The Artists' Way
• Photo gallery: The artist's way
By Paula Rath
Advertiser Staff Writer
Choosing life as an artist is not easy, especially in high-rent Hawai'i. But two gifted artists who recently arrived in Honolulu are ready to give it a go.
Equipped with talent and passion, Amber Chesebro, 26, and Sean Gallagher, 38, are testing the Islands' ability to support young, creative types as they seek to start up a career.
Neither artist has a business background, but they do have lauded portfolios and degrees from a nationally renowned art school to back them up.
For now, they each have day jobs that support buying materials and paying rent. They're preparing to hold their first art and jewelry show to launch their careers locally.
FROM RHODE ISLAND TO HONOLULU
Chesebro and Gallagher met two years ago while in graduate school at the Rhode Island School of Design, arguably one of the best — and most demanding — art schools in the nation. She received her master of fine arts in jewelry design, he in ceramics with an emphasis in glass. She is originally from Maine, he's from Miami.
There were philosophical discussions about what to do next. Gallagher initially saw himself moving to New York, "like every other RISD graduate who wants to make art."
Chesebro had always dreamed of living in a tropical climate.
Eventually, Honolulu won out as a post-grad destination.
Chesebro got off the plane in Honolulu in October, carrying only a comforter and whatever she could fit in a backpack. Her biggest advantage: She already had a job waiting for her, as a bench jeweler for Catherine Weitzman, a nationally respected jewelry designer who works and resides in Honolulu and New York.
Weitzman had hired Chesebro after an interview in New York.
"We immediately knew she was right for our studio," Weitzman said. "Although moving to Hawai'i can be challenging, she seemed as optimistic and adventurous as my husband and I were when we moved to Hawai'i.
"Amber's ability to work at the pace of our studio, which for better or worse is much more similar to the pace of a Mainland business, seemed obvious. Also, we loved her portfolio and we shared a similar appreciation for natural and organic visual forms. We have had enough people move to Hawai'i to work for us to know almost immediately if they will gel with the other people in our studio."
Gallagher arrived in December, not knowing what he might do but counting on his credentials and prodigious energy to carry him through. One week after arriving on O'ahu, he landed a job in a glass studio.
