island developed. “She seeks to educate and creatively share with our community and visitors the authentic stories and artifacts of the past in ways that are interactive versus boring—been there, done that. This keeps the culture alive,” she said.
In 2008, LBN lost its funding. But at the same time, the Lahaina Restoration Foundation job opened up. “Due to some amazing timing, I had a role in bringing Theo into LAC in its first year and then much later to the LRF,” said Allaire. “It may be the best thing I have done for our community. Theo is passionate about work the foundation does. She loves the people of Lahaina and genuinely cares for community and its needs. She is also extremely talented and creative and very hardworking.”
One of her latest endeavors at LRF began with an extensive planning project called Imagine. It detailed visual improvements to the historic wharf area from Market Street to Canal Street and from the ocean to Front Street–improvements that would reduce traffic, make the area more pedestrian-friendly and pass on local culture to people who travel in and out of town on cruise ships and ferries. Morrison told me that on some days, there are more people who come to the island on cruise ships than through the airports. Then she gestured toward the industrial looking area. “This is their first impression of Maui,” she added.
After completing the design proposal, Morrison thought it would be a good idea to show the community how it could benefit from wider sidewalks, shaded benches and tabletop seating, more greenery and reduced traffic while still placing subtle historical and cultural information throughout the area.
“We want to put a harbor ambassador here to stop taxis from stopping illegally and blocking the road,” she said, showing me large planning boards of the vision. “We want to add a promenade around the perimeter of the library lawn. We want to change the dynamic of the area.”
To demonstrate the plan, the LRF put on a one-day event called Celebrate Historic Lahaina. They created a makeshift sidewalk along Hotel Street, placed potted plants harbor-side to represent the beauty of additional greenery and hosted various cultural activities in Banyan Tree Park. “It made such a difference in the ambiance of the area,” Morrison said.
“Theo does her research and always has a targeted outcome in mind that usually benefits many,” Sterling said. “The planning stages are key to connecting the project need to the vision of what it will achieve. She is innovative and not afraid to tackle a big project with a fresh approach that hasn’t been tried before.”
The LRF went to Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa with their ideas. He apparently liked the plans and then appropriated money for it in the budget. “You get professional guidance–professional renderings–so you can present your idea in a professional way,” she said. “And you get things done.”
One of the LRF’s yearly events–Plantation Days–is scheduled for October 24-25 at the Old Pioneer Mill Company Smokestack. It will have music, food, drinks, a kid’s zone and, yes, cultural education. “The whole event is about honoring the people, not the mill per se, but the people,” Morrison said. “You have to reach out to people. People come to have fun and then it raises the appreciation for where they live. Keeping that memory alive, honoring the history, just adds to the fabric of where you live.”
To Jerry Kunitomo, that attitude sums up Theo Morrison.
“Theo is defined by her love for Lahaina,” he told me. “From there she cannot stop trying to create things that will restore its cultural legacy. This might be helping create traffic solutions so the Lahaina experience will be more positive [or] creating events like Plantation Days. Her biggest strength is her ability to search out the best and most knowledgeable people and listen.”
Cover design: Darris Hurst
Photos: Sean M. Hower