Cover Story

Jasper Wong
Image: Darwina Griffin

The plan: Artists move into moribund neighborhoods, give back to the community, and--as development follows them--manage to stay and thrive.


Cover image for Oct 3, 2012

Artists in Honolulu are banding together to form mutually beneficial communities among themselves–as well as with the communities in which they live and work. Veteran Rich Richardson of Arts at Marks Garage and the Artists Lofts in Chinatown, who’s been at it for a decade, and youthful innovators Jasper Wong and Jeff Gress of the Lana Lane Studios in Kaka’ako, have ambitions as big as the city they’re trying to redeem from dereliction. It’s a risky undertaking–using art as a tool for urban renewal–but to all indications, it’s working, so far.

Instruction, Under Construction

Follow the murals down Auahi Street in Kakaako, and you’ll find a warehouse on Lana Lane, just diamondhead of the block housing fresh-faced, artsy enterprises such as R/D, Greenhouse and 808 Urban. Like these neighbors, the Lana Lane Studios warehouse provides–instead of, say, auto parts and used tires–a collaborative incubator space. Duck inside, and you may hear Pow Wow Hawaii partners Jeff Gress and Jasper Wong smacking tools together to build the studios within, or Christian O’Connor, senior asset manager for the commercial real estate division of landowner Kamehameha Schools (KS), schmoozing prospective investors or businesses who might buy into KS’s neighborhood plan. Organic apparel designers Matt and Roxanne Ortiz of VERS Hawaii might be lugging around their screen-printer, while painter Hadley Nunes assembles the walls of her new studio. All are engaged in a united effort to build one of the biggest, newest pieces in the constantly evolving Kakaako art puzzle: an artists’ studio space, founded on the philosophy of networking and collaboration through education.

The ultimate vision for Lana Lane Studios is that of a community center for artists, explains founder Wong. “If an artist is new to Hawaii and wants to connect with other artists, we want this to be the space,” he said. Using John Koga, John PRIME Hina, Maile Meyer and muralist Estria Miyashiro as inspiration and advisers for their art and community orientation, Wong says, “If you look at them, they range between contemporary, urban and native Hawaiian art. They cover the spectrum.”

Although Gress and Wong have only had the keys for about a month, they’ve made vast improvements to the former tire warehouse (not least, removing the rubbery grime that coated the space when they moved in), and the buzz is at such a level that they’re already running out of unclaimed spaces, give or take a few. It’s a huge, multilevel place. Classrooms with donated desks, where tenants teach classes on their craft to kids and other members of the space (a residence requirement), inhabit the lower level of the mauka side. There’s a potential dark room for photographers in the back. VERS Hawaii’s screen printer will fill a studio, and Gress is working on using shelves and cabinets donated from Leahi Hospital to partition the upper level into several 300- to 600-square-foot studios.

“We like it because tenants can do whatever they want in their own spaces,” says Gress, the operational manager (and, right now, the guy sweating the hardest on construction and layout). “We want [each room] to be like everyone’s own little world,” chimes in Wong, “[So that the whole thing becomes] a collage of everyone’s aesthetics.”

Businesses want to get involved, too. “Since word got out, we’re getting a lot of stuff donated,” Wong says, pointing to scores of tables that lived a hard life at Señor Frog’s. Having nearly cleaned out ReUse Hawaii’s stash of reclaimed two-by-fours, he and Gress are asking for help in restructuring the electricity to add more light and air conditioning. They’re also in the process of instituting the studio’s official Kickstarter account. Lana Lane Studios will run on a full-volunteer staff with help from the tenants, so it’s a co-op in one sense, but what makes the space unique and invaluable is the sharing of equipment and trading tips and skills. The goal is for collaboration and networking to become a natural, daily occurrence.

There’s an application process that’s still being fleshed out, but the first step, if you’re interested, is to meet with Gress and Wong. Their plan is to have all the tenants ready to move in by February, when Pow Wow Hawaii 2013 kicks off, with Lana Lane as its new headquarters.

Asked about KS’s angle in this–whether it’s supporting art for art’s sake, or merely using art to garner public support for its Kakaako redevelopment plans–Gress replies, “If KS recognizes our efforts as a positive aspect in public opinion and the revitalization of the area, then I think we are doing something right. Kaka’ako is a district of underused resources that has seldom had the opportunity to benefit the community. The position KS has granted us, and other creatives in the area, has given us the ability to further educational outreach, while effecting growth in Hawaii’s art scene.”

