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LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Patricia de Stacy Harrison

 

Asked who her mentors are, Patricia de Stacy Harrison starts by naming her beloved childhood home, Brooklyn. Growing up in the noisy, opinionated, caring New York City borough taught Harrison about the demands and challenges of the real world – and about developing the right skills, positive attitude and thick skin to deal with life’s complexities. The President and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting shares her views on public media’s role in bringing us all together, even in a divisive social and political climate, and reveals how a hip-hop mogul introduced her to a wellness practice she uses every evening.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Jan. 26, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Patricia De Stacy Harrison Podcast

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

From that moment on, that my little childhood world was not that safe, that it depended on a lot of different things, um, and to put it on a – I didn’t think this then, but for democracy to really survive and thrive, requires work.

 

Meet national public media executive Patricia de Stacy Harrison, next on Long Story Short.

 

One-on-one, engaging conversations with some of Hawaiʻi’s most intriguing people. Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha māi kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Patricia de Stacy Harrison is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, CPB, an organization you might recognize from the credits for many programs on PBS Hawaiʻi. The corporation is a private nonprofit that distributes about 450 million dollars in federal funding every year, as enabled by Congress to public television and radio stations across the US, including PBS Hawaiʻi. Harrison grew up in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. Now known for hipsters and skyrocketing real estate, the Brooklyn of Harrison’s youth was a different story – a small, densely populated neighborhood where she says everyone knew everything about you. Harrison calls Brooklyn her mentor, and its lessons informed her outlook on life at a young age.

 

It was a great neighborhood, and um, just how people expressed themselves. So, you would – when I was older, I had a job in the city – that’s what we called New York, the city. You were going to the city. And we would be on the subway, and people just had opinions about everything. It, it was sort of like surround sound. I thought that was normal, and then in our family, the same thing extended, uh, where everyone had an opinion about your life and what you should do, and so I grew up around very strong, opinionated people who didn’t listen to the answer, you know. That’s why someone said, ‘Conversation in New York – it’s talking and waiting to talk.’ So –

 

Listening is really important.

 

No – I figured that out later, but uh, uh…

 

Are you entirely Italian?

 

I’m half Italian and half Scottish. So, I’d like to say one half says have a great time, and the other half says you can’t afford it, so…um, but mostly the Italian side took over very early. My mother, um, encouraged dreaming, My mother was great storyteller, and um, where my father always thought I had delusions of grandeur, my mother always encouraged that kind of thing. And I remember, um, when I graduated from Midwood High School, um, and it was a very protective time then. This was before internet and that kind of thing, and we were going into the city to see a movie, and we were going to this one restaurant, and I said to my parents, “I want to sit alone.” And my father said, “What’s the matter with you?” You know, “You’re not sitting alone. We’re together.” I said, “No, I want to know how it feels to sit alone in a restaurant and order what I want, and, uh, pretend that I’m on my way now.” My mother said, “Great idea.” And so, they sat at one table, and my father goes, “You, you indulge her too much. You know, she’s got you, you would say, buffaloed.” And uh, it was the best time I ever had, and you know what, years later when I traveled all over the world and I was by myself, I remembered that 16-year-old girl sitting by herself. And the thing is, always have a book or a Kindle with you when you’re alone. And um, my mother always said, “Yeah, it’s a great idea. Let’s try it. Yeah.” I was a very, um, curious kid, to the point where my parents just got tir– “Because we said so.” They just got tired of answering the questions that one question led to another, and um, so I was informed. I like to say that Brooklyn was my mentor, the most important impact on my life because everyone was so diverse. Um, I, I went to school with Jackie Robinson’s niece, um, Asians, um, African Americans, and then we’d go to my grandmother’s neighborhood, all Italians, and a high Jewish, um, population. My friends didn’t have any relatives, so at a very young age, I didn’t understand why they didn’t have grandparents, uh, or aunts or uncles or cousins, and I remember asking my parents, and they were explaining, “Well there was this terrible man, uh, Hitler, and um, he killed everybody.” I mean, that was the shorthand approach, and I thought, “Well, why didn’t anybody do anything?”

 

What did they tell you about why they didn’t have any family?

 

They didn’t want to talk about it because some of them, uh, had been living in Brooklyn for a long time, but they lost – well, that’s a euphemism. Their relatives had been murdered, and they were my friends, we were all young kids, so they didn’t know what happened, and I couldn’t figure out why nobody would talk to me about this. My parents didn’t really know what to say, and they just didn’t want this to come up, but it had such a profound impact on me that, uh, that quote that ‘evil happens when good people do nothing.’ So, I was kind of wary from that moment on that my little childhood world was not that safe, that it depended on a lot of different things, um, and to put it on a – I didn’t think this then – but for democracy to really survive and thrive, requires work. We can’t just go lie down on the Barcalounger and think it’s gonna be here in the morning. And uh, so constant vigilance I think is required sometimes.

 

So uh, Brooklyn, there was a time, as much as you loved it, as much as it raised you, you, you wanted to go?

