Splendor in the Glass

Story by Jeannie Stone

U’ilani Cooper, native of Hawaii and a resident of Russellville, has been showing her line of light-catching dichroic jewelry under the name of Unique Designs by Hula for four years in the River Valley. She is a popular vendor at the Russellville Downtown Art Walks.

U’ilani (pronounced “E-oo-lan-E”) settled on her medium after a lifetime of creating jewelry. Her interests for stringing things originated in her childhood home on the island of Oahu. She grew up in a large and loving family which included her sister, parents, uncles and aunts, all under one roof.

“We had just enough to have a meal every evening,” she said. “We were a musical family. We would, literally, go out and sing for our supper — and lunch.”

Because residents of Hawaii are totally submersed in retaining the traditions of the native culture, the children learn to hula. Cooper is no exception.

“We would go to where the tourists were, and my uncles played the ukuleles and sang, and we girls danced. We would earn enough money for lunch and hit it again,” she said. “We danced forever.”

Even in those years, tourism was strong in the islands. As a very small girl, she started hunting for shells.

“We’d hunt seashells and wash them out, and we’d sell them to the tourists. I don’t know if they bought from us because of the shells or because we were so cute or pitiful, but that’s how we survived,” she said and laughed.

There were lots of crafting possibilities on the island. Cooper learned Hawaiian weaving using fronds made of palm leaves stripped and dried. She also made hula costumes and lots of leis specializing in ones made from seed pods.

When her husband moved her away from island life, her creative tendencies took a different turn.

“Well, I didn’t have any shells or palm leaves to play with anymore,” she said lightly. “We happened to be in a glass shop, and I was admiring a glass pendant. My husband told me that I could make it,” she said and smiled. “He’s to blame for this.”

Learning to work with glass was unlike anything she had ever done. Cooper considered glass blowing, but “that’s a hot, hot job,” she said.

“You need a lot of people and a huge studio because the furnace is going all the time.”

She fell into creating dichroic glass because of the end result. Her literature claims that her creations are inspired by the beauty of the Pacific Islands, and reflect her family’s creative legacy. The finished pieces resemble the varying hues of the sky and the shimmer of the water. Maybe, it’s no surprise that, in her native tongue, U’ilani means ‘Heavenly One.’

The process makes use of iridescent glass, colored glass, glass powder, glass beads and ground pieces of glass to add texture to the emerging pieces. Multiple kiln firings affect the shape and color. Cooper then adds the clasps, hooks and bales, all of which are sterling silver, to complete the pieces.

Cooper and her family which include grown daughter, son and grandchildren live as neighbors between Russellville and Dover. She is content to stay.

“I love the people here. My husband and I traveled many states looking for a place to retire, and we chose Arkansas. Home is where you make it,” she said.

Cooper shows her pieces by appointment. You can contact her at hula06@aol.com. Or visit her at the next art walk, 5 to 8 p.m. June 6 in the depot.

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