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Bob Miyashiro left his native Hawaii more than 60 years ago, but the islands have always been close at heart.

Now retired after a long career as a swim coach at Santa Rosa Junior College, Miyashiro dedicates much of his time to the art and culture of Hawaiian feather craft and Hawaiian-theme quilting.

His work in both mediums is tedious and exacting, but with stunning results. Equally impressive is that he is self-taught in both pursuits.

“I always enjoyed seeing feather leis and hatbands but they’re very expensive. I said I could make it myself,” said Miyashiro, 81. Time-intensive, leis can run from $300 to $500 and hats from $400 to $1,200.

He pursued the art in the late 1990s, a few years before retiring after 34 years with the SRJC aquatics program. Today he is a master craftsman, with artists from Hawaii traveling to his home in Santa Rosa to see his feather work and study his techniques.

Miyashiro uses white duck feathers dyed in a rainbow of colors as well as natural feathers from other birds, their sheen adding brilliance to his work. He buys feathers in bulk, sometimes from a specialty company in Merced, sometimes securing bird pelts directly from hunters.

The ancient feather work is rooted in the days of Hawaiian chiefs and royalty; Miyashiro handcrafts not only feather leis (lei hulu) and hatbands (humu papa) but intricate helmets (mahiole) and royal staffs (kahili). He also makes feathered rattles (uli’ uli) used in hula dancing, and crafts ancient weapons from Hawaiian hardwoods and shark teeth.

The skills require great patience and attention to detail. Miyashiro often listens to the soothing sounds of Hawaiian music as he works, painstakingly using countless feathers to complete his pieces.

He typically trims and bundles a trio of feathers together and then ties and hand stitches them to a felt or yarn base about 2 to 2½ feet long. It can take him some 20 hours to make a lei, about 40 hours for hatbands.

Miyashiro can’t begin to estimate the number of feathers in each piece — thousands, he imagines.

He’s already used 12 pelts for one project that’s only half completed. The number of pelts can vary by bird, too. Miyashiro often works with feathers from multicolored Chinese golden pheasants, the more common ring-neck pheasants, peacocks and numerous other birds.

A prized piece, a shoulder-length feathered cape, was made completely with natural feathers, including the long hackles from roosters.

“In the sunlight, you can see all the colors come out,” Miyashiro said.

The cape, with star points representing rays of sunshine, took the artisan 2½ years to complete, with several hours per day dedicated to the project.

Miyashiro also creates award-winning quilts that feature Hawaiian flora and fruits and motifs rich in Hawaiian history, like the king’s and queen’s crowns in “Kapa Moi — The Royal Quilt” he spent nearly 18 months stitching.

“The whole thing, the whole thing is handmade,” he said of the vibrant red and gold cotton quilt designed by his friend Nalani Goard, a Hawaiian artist.

His most recent quilt, “Tropical Delight,” showcases a dozen squares with colorful cutouts of Hawaiian favorites like pineapple, plumeria, hibiscus and orchids.

His first quilts were made as heritage gifts for his four nieces. “That was the purpose of doing the quilting,” he said. He so enjoyed the projects that he’s continued stitching.

Miyashiro also makes floral leis commonly found in Hawaii. He’s traveled to Honolulu the past five years to help make the adornments for Kamehameha Day, a Hawaiian public holiday honoring Kamehameha the Great, the monarch who first established the unified Kingdom of Hawaii.

Born and raised in Honolulu, where he swam competitively and surfed, Miyashiro followed his adventurous spirit to the mainland in 1954 to attend SRJC.

“I didn’t know anyone at that time,” he said. “I just came.”

He later graduated from UC Santa Barbara, then spent two years in the Army. Ironically, he was stationed in Hawaii, where he coached a swim club for Army dependents.

With his service complete in 1961, he was ready to head back to Sonoma County. His home of record, though, was Hawaii and the Army didn’t acknowledge his adopted home in California.

“When I got discharged, they gave me bus fare home (on the islands),” Miyashiro said, laughing at the memory. “I had to pay my own way here.”

Although he returns to Hawaii twice each year, Miyashiro has been rooted in Sonoma County since his discharge. He shares his culture and heritage through his artwork, with displays at the annual SRJC Day Under the Oaks open house, and through workshops in Sonoma for Hula Mai dancers.

Betty Ann Bruno, also of Hawaiian descent, founded Hula Mai in her retirement after working as a reporter for Oakland-based KTVU television. She is inspired by Miyashiro’s talents and considers his work in ancient feather craft “museum quality.”

Miyashiro is humble, motivated neither by money nor accolades. Feather work and quilting are art forms he finds challenging and relaxing. He rarely sells his work; he simply enjoys his pursuits.

“It’s fun to do,” he said. “I just get satisfaction by completing a project.”

He often begins his day with feather work, then devotes later hours to quilting.

“I just did it. Same thing with the quilting. I just started doing it,” Miyashiro said. “I guess I’m curious to see how to do things.”

Both passions are a contrast to his coaching career. He founded Santa Rosa’s Neptune Swim Club in 1955 and helped establish the aquatics program at SRJC, where he coached water polo and swim teams.

Once concerned with speed and timing, today Miyashiro is content with the slow pace of his crafts.

He works from the dining room of his rural home, where redwood trees tower nearby and a creek runs along his property. A picture window provides natural light for his work.

When he takes a break, he often heads outdoors to the picturesque surroundings in the eastern Santa Rosa hills. He unwinds by taking walks and picking up trash.

Miyashiro recognizes there is a universal draw to the Hawaiian culture, and enjoys sharing his feather work and quilts with those who embrace the warmth of the islands.

On some level, he says, his work pays tribute to his homeland and his ancestors. But mostly, “I just do it for the heck of doing it.”

Bob Miyashiro will participate in the Napa Valley Aloha Festival from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sept. 16 and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sept. 17 at Napa Valley Expo, 575 Third St., Napa. Admission is free. For more information, visit nvalohafest.org.

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