 

I wanted to go away to college, and you have to understand at that time, Brooklyn was a very small place, even though there were millions of people there, and the neighborhood was very small. So, the person who was on the corner with the candy store could tell your parents, you know, when you came home. Everybody knew everything about you, and I couldn’t wait to get out. And so, we always had these big family Sunday Italian dinners, and my mother announced that, uh, Patricia wants to go away to college, and that’s when it started. “Why? Why do you want to go away? This place isn’t good enough for you? Where do you want to go?” “Well, um, school in Washington, D.C.” “Washington, D.C.? Where is that?”  You know, I mean, “Why would you want to go there? What do they do there? They take our money away, they spend it. Why would you – you have good schools here. Why, you’re too good to go to NYU or Brooklyn Coll-”

 

These are tough questions for a young woman to be dealing with, or a young man.

 

Yeah, yeah. And I just stared into space, and waited ‘til it was gonna be over, the beating would be over.

 

Because you knew it would pass?

 

I knew I was going, you know.

 

Why did you decide Washington, D.C.? You lived near New York City…

 

Um, because it was close enough to fly, but at the time it was like, 25 bucks to fly. Uh, the train…and that’s as far as they would kind of, you know, willing for me to go.

 

But you wanted to be some place…

 

I had to leave.

 

…with – but it wasn’t just any place. You could’ve gone to, uh, you know, like, Rolling Hills College…

 

Oh no, uh, no, I didn’t want to do that. I had to – at the time, uh D.C., my parents drove me down, and I remember we went to the Safeway, and the person loaded up some groceries, and my father always had these bills with a rubber band, and he was peeling them off, and I said, “Daddy, they don’t tip. You don’t tip here.” He said, “What the hell kind of place is this? They don’t tip? This is where my daughter wants to go to college?” And, he was just talking to the air, you know, “Washington.” And so, um, it was one of the best decisions I ever made, and I love New York and I love Brooklyn, but there’s a time when you just have to, you know, see other places.

 

While studying at American University in Washington, D.C., Patricia de Stacy Harrison met her future husband, E. Bruce Harrison. Together they would establish a public relations agency that became one of the top 10 owner-managed PR firms in the U.S.

 

I was gonna be a writer, and um, my kids were little, so I was home with them and I was writing the – the Evening Star, which is no longer around, and um, the Washington Post, and I was a freelance, which meant I wasn’t really working for anybody. And uh, the only way I could write is I would lock myself in the bathroom because it was the only room that had a lock, and my kids would pound on the door and you know, want something. I wasn’t in there for like, days, just so I could get three thoughts together, and um, all of the writing – no matter what I’ve done, my – if I had to quickly describe myself, I would say I’m basically a writer. And so, when we founded our company, it was an opportunity to really write and prepare things and think things through in terms of, uh, issues and challenges, and um, we had that firm for 20 years, and then we sold it, but I learned a lot. You got to know people and issues, and then you, you – one of the things I think, which may be lost today, is I really think people should read publications that have opinions different from the ones you already have, just so you understand, or you can build your own intellectual capacity about saying, ‘Well, I agree with some of it. Uh, some of it I don’t agree with.’ But why? Because if you’re always taking in something that validates what you think from the beginning, how are you going to develop? How are you going to get that brain working, you know? You’re just gonna be stuck in some sort of status quo thinking?

 

And that’s actually the premise of public media, the, bringing together diverse perspectives in one place.

 

It’s wonderful; it’s just wonderful. And David Isay has, with StoryCorps, which is on NPR – he has this new initiative called, uh, One Small Step, and he brings people together in a safe place, you’re not allowed to hit each other – we have to say that now. Um, and they have different perspectives on different issues, and they talk about, ‘Well, this is why I believe in this.’ And the other person talks about that, and it’s not one big kumbaya moment where they leave and they’re holding hands like a Hallmark card, but there’s an exchange. ‘This is why I feel this way.’ ‘Oh, well this is why I feel this way.’

 

It’s, it’s, it’s – you don’t demonize people as easily as when, when you sit down and you maybe break bread and trade, trade viewpoints.

 

Yeah, Lidia Bastianich – who’s very famous on PBS – Lidia’s Kitchen and cooking, and she talks about food diplomacy, where you bring people in and you have this, you know, lovely food and you talk. And I said, “Well Lidia, in my family, Italian family, you bring people in and they yell at each other, but it’s not really yelling. No one ever changes their mind about their opinion. But somehow it all works, you know.”

 

You had to be strong to deal with other people’s strong opinion of you. I mean, your family was always telling you what to do, right?

 

Yeah, but I, I think that it prepared me for the world. The world was a lot easier in uh – when I talked to the New York Times, they picked their own headline for the article, ‘After Brooklyn, it’s all a piece of cake,’ because um, no one cuts you any slack in Brooklyn. It didn’t matter if you were five years old. You know, if you were playing a game with your grandfather, he didn’t let you win. Um, that was the mentality they – the parents at that time wanted their kids to be strong, to be able to survive. Um, a lot of them were working class, and they had no faith in um, you know, things are going to work out. They wanted everyone to be a teacher so you’d have something to fall back on, and I thought, “Well that’s great to be a teacher, but I don’t want to do it to have something to fall back on. I want to be passionate about doing the thing I want to do, and not as sort of a security blanket for the future.” So, they were very security-focused, um…

 

And, and I, I hear iron sharpening iron, the idea that you give, you know, you call people on what you think they should improve on.