Inevitably, the full intentions of KS regarding Kakaako will be revealed. For now, it seems, the burden is on the artists to prove themselves as a successful, integral piece of the habitat, making it infelicitous economically and politically for KS to extrude them. Until then, they hope KS will make good on its promises to convert Kakaako into a thriving culture and business hub.

The Rich Quarter

In Chinatown, above the seedy markets and blank-faced wanderers of Hotel Street, there is an oasis of innovation called the Artists Lofts. Visiting feels kind of like walking around a semi-secret, bohemian Hadron collider of creative energy. You feel you shouldn’t be there, that you should respect their space: After all, people live here. But the artists welcome you in, so you feel like you belong even while intruding. As each artist explains, they have never before been a part of such a supportive, inspiring community of likeminded people, including their neighborhood and visitors. The artists say that if their art is personal and revelatory, so is the neighborhood that informs it.

As leaseholder of the Artists Lofts, executive director of the Hawaii Academy of Performing Arts and creative director of the Arts at Marks, Rich Richardson, it seems, has centered himself in the art culture of Chinatown. Or maybe it’s that the art culture has grown up around him. A curator, community organizer and artist, Richardson’s been at the nucleus of a movement in flux for decades–the quixotic battle for a “Better Chinatown.”

Asked if his responsibility to Marks Garage takes up any extra time he might have to devote to his own art–and if so, does that then make Chinatown his canvas–Richardson laughs. “Oh God, never ever say that!” Then, with a quiet intensity, his steeled eyes considering each word, he speaks about how, starting with Marks Garage and branching into the Artists’ Lofts, he has the sense he’s realizing progress in small but very significant gains.

These gains are felt when you walk through Chinatown on a First Friday and see what Richardson quotes as 30,000 people congregating toward the energy. There’s an obvious difference. Go to Chinatown on any other Friday night and it’s plastic mobs of Kardashian Clones spilling out of Indigo. The galleries are quiet. But on First Friday, places like Marks Garage, Loading Zone, and the studios at the Artists Lofts are packed with local musicians, artists, filmmakers, dancers, writers, designers, hairstylists, yogis, slam poets–the list is as long as your definition of art.

“Art attracts business and scares away crime,” Richardson says. “According to Americans for the Arts (a national non-profit organization providing services to arts and cultural groups), people spend about $27 in our neighborhood above the cost of a ticket to an arts event on parking, food, drinks, retail, etc. That’s $3.5 million pump[ed] into the local economy per year.”

This network he’s built, of artists working, living and fusing together in symbiotic humanity with Chinatown, is centered in his idea that creativity is the foundation of a better infrastructure. “I like to think of the network as artwork,” he said. “We see the power in working together and developing a synergy that makes us greater than the sum of our parts.”

One of Richardson’s biggest concepts, the Artists Lofts, fill the Mendonca Building on Maunakea at Hotel. When Richardson met landowners Ernest and JoDee Hunt at monthly Chinatown neighborhood meetings, JoDee Hunt says that she and Richardson “discovered that our interests dovetailed. Eventually we came to a vision of Artists Lofts as a way to integrate into the community.”

Richardson moved into the then-unconstructed second floor, where the studios are now, as an experiment in 2009. With the help of one of the last low-interest construction loans given by the City and County of Honolulu, Richardson and the Hunts started physically remodeling a building while trying to do the same, ideologically, to an entire city.

For example, photographer James Anshutz creates visual realizations for hospitalized kids who want to see themselves as their favorite character. His organization, the Lemuria Project, is just getting started, but already, and with the help of co-tenants Eric West, a performance artist, and Sergio Garzon, a woodcut printmaker (and organizer of the Print Big! event last August), they’ve built worlds of dragons, space creatures and fairies for children, many of whom are diagnosed with incurable illnesses. Garzon also teaches art history to the homeless at the River of Life Mission.

Brandon Reid, owner of The Manifest bar on Hotel Street and Lofts tenant for almost a year, expressed wonder at being included in such a group of artists. “I don’t know how much of a help I can be [to the interview],”he wrote in an email. “I’m not very artistic, nor am I an artist.”

Richardson’s answer: It’s because Richardson sees art in Reid’s ideas. “He didn’t even need to apply [to get into the Lofts],” Richardson says. “His idea company was enough [of a] résumé.”

