Ira Ono’s Volcano Garden Arts is a work to behold, or be wed at.
Text by Alan McNarie | Image by John Hook
When Ira Ono first saw what would become his most ambitious work of art, he was not exactly impressed. “They called it the ‘House of Leaks,’” he recalls with a laugh. “It was very neglected and horses once lived here and ate most everything planted in the garden.”
Ira Ono has been a creative force in Hawai‘i for decades. His sculptures, collages, ceramic art, and masks have appeared in collections from here to as far as Japan and Europe. He’s the founder, juror, and creative power behind Hilo’s annual Trash Art Show, which features wildly imaginative artworks created from recycled materials, and has spawned popular spinoffs on other islands. He also has a line of clothing made from recycled materials, and his latest fashion creation, the Ono Ribbon Scarf, sells in galleries and boutiques across the islands and the mainland. But his greatest work—certainly his largest, absorbing much of his talent and energy for many years—is actually a place.
It’s called Volcano Garden Arts, and it’s nestled in a corner of the rainforest on an old estate near the summit caldera of Kilauea. Its acres of grounds hold several micro-ecologies: a water garden, a “cathedral” of evergreens, a flower-bordered lawn, a grove of sugi pines with an understory of thick moss. Dotted throughout are unexpected, enchanting finds: a Japanese shrine, a tree full of birdhouses, a ceramic head covered with ceramic butterflies.
The old estate also houses a human ecosystem: a cluster of sustainable venues that complement each other and support the surrounding community. The 1908 redwood house holds a gallery that features not only Ono’s works, but also those of more than 100 other local artists. The back lanai has been remodeled to hold Café Ono, an eatery serving gourmet vegetarian fare made with ingredients from local farms. The former caretaker’s cottage is now a guesthouse with rustic redwood walls, as well as a state-of the art kitchen, outdoor hot tub, and “Zen bathroom” that’s nearly as large as the rest of the house. The gallery and gardens have hosted everything from private weddings to community events like fitness classes and poetry readings.
Ono first became acquainted with his future masterwork 13 years ago. Originally from New York, he’d fallen in love with Hawai‘i while on vacation, returning to live on Maui for several years before moving to the Big Island in 2002. He and three other artists moved into a decrepit redwood farmhouse called Ka Leo O Na Manu (“the voice of the singing bird”), which was originally built as a summer estate by a family from Honolulu. “One year later, the original owners decided to sell it,” Ono remembers. “They knew I’d be a good caretaker and wouldn’t have the home bulldozed to make way for a larger building.” He decided to buy it.
Ono faced a formidable challenge in transforming the area into a botanic beauty. The vast majority of garden plants aren’t generally fit for a 4,000-foot-high tropical climate; some simply won’t grow, while others grow all too well. The native rainforest already suffers from disastrous introductions of plants like kahili ginger, with its showy yellow flowers that have crowded out thousands of acres of native understory around the islands. For years, Ono studied his neighbors’ yards in Volcano Village, looking for plants that thrived without spreading. He decided upon colorful species such as azaleas, camellias, gardenias, and proteas, planting them alongside native vegetation such as giant hapu‘u (tree ferns).
He did inherit one priceless botanic legacy from the previous owners: the garden’s renowned Cathedral of Trees. “They’d planted those trees 60 years ago in the shape of a room,” Ono says. “It is a most inspired place where we’ve had weddings and tai chi classes and ceremonies. It just rings with birdsong throughout the day.”
With the garden, restaurant, gallery, and guesthouse in place, Ono found he had the makings for the perfect wedding destination in paradise. After Hawai‘i passed same-sex marriage in 2012, Ono, who is gay and in a committed relationship, quickly offered Volcano Garden Arts as a locale for weddings.
“The wedding business … has really gained momentum because one can legally marry in the state of Hawai‘i, regardless of gender,” he says. “This has really become a game-changer in our visitors’ experience. … It is important that our state be all-encompassing, and this new law shows how open our residents are.”
As Ono looks out on the row of bonsai lining the entrance path, he continues, “Much of what was planted when I first arrived and designed the garden has matured into a lovely visual surprise.” That could be said of much more than the garden.
Volcano Garden Arts is located at 19-3834 Old Volcano Rd. For more information, visit volcanogardenarts.com.
This story was published in issue two of Lei. Get it here.