 

Yeah, I think so. Um, I think that you help your children – I have three children, and I really want them very much, uh, and they have, um, be able to negotiate the world but be a good person at the same time. And um, I mean that’s, that’s really what a parent’s supposed to do.

 

After 20 years in public relations and getting to know people in the corridors of power, Patricia de Stacy Harrison served as an Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell during the George W. Bush presidency. In a post-September 11th world, she traveled to Iraq for cross-cultural exchanges. Before that, she served as Co-Chair of the Republican National Committee. Harrison didn’t think she had a chance at becoming Co-Chair, but her growing concerns for the Republican Party fueled her.

 

I just felt at the time that I didn’t really have any chance of winning, but I felt that the Republican Party, in my opinion, needed to listen to women and minorities, and I felt I wanted to talk to this group, and one thing led to another, and then I’m running for Co-Chair, and I remember at the time Hotline came out, and they had the other two people who were running against me, and they said, “There’s somebody else, but she has no votes.” I thought, “That’s me! I made the paper!” I thought, “Wait, I made the paper, but it’s bad news.” And then I did win and created um, the new majority council to um, really indicate that it was going to be a minority majority populations, and if the Party was going to thrive, they had to listen to new people coming in with um, their issues, and um, it was a wonderful, wonderful four years.

 

Then you became a diplomat. Was that part of the plan?

 

Well that’s – that is so bizarre. No, I don’t think anybody, um, would, uh, anticipate that would happen, but um, I was so, so very fortunate, again, really, really lucky, and uh, to become Assistant Secretary of State and work with this –

 

Oh I mean, but you – it had to be more than luck. What, what did it?

 

I really don’t know, um. I did not, um – my parents lived uh, I live in Arlington, and um, my parents were getting older and I did not want, uh, to leave the country for any kind of, uh, post, assuming I could have that as a choice. This was an opportunity, um, educational-cultural affairs, and uh, you would have an opportunity to actually see how your worked played out, what kind of impact, and then to work with Colin Powell, and um, so I don’t know. That happened. And I traveled, I went to Iraq – I went everywhere. I learned so much.

 

So, you were putting together partnerships?

 

Well, exchanges are the core where we, uh, bring people to this country, all ages and all levels. And then you have the database that shows so many people who came on these, uh, high-level professional exchanges go back. They wind up government or senior-level jobs. The whole idea, really, is to create mutual understanding between people in the United States and other countries. And then I created something called Culture Connect, where I identified and worked with a lot of people who were in the entertainment industry or they had written books, and we had Frank McCourt, who had written Angela’s Ashes. And we sent him to Israel. He, he worked with Israel – Israeli and Palestinian kids, and he started out talking to them. He said, “You think you have a lousy childhood.” And then we gave cards out with um, um, an internet address, so these kids could get in touch. So, you had virtual mentors, and they could talk to them about what do I do, how do I get into what you’re doing. We wrote – brought Yo-Yo Ma over with the Iraqi National Orchestra to perform here. And um, so many incredible things, the people that I met and listened to around the world, and I came away with the feeling that everybody is just connected. It’s like Henry Gates, “Skip” Gates, uh, “Finding Your Roots”, and you find out your roots are connected to somebody else’s roots. So be careful who you hate. They may be you know, your, your long lost great-great-great grandfather.

 

As the head of the private nonprofit corporation for public broadcasting, Patricia de Stacy Harrison holds the purse strings to federal dollars earmarked for public media. The money goes to more than thirteen hundred public TV and radio stations across the country. Here at PBS Hawaiʻi, the funding amounts to fifteen, one five, percent of our revenues. Like many other stations, we raise far more private dollars than we receive in government funds.

 

It’s a public-private partnership, and I think from the beginning, public media had to prove itself. We have to prove how we are fulfilling that mission every year, and report to Congress how these, these monies are spent, and report to the American people, and I think that’s fair.

 

And you do get hit in Congress with some, uh, broadsides of, you know, “Why’d you do this? Why’d you do that?”

 

We do. Um, I’d like to say sometimes uh, what offends, uh, someone on one side of the political aisle is the same thing that offends somebody else, and they both come at it from their own perspective. And we will get, um, responses and emails sometimes about a particular show, and someone will say, “Well that – that’s very left-wing.” And somebody else will say, “That was very right-wing.” So overall, we are the most trusted um, in terms of media and journalism and our content because, I believe, the American people own public media, and we’re responsible to them, and we relate to them and we connect to them. So, the idea that we’re just going to serve part of the public, um, we wouldn’t be around. We wouldn’t be relevant in the way we are today in their lives.

 

And this idea that, um, public media is slanted, I mean – the, the, the appropriations are voted on by the entire Capitol Hill crowd, right?

 

Absolutely.

 

And then how does – what, what is the support, uh, on, on, when you look at it on, on a partisan basis?

