For a few years in the early 2000s, The ARTS at Marks Garage executive director Rich Richardson lived in various apartments throughout Chinatown. He remembers it now as a productive time for himself as an artist — and he was within walking distance to all of Chinatown’s art events and galleries.
But he was alone. While Chinatown then was beginning to become the hub it is now, those in the creative community would pop in and out for events; Richardson was among the few actually living in the neighborhood. It dawned on him that the impact of the creative scene in Chinatown — both on the artists themselves and the larger community — would be greater if there were more artist residents.
That since has become a reality. The Chinatown Artists Lofts opened in 2010 through a partnership between Hawaii Academy of Performing Arts, the nonprofit that also oversees ARTS at Marks, and developer Springwood Vista. With 10 live/work units, the Lofts have cultivated an environment that is conducive to residents’ creative endeavors — surrounding artists with other artists and providing them a space to showcase their work — while also serving to bolster the arts scene in the broader community. The current residents are an eclectic group — bar owners, a media exec, a yoga teacher, as well as arts educators, a musician, photographers and an illustrator.
“It builds business relationships and financial opportunities but also offers the community … a look into where the arts are thriving,” Richardson explains.
Now, the second wing of the Chinatown Artists Lofts — comprised of nine new units — is set to open Tuesday (March 1).
Standing near a second-story window in one of the new lofts, Richardson looks out and says, “It’s got the million-dollar view.” He’s overlooking North Hotel Street, a direct shot to a number of Chinatown’s most popular bars and clubs. This second wing has been under construction for several months — it most recently was a multi-purpose rehearsal space — and will make a total of 19 units at the Lofts.
A couple of the new units already have been filled — one by a jewelry designer, and the other by a muralist — and applications currently are being accepted. Prospective residents must submit an example of their work, but that shouldn’t discourage newer artists. (“Some people have a lot of experience and massive amounts of accomplishments under their belts, and sometimes people just show a lot of potential and promise, so we want to encourage that as well,” Richardson explains.)
Each unit differs slightly — varying in size, layout and details like shelving and number of windows — but have common features: hardwood floors, high-rise ceilings, newly renovated bathrooms. Above the bathrooms, each also has a thick landing that can serve as storage — or, as some residents have done in the past, a bedroom. The average unit is 550 square feet, with an average price of $1,200 per month (not including utilities).
“There’s not anything that locks you into a certain design,” Richardson says. “They all have the same kind of basic minimalist outfitting so that they can be customized.”
Tucked away in a corner of the Lofts is performance artist Eric West’s studio — which he aptly describes as “basically a cross between a storage facility and Pee-wee’s Playhouse.”
The room is lined with tall shelves, all stocked with miscellaneous items — worn leather boots, a pile of denim clothing, a row of empty whiskey bottles, dated televisions, a stack of VCRs, sewing machines, and contraptions that West has MacGyvered together, like his version of a ray gun.
Like Richardson says, each resident, or lofter, as they call themselves, is free to customize their unit — and these artists being artists, many of them have treated their spaces much like canvases themselves. Each loft is like its own little contained, vibrant world.
Commercial photographer James Anshutz’s walls are lined with his images, including a huge, stunning aerial shot of Magic Island. None of the units come with kitchens, so Anshutz built out counter space with enough room for food prep, a slow cooker and a skillet. Glamor photographer Laura Metzger has turned her loft into a chic, brightly lit workspace, with a meeting room up front and a full photo studio in the back. Hanging from Christie Knoll’s ceiling is her current project: a rainbow of life-size busts — actual castings of real people, constructed from items that have personal meaning to the subject.
Each First Friday, anyone can tour the Lofts and check out what the artists are up to. Artists may display works in progress, new art or pieces for sale. West — who is perhaps better known as Professor Pandemonium — sometimes treats the audience to some of his sideshow acts, things like sword tricks and escaping from a straitjacket.
For the artists, it’s a chance to showcase their work and network with their audience. And the foot traffic is significant: Anshutz estimates that, on a slow night, about 150 people come through his studio. Good nights, it can be into the thousands.
“It’s a great motivation to have work ready to take advantage of the First Friday scene,” says documentary photographer Jen May Pastores, who moved in last fall. “You start to see regulars coming by the First Friday events, and they love to see what you’re working on.”
Residents also are planning to open for the newly launched DiscoverArt event on second Saturdays in the coming months, and Richardson is in the process of developing another open-to-the-public event.
In this sense, one way to look at the Lofts is as a professional development tool for the resident artists. And that function applies internally as well, if on a more informal level.
Partly, it’s a bit of friendly competition — “you don’t want to be laying on the couch if your friend is making work,” Richardson says — but the other part is simply that collaboration and conversations about their work intertwines with residents’ daily lives.
When James Anshutz was beginning his Lemuria Project — an interactive photo series that depicts chronically ill children as characters they dream up — it became a Lofts-wide endeavor. West built the equipment, others helped with the soundtrack, another guided the kids in acting.
“(The project) wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t in a place like this,” Anshutz says. “Everybody really kind of hui-ed together on the project, which was amazing.”
While that level of collaboration doesn’t necessarily happen for all of the lofters’ projects, current residents do say that that type of support is the norm. In the evenings, the lanai overlooking the center courtyard becomes a gathering space where residents chat and swap ideas.
“Art can be a solitary thing, and so it helps to be in an environment where you can step out on your lanai and all of a sudden you’re having a conversation with three other artists,” Knoll says.
“It’s like having roommates/ siblings/friends living with you,” illustrator Kris Goto says.
“There are so many talented, hard-working and knowledgeable people in this building,” she continues. “It has definitely and positively impacted the making of my career as an artist … Especially when I (first) moved here and I was as clueless as a newborn lamb — it was definitely here at the Lofts I learned some of these essential survival skills as an artist.”
Goto explains that during her early days in the Lofts — she’s been there since 2010 — she’d often chat with her neighbors on the lanai, picking their brains, getting feedback. Over the years, though, Goto has gotten busier and busier with her artwork; she’s gone from interning at The ARTS at Marks Garage, then exhibiting her work there, and eventually becoming a full-time artist. She now often does not have the time for those lengthy lanai chats — “I find myself locked up in my studio lately due to having many deadlines,” she says — but then again, that is kind of the point of the space, to provide a boost in the residents’ careers.
Not surprisingly, Richardson, who is credited as being a significant driving force behind Chinatown’s growth over the years, sees the value of the Lofts also on a larger scale — as being part of the neighborhood’s overall revitalization.
“It has branding power for Chinatown as an arts hub,” Richardson explains. “If we are going to call it an ‘arts district,’ then it is very important that we have artists living here, not just having a cocktail there.
“There is something about having people live here that makes it a better-taken-care-of space … and I thought that was a very important leap.”
Chinatown Artists Lofts are located at the Mendonca Building on Hotel Street between Smith and Maunakea streets. Applications for new units currently are being accepted. Each unit is for a one-year lease. Units range from 400 to 700 square feet, and cost between $1,000 -$1,600 per month. For more information, visit chinatownartistslofts.com. To request an application, email email@example.com.