Reid is a man of many inventions, shooting concepts out of his head like a rotating sprinkler on a thirsty lawn. In a follow-up meeting, every idea he began to talk about was interrupted by another one. Concepts such as starting a bike messenger coffee service, a state-recognized Shaka Day, the Manifest Man Challenge beard-growing competition to benefit testicular cancer research, or the Great Balloonathon spring forth as if conceived from the combined brains of Gandhi and Dr. Seuss. “I want to see our culture make it to the next generation. You know, we’re more than just [waiters] happy to take your order,” Reid said.

According to Reid, Chinatown’s need for a bar like The Manifest became apparent after he’d seen too many of his gifted friends move away to Those Cities That Always Take Our Talent. He was moved to take elements he’d seen in San Francisco or New York and manifest them, so to speak, locally, in a bar that is itself, essentially, a solution to a problem. A friend had complained that there were no good bars with adequate lighting to showcase art, so Reid took him across the street to a vacant studio and jotted the number down. Now, The Manifest hosts Trivia Night, dance parties, fundraisers, and on an increasingly frequent basis, local artists’ work on the space’s blank brick wall.

“I’m so honored that Rich considers me an artist, because I respect him so much,” Reid said, appearing genuinely surprised and proud of the validation. “It’s one of the main reasons I moved out here [to Chinatown], the last frontier of Hawaii. To embrace the odd.”

“If anything, [Reid] gives artists a place to show their work, which is huge,” said Richardson. “We always wanted the Lofts to be a place that showcases artists first, so that they can get paid for what they do.”

Illustrator Kris Goto says she’s never been more productive, or more in demand, since moving into the Lofts. “I was pretty much inactive before moving out here. When I’m stuck, I go out and talk to my friends [neighbors at the Lofts] outside, and we sort of encourage each other, help each other out. It’s like an art school campus; everybody here is working in a different genre, so we don’t have that rivalry going on, and we’re here supporting each other.”

Bradley Rhea of Barrio Vintage, a clothing retailer and resident in the building, expresses the same sentiment. “We moved out here a year and a half ago from the mainland, and as soon as we moved into the Lofts, and were introduced to the community, it was motivating. It’s inspiring.”

Rhea and his partner, Jonathan Saupe, are designers and fashion refurbishers; they cull all sorts of unique items they discover in estate, garage and flea market sales while on periodic road trips across the Southwest. Sounds like a dream job, but art? “We allow people to make art of themselves. We help people discover an identity, a sense of self-expressiveness, and an outlet for it,” Rhea told me in their shop on Nuuanu Avenue. “Rich saw what we do as an art, and we’re very grateful for that.”

If living or working from the Artists Lofts sounds like something you’d be into, the timing’s right: There are currently both a Loft space and an office available. Print the application from [] and submit it in person at the gallery on Nuuanu Avenue along with a piece of whatever you consider to be your art. Richardson’s definition is a liberal one, so as long as you make your case, you’ll be considered. The terms of the lease are flexible, but Richardson says they look for at least a year’s commitment.

Ultimately, to qualify, you have to be involved with your world and not a hermit. “Look, if you’re a reclusive artist, this probably won’t be the best space,” Richardson explains. “This whole idea is meant as a kindling, to create a synergy. I think that if we have a center of positive energy in Chinatown, it will radiate outward and affect the whole neighborhood.”

If the idea of cleaning up boroughs such as Chinatown and Kaka’ako evokes the image of using a bar of soap without water, think of art as the soap, and Richardson, Gress, Wong and their teams of artists, as the water.

To Learn More About the Artists

Kris Goto: Pop Art @ Loading Zone, 10/5, 7–11pm; []

Marks Garage shows and events; []

Lemuria Project: []

James Anshutz Photography: []

Sergio Garzon: []

Eric West, a.k.a. Professor Pandemonium and the founder of the National Pillow Fight League: [email: pandemoniumsideshow]

The Manifest: Mon., 8am–10pm, Tue.–Fri., 8–2am, Sat., 10–2am, []

Jasper Wong: []

Jeff Gress: []

Pow Wow Hawaii: Details on upcoming Pow Wow events, and to purchase tickets to the Blank Canvas Gala benefiting Pow Wow on Sat., 10/6, RSVP at [].

If You’re Interested in Joining Lana Lane

Tentative membership levels for Lana Lane Studios start at $20–600/mo. A Basic membership includes wifi, use of desks and tables, discounted workshops and use of equipment. The Co-Working membership includes the previous plus 24/7 access to the collaborative area, deeper workshop discounts, storage, and some requirements for teaching workshops. A Pro-Level membership adds a lock-up studio space and no-charge access to community equipment. Apply at 320 Lana Lane in Kaka’ako, or contact Jeff Gress at [email: design].