 

Well we have – we’re very fortunate. We have the, uh, Public Broadcasting, um, Caucus, and it’s headed by a Republican and Democrat. And you don’t have to like everything we do, but if you go around that table to this very nonpartisan group, or very bipartisan group, who serve their communities in appropriate ways, they will let you know why they specifically value public media. And it can be very, very different. Um, one person, one member of Congress said to me, “Frontline – to me, that’s the gold standard. I can turn to Frontline and I know they are dealing with the facts. They haven’t inserted their opinion. How do I know this? Well, they put their source, uh, availability on, um, online. You can check everything that they have referenced.” And he talked about after September 11th how he turned to Frontline because they had done this series on Bin Laden, and he said there was no emotionalism. There was no pushing for one idea or another. It was pure journalism, it was informative, and it gave me a sense of what was happening at a time when, really, everyone was terrified and confused.

 

And at a time when the – when Congress, sometimes Democrats dominate, sometimes Republicans – does public media spending pass regardless of who’s in charge or who’s in the majority?

 

Well I don’t take anything for granted. So – they cannot lobby. We have an association, American Public Television apps – they do lobbying. But I take the opportunity to meet with members and let them know what we’re doing specifically in their district. They’re Republicans, they’re Democrats, and um, I would like to say, because I believe it’s true, there’s consensus that we bring value to American life, and that’s – that’s the theme that runs through these conversations. They may differ on what kind of value, maybe it’s early childhood education or it’s journalism, but um, they have their favorite shows. And I remember someone said, “Don’t ever get rid of Antiques Road Show.”

 

Everybody has their favorites.

 

Everyone has their –

 

And actually, that has been, you know –

 

Everyone has their favorite, and um, so I think we’re at a point today where we have wonderful bipartisan support, and we’re really grateful for people on both sides of the aisle for that support.

 

Common ground and collaboration are important to Patricia de Stacy Harrison. Recalling a meeting she had with hip hop mogul for a public media project, she says being open and listening have changed her life.

 

And I said, “But um, you know, I’m too busy to do that.” And he jumped up from the seat. He said, “I’m a billionaire, and you’re too busy? You’re too busy? You’re not too busy. Get on the phone, call this person, Bob Roth, who has since become a great friend.” He said, “I got somebody here, Pat Harrison. She’s too busy to meditate.” And uh, he said, “Look, I’m sending you over there.” Suddenly my whole life is going over here. And um, I thought, “Well I can’t not follow through. What a gracious offer.” So, I went to meet Bob, and Bob has been working with the David Lynch foundation, and Lynch talks about meditation as you are in the water and you go down different levels to this area of calm. Up here are all the waves and the turmoil, and, ok. And he said, “Okay, Pat, Russell has called me so, uh, this is a gift that he’s giving to you, and um, you have to stay in New York – I think it was four days. And every day, we’ll take you through the training.” I said, “I can’t stay for four days. Here’s what I can do: let’s do the four days in like, the first day.” And he said, “Well you’re missing the whole point. It’s transcendental meditation.” I said, “Well, okay, maybe a day and a half.” He said, “Alright, well, boy, this is a hard case. Alright, we’ll try to fit in the four into a day and a half.” And um, I found that it was so helpful. At the time my mother was so ill, and eventually she died, and that’s what I turned to, um, so that I could continue to work, and um, at the same time have the necessary emotion. But to just find that place of, um, peace. And so, I don’t meditate twice every day, which you’re supposed to do, but I do it every night, uh, no matter what time.

 

For how long?

 

20 minutes.

 

And it works?

 

I don’t know what it means, ‘it works.’ It just makes me feel better. It’s not a religious experience. It slows your breathing in a way; it’s, it does something to your brain. And, um, it enables you to, well, for me, I just sleep eight straight. And uh, if I don’t get my eight, uh, it helps me do that.

 

So that’s another example of you, your being open to a discussion and then you follow some dots, and then –

 

Suddenly I’m with this person. I mean it’s…my life is just, uh, like the Wizard of Oz, except the wizard’s real. It’s available to everyone if you seek him out.

 

Patricia de Stacy Harrison says the three biggest influences in her life are Brooklyn, her former boss, Colin Powell, and her mother, Marguerite, whose curiosity, zest for life, and care for others continue to inspire her. About her time as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Harrison says she loved meeting ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Mahalo to Patricia de Stacy Harrison, visiting Hawaiʻi from Arlington, Virginia, for sharing her story with us. And mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawaiʻi and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha nui.

 

People look at their life sometimes as a resume. ‘I, I did this, or I failed at that.’ But everything goes into that sort of vessel that is you, and sometimes the things that you think, um, that didn’t work out so well – you learn something from it. Nothing is ever wasted. I remember, um, when I was at the State Department, and um, working, the honor of working for Secretary Powell, and I don’t remember the exact issue, but evidently, I had not, um, provided, let’s say, all the information about an event, and what I learned is you prepare, you prepare, you overprepare. And uh, I learned so much working for him and his team, and uh, how you could achieve things and still retain who you are, your values.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes store, or visit pbshawaii.org.

