Story by Victoria Wiseman
Photo by Olivier Koning
When it began the Gallery at Ward Centre wasn’t a gallery at all—it was just a collection of paintings hung to fill a fledgling shopping mall’s empty space. The artists who showed their work, watercolorists all, were friends who met at each other’s houses for informal critiques. “One of them was connected to the development of Ward Centre and suggested the idea. Art on the walls made [the place] look occupied and busy, so shoppers weren’t walking by blank space after blank space,” says artist Helen Iaea, adding with a laugh, “The artists thought they’d be there for thirty days.”
|The co-op creatives: Painter Roger Whitlock works on a canvas at Honolulu's oldest art cooperative, a space shared by fifteen local artists, including Whitlock. The gallery is staffed by the artists themselves. "It just leads to relationships that go beyond the sale" says Cindy Conklin, the gallery's current president.|
Twenty-three years later, do-it-yourself artists are still very much a presence at the Honolulu mall. After the initial show, a group of artists formed a cooperative and rented their own space, which became the Gallery at Ward Centre. Today it is Hawai‘i’s oldest art cooperative, a tiny utopia limited to fifteen artists: Each pays an equal share of rent, gets an equal share of space, has an equal voice and vote and—best of all— keeps all their own profits.
Each also works one shift a week, so visitors are always guaranteed a chance to meet the artists. Today, Gregory Pai is manning the gallery’s front desk. Accepted into the co-op in January 2010, he’s one of its newest members. He sits across from his paintings of vivid landscapes; they are realist, rendered to look like snapshots. In one, the twisted branches of a solitary tree grow out of a lava field, stretching against clouds transitioning from darkness to light. Pai rises from his seat to show some his colleagues’ work. He pauses at a huge statue, a web of metal in human form by Jackie Mild-Lau: “I just love this one,” he says. His tour through the gallery is intimate and detailed and feels like a spontaneous gift from a Honolulu art insider. There are many who visit the gallery for just that reason. “There’s this mystique about meeting the artist that made the piece that you love,” says printmaker Cindy Conklin.