 

 

 

 

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LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Amos Kotomori

 

Amos Kotomori designs fashion, jewelry, building interiors and more – you can even see his creativity at work in the set design for Long Story Short here at PBS Hawai‘i. From working in advertising, with modeling agencies and with top fashion designers, his career successes have taken him all over the world. However, his most inspirational attribute is how he has dealt with life’s challenges. This Honolulu and Bali-based designer shares how his life values and no-fear attitude have helped guide him through obstacles in life with grace and humility.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Jan. 19, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Amos Kotomori Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Facing fear, I think, is one of the things that I love, because it’s an adrenalin rush for me.  It makes me realize what I have to conquer, so that it’s no longer frightening. And I think in today’s society, everything is based on fear.  And I really feel for artists today, only because there is no place to fail.

 

This artist and designer has shut down fear many times in his life, whether it was in walking away from a successful business, or dealing with life-threatening illnesses.  Each time, he had no idea what was going to happen next.  Amos Kotomori, next, on Long Story Short.

 

One-on-one engaging conversations with some of Hawai‘i’s most intriguing people: Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha mai kākou.  I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Amos Sadamu Kotomori of Honolulu and Bali has about him a kind of mystique.  He inspires ardent admiration on the part of many of those who work with him or who hire him.  That’s because he can take an art design and elevate it with touches that nobody else thought of, and which are inexpensive.  Or, as one of his colleagues said, he can even make something out of nothing.  He designs fashion, jewelry, building interiors, and more.  In fact, he designed our Long Story Short set at PBS Hawai‘i, as well as this Hawaiian Victorian parlor stage for our Nā Mele TV show, that time featuring Tony Conjugacion.  He says the spiritual values that his parents passed on to him while he was growing up have always been at the heart of what drives him to dream and to create.

 

Being Japanese, we believe that like, our destiny is created with our name.  And part of it is that I was named after Amos Cooke.

 

He actually came here to be a missionary.

 

Exactly.

 

And became an educator and a businessman.

 

Right.  His daughter gave me his name.  My dad was the first Japanese osteopath in the islands, and Margaret was his patient. She came and said: I would like for him to have my father’s name.  And so, that’s where Amos came from.  And Sadamu came from the temple, and it means never-failing, like the daruma that always pops up.  But with that, my parents always made it a point.  It’s not about never-failing; it’s about learning from failure, it’s about having expectations and sometimes lowering them to learn the lesson.  You know.  So, that’s all part of it.  But the most important one, I think, is my last name, which is Kotomori, which is a forest of musical instruments.  And I always hear the music in everything.  I mean, it makes life so much easier.  You know, my dad really believed in service.  He loved what he did as well, as an osteopath.  It’s a nerve and bone specialist.  But he was a country doctor, in the sense that it wasn’t the money.

 

I see.

 

It was about people coming, and they would give us food.

 

In payment.

 

In payment.  And that was fine.  I remember one Thanksgiving, someone gave us a live turkey.  It was really mean.

 

But, you know, what do you do with a live turkey; right?  You just kinda go like: Okay.  And then, it disappeared, and all of a sudden, it was meat.  ‘Till today, I can’t see buying avocados, bananas, mangos, because they’re supposed to be free.

 

Mm; lychees, too.

 

Lychee; yes.  You know, all of those things, you know.  But that’s what growing up in Hawai‘i is, is that everybody was Auntie, Uncle, Halmeoni, Halabeoji, Popo, Gung Gung.  You know, all of those things; it just meant that they were family. And I think that’s what is the difference here.  And that’s why I think when I look at people, I don’t look at them as, oh, this is a cohort of work and a peer.  You know, I just think we’re all working towards moving in one direction.

 

When he saw you interested in art, was he worried?

 

Many parents do get worried when they see that art compulsion.

 

Yeah.  You know, art just kind of came by, because my mom was the creative side of it.  And you know, she made my shirts, she printed my shirts, she sewed all my clothes for the first two weeks of the school year. So every day, I had something new to wear.

 

That was unusual.

 

That was unusual, but I didn’t know it.  I really didn’t know it.  So, my love for textiles grew from that.  But you know, it’s like we are who we are because of all the experiences, you know.  And I think part of my DNA comes from that strength of being independent from my dad. And he died when I was in my early twenties.  And he left me an obi, which I love.  I got a print from his office.  But more than that, he left me messages of how to survive, how to really see value in everything around me.  So, it wasn’t about money.  It wasn’t about, you know, never failing.  It was always about doing more, and maybe serving.  My first memory that I have visually, ‘cause I’m a visual person, is my dad holding me next to the volcano.  And it’s like I can still see him there, and always pointing to the sky. And so, I always look to the stars. And the message really is that if you have a dream, if you have something that you really want to do, it’s possible.  And the song, you know, Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star actually turns into A, B, C. And that is the next message, is that with education, and I was brought up this way, that you can do almost anything you want.  But the key is, I think, what my mom always told me; I was born under a lucky star.

 

Do you believe that?

 

And I believe that.

 

Designer Amos Kotomori has enjoyed career successes that have taken him all over the world.  He worked in advertising, modeling agencies, and with top fashion designers.  Eventually, he designed his own line of men’s aloha shirts. He says he was often in the right place at the right time, but his no-fear attitude is what really opened doors for him.

 

I was working at Parks and Recreation.  I was the one who did the summer art programs, working with all the parks and the schools, and you know, doing that.  And someone walked in and said: Would you like to apply for a Rockefeller fellowship?  And I said: Oh, what’s that?  It was thirteen states wide, and only ten got it.  And I was one of the lucky recipients, and so, I got to go to San Francisco and study, being museum curator in community arts.

 

All that from Parks and Recreation?

 

Parks and Recreation.  And I was one of the, you know, say top fifteen positions.  And I left that because I didn’t know what that offered, in terms of the next step.  And so, I did.  And I met the promoter for Issey Miyake, which is like a dream.

 

Explain Issey Miyake.

 

Issey Miyake is a Japanese designer that is internationally known for his fabrics, pleatings.  Just an avant-garde designer.  And he invited me to Paris to see his show.  I was in the Rockefeller Foundation, and I asked for a week off, and they said: Mm, no, you can’t go.  And I thought: Hm.  That was a Friday.  I walked in on Monday morning, and I said: I’m leaving the program.  And they said: You don’t leave Rockefeller.  And I said: I am; I have a plane ticket this afternoon, I’m going to Paris.  You know, it was the fear that they were trying to instill in me that you don’t do this. And the don’ts, don’t work with me. I think sometimes you just have to challenge it, and see what’s out there.

 

And you’re prepared.  What if this thread goes nowhere?

 

You know, it didn’t have any place to go when I went there.  And when I got there, I didn’t have clothes to wear to the designer shows.  I went to Printemps, which is a department store. I bought men’s underwear, and I layered it.  I took a kimono, I took the sleeves off, I made a scarf.  I had a friend who made a jacket for me out of Japanese sex banners. I wore that.  I got invited to Issey’s show, then to Kenzo’s.

 

How many pairs of underwear was involved?

 

I wore three different layers of shirts, which was like long-sleeve, three-quarters, and a short-sleeve, and a tank.  And it just was that, you know, with jeans.  And no one was wearing jeans at that time, I think. It was okay, but not really acceptable to go to a designer show.

 

But you looked like an avant-garde kind of guy.

 

Well, it’s the best I could do, and I had fun doing it, putting it together.  And for whatever reason, from there, I was invited to Dior.  And said: I really want to coordinate shows.  So, the coordinator actually had me go to the House of Dior, and I watched them put on a show.  They put a full-length fur coat on me and said: Now, you walk the ramp, ‘cause you have to know how to be a model, you know, know what it feels like.  And that was my training.

 

It sounds accidental, but is it?  One, you’re willing to go.  If somebody invites you to something, you’re willing to go.  But I mean, it seems like you’re getting an awful lot of special treatment.

 

It sounds like that.  But you know what?  This is me.  I mean, this is my ordinary life, ‘cause that’s the only life I knew.  It’s like, doing an agency, there was a need for it. And I wanted to serve that for our people here, the local people, you know, just to be represented in national commercials.  But even that, I gave the agency away, and basically, it was one of the hardest things to do.  And someone told me: You’re giving up the agency because you’re afraid of success. And that really hurt.  But at the same time, when I went away, I left and I went to England, and it took me a while before I realized that success sometimes is knowing when to stop.  And it’s okay, ‘cause there’s something else to learn.

 

What tells you it’s time to stop?

 

You know, it’s like … again, from the heart to the gut.  And that’s it, and following it.  What happened when I left the agency was that I ended up in Morocco.  A friend built a kasbah there, and he said: Come.  And he’s been saying come for years.  And when I went there, I realized that in third grade, I had done a painting, and I called it Hot Fudge Sundae Mountains. And I can still see it; the valley like this, the cream coming down a lake, and hot fudge sundae mountains. Because I had never seen snow, I didn’t know what it was, but I knew what a hot fudge sundae was, and it looked like that, with the whipped cream.  Many years later, I give up the agency, I end up in Morocco in Marrakesh. And I look out the window of this car … I see Hot Fudge Sundae Mountains.

 

Exactly what you drew in third grade.

 

Exactly what I saw in third grade.  The only reason I remember that painting is because at Royal Elementary, it was sent to the Art Academy as an example of third grade art.  But that’s the only reason I remembered it.  But all of a sudden, bam, the image was there.  And I thought: If I hadn’t let go of the agency, I wouldn’t be here. I’m back on track.

 

So, that’s a dot.

 

It’s a dot; I’m back on track.

 

You’re connecting the dots.  What about money, though?  I mean, you know, you were running a successful agency.

 

You know, to this day, I don’t know what my balance is.  I really don’t.  I’ve never put an emotion on money.  And the reason for it is because it’s a number.  I feel like a number needs to be met at the end of the month, to meet all the bills, and somehow, it’s there.

 

Somehow, you were this town kid, who became a—you know, you’ve rubbed shoulders and had projects with top fashion designers internationally.

 

M-hm.

 

And you’ve been able to choose between successful projects as an artist that pay the bills.

 

M-hm.

 

I mean, like you said, there’s a reward in creativity.

 

Yeah.

 

But often, there’s not a reward financially.

 

Right.  I think when you get stuck on a number, you know, it makes it really, really difficult to succeed.  Because for me, let’s lower my expectations.  You know, because I’m getting there, I know I’m getting closer to it. But then, sometimes the dots don’t connect, and when they don’t connect, it means that I’m drawing the wrong picture. It’s really meant to go here.  And that’s okay.  And when I start from there, I can do another one.

 

It’s all about resilience.

 

I don’t know if I am, but I think I believe in good things.  I believe that good things happen for its own reasons, and that belief has given me life.

 

Who is the most interesting top fashion designer you’ve worked with?

 

I think it would have to be Dior.  I’ve never met him, but I worked with the people.  I don’t speak French.  But what happens is that art is universal, it’s a language of its own.  And they wanted me to do their silks, their batiks and silks, and I couldn’t stay in Paris anymore, because I got the call from my mom a year after my dad passed away, and she said: You must come home; I need help.  You know, family first.  I came home.  Paris would send me fabric and say: Just do whatever you want, and send it back to us. And I did for a while, and then, you know, it was one of those things where you go like: Wait, I can do this myself. And so, I took the chance, and responsibilities took on another thing here, you know, when you’re caring for someone, when you’re trying to survive in different ways.  Maybe that’s why I changed professions, in many ways.  But it always led me to where I am.

 

I see a lot of men wearing your shirts.

 

Oh, thank you.

 

They’re very distinctive.  And I just wonder; what’s your thought in creating a shirt, that kind of shirts? What are they like?  You know, what’s your thought process?

 

It took me two years to really develop the shirts in terms of finding the fabrics, and doing the designs and the textile process. You know, it’s like from silk screening to abstraction, to hand painting, to embroidery; all of those things. But for me, wearing a shirt that I’ve worked on and designed is wearing a prayer.  Because it stems from a story, and when people wear it, hopefully, they feel that prayer.  They become happier, or maybe more determined.

 

You designed the shirt you’re wearing now. 

 

Yeah.

 

Is there a message in the shirt?

 

Basically, what this is, is it’s almost like spirit writing, in many ways because it’s calligraphy.  I don’t really know how to do calligraphy in written form or standard form, but I think there is a message in it which is, stop and connect the dots. You know, sometimes you gotta live long enough to get enough dots to collect, you know, and connect them up and doing this.

 

Oh, that’s why they don’t connect sometimes.  You gotta live longer.

 

You gotta live longer.  You know, but for me, it’s like the shirt is basically to see messages, everywhere.  We hear it, we see it.  Things don’t just happen for no reason.

 

Honolulu and Bali designer Amos Kotomori has had many successes in his life. But it hasn’t been easy.  He got past many obstacles along the way.

 

What was the worst hit you’ve ever taken?

 

The unexpected, not knowing was basically when I was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer.  Came out of the blue.

 

You didn’t feel bad?

 

I didn’t feel bad, except I was peeing blood. Not a good sign.  So, that was my first thing.  But that was a good thing, because it made me, obviously, stop and take care of it.  But it was Stage 4 cancer of the hip bone, my bladder, and colon.  And you know, I didn’t know it then, but when I came out, they said: You’ve got six months.  That was eight years ago.

 

Wow. What a devastating diagnosis.

 

But you know, it’s like, I went to the doctor’s, I left Queen’s, I made it to Safeway Kapahulu.  I got the call: You’ve got cancer, you’re going in on Monday.  This was a Thursday.  I was going to a camp on Kaua‘i to cook for fifty people; it was a music camp.  And I thought: I can do that.  So, I left on Friday morning, came back Sunday afternoon, cooking for fifty people, and went off to surgery the following morning.  But you know, things don’t stop because things happen to you. You know.  But I think from it, I learned to be a better caregiver, I became a better listener.  Because rather than asking, How are you feeling?, when someone’s recuperating, I always ask, What can I do to help, is there something you need?

 

But often, people don’t know what they need, or they don’t want to say.

 

Sometimes then, it’s basically just sitting there with them and keeping company.  And that’s okay.  You know. But what I also learned is that like, people think that when you go through heart surgery—‘cause I had five bypass, working on ten percent.

 

Ninety percent blockage?

 

Blockage; yeah.  It was pretty amazing.

 

When was that; was that after your cancer?

 

After the cancer.  My chemo was so intense; I did fifty-four sessions of chemo, twenty-four hours long each of them.

 

I can’t even imagine that.  So, you had surgery, and then you went into intensive chemo.

 

Chemo.

 

And was the cancer eradicated?

 

I still go to see my oncologist every three to four months.  And I love that, only because they’re keeping on top of it.  So, you know, every day, every moment, every breath, is certainly a blessing.  And so, you appreciate that.

 

What happened after your heart surgery?  I mean, ten percent, you must have been operating on such little …

 

I didn’t know.  And what you don’t know doesn’t hurt you.  That week, I had done ten fashion shows, and it was the longest fashion ramp in America.  It ran from Macy’s, all the way down to Sears at Ala Moana Shopping Center.  We laid a carpet out there, and you had to walk it ten times with the models.  And that just happened days before, and I didn’t feel it.

 

You weren’t wheezing?

 

Nothing.

 

Wow …

 

You know, your body acclimates.

 

For a while, I guess.

 

Yeah.

 

So, then did you have stents put in?

 

They went in for a stent, and I got up after that, and they said: Mm, so little bit more major.  So, what happened is, I said: Okay.  You know, so it was gonna be in a couple days.  I checked myself out of the hospital, continued doing my meetings and everything.

 

Your doctor had a few words with you after—

 

Well, he called me the next day, and he said: Where are you?  And I said: I’m in a meeting.  He says: You’re supposed to be here resting for your operation.  I said: Well, if you want me to rest, I need to do these meetings so that I can feel better about, you know, not being available for about a month.  And I set it in my mind that even for cancer, thirty days.  Because I was taking care of my mom at that point, too, and she had Parkinson’s and dementia.  And I told her, I said: I’m going for surgery, and I’ll be gone for thirty days. And to the day, I was back with her. So, you know, you can.  It’s a number.

 

But you know, you do take a moment to think things through, and you had to contemplate that you might not make it through.

 

You know, it’s like, the way I looked at it, when you’ve only got such short time to organize, and as they say, get things in order—

 

M-hm.

 

Which is a nice way of saying: You’re gonna die, so you know, make it easier for the people that are left.  The way I looked at it; it’ll be like Zorba the Greek, where everyone crawls through the windows and claims whatever they want in my house.

 

And that’s fine, ‘cause I’m not gonna be around. You know.  But it’s like, every piece that I have in my home has a memory, and that’s what I surround myself with, is those memories.  But I don’t hang onto them because it’s about making new ones every day, creating new ones, and meeting new people, and challenging. You know, there’s been moments where not knowing the challenges and facing fear, I think, is one of the things that I love, because it’s an adrenalin rush for me.  It makes me realize what I have to conquer, so that it’s no longer frightening.  And I think in today’s society, everything is based on fear.  And I really feel for artists today, only because there is no place to fail.  You know, whereas before, we did it because we needed to do it.  It wasn’t wanting to do it; as an artist, I needed to do this. I needed to.

 

And if you failed, then you said there was a place for that?

 

There was a place for that, because not everything worked.

 

Well, what was the place?  I mean, how did you bounce back from a failure in a very tough occupation to support yourself?

 

Well, you know, it’s like, it comes down to, it can be worse.  It’s that simple.  You know, when things are really bad, and then I go: It really can be worse.  And when I stop and think about that, I go: I am blessed.

 

You said artists don’t have room now to fail.  But actually, life is materially better.  I mean, you know, when you look at what we have, compared to what we had a generation ago.

 

I agree with you.  I mean, I think I’m here because of medical, you know, developments that certainly saved my life many times.  I think that like, life is better with the computer, the cell phone, all of these things.  But I just think that one of the things that we’re missing is the basic element of kindness, being able to listen to each other, being able to care for each other in different ways.  I think that really changed my life, but that’s the way I was brought up.  I start and end every day, you know, with a prayer of my own.  And it’s basically time for gratitude.  And I think about all the things that I’m grateful for, for the day, when I start. And at the end of the day, some things may not go well, and I think about it, but I’m still grateful for it. And it makes me believe that I’m blessed.  It confirms that I’m born under that lucky star.

 

Honolulu’s Amos Kotomori now spends much of his time at the serene retreat he built in Bali, Indonesia called Villa Bodhi.  Like most of his projects, it started with a dream.  And while he says Hawai‘i will always be home to him, it’s a place where he finds possibilities in thought.  Mahalo to Amos Kotomori for sharing his life stories with us.  And mahalo to you, for joining us.  For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Aloha nui.

 

I kinda want to get a sense of how your mind works creatively.  ‘Cause I know if this table were filled with textiles, or just various objects, I know you could create something from it.  What’s your artistic process?

 

You know, if I were to look at this table, I see the stripes, I see that they’re organic.  But more importantly, I see the light reflected on the surface.  And with that, I see a lot of scratches.  And, you know, like, it’s almost like there’s ring marks from a glass, or you know, just simply putting their ring on it and doing this, you know.

 

I think there’s a Hawaiian bracelet mark somewhere. 

 

Bracelet marks, and all of these things.  And that’s what fascinates me, is the scratches. Because those were made by people; they’ve left their mark.  There’s different momentums to it, there’s different depth to it, you know.  I see that, and I go, like: That’s what I want to capture.  So, I’m motivated to do something like that.

 

You also picked this very table for this very program.

 

You know, this is an example of how a thought can manifest itself.  Because in my mind, when I was doing the set many years ago, I thought a triangle table would be perfect for this, because it makes us closer.

 

M-hm.

 

We’re not sitting further apart.  It’s, you know, not a rectangle.  It was always odd to have a rectangle.  And I had it in my mind, went down to C.S. Wo, and there it was.

 

On sale, yet.

 

On sale, and affordable on your budget.  And you know, so we got that, we got the rest of the set, we got the chairs, everything.  And it worked.

 

[END]

 

 

 

FINDING YOUR ROOTS
This Land Is My Land

FINDING YOUR ROOTS: This Land Is My Land

 

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. reveals the unexpected family trees of entertainer Queen Latifah and actor Jeffrey Wright, redefining their sense of the black experience — and challenging preconceptions about America’s past.

 

 

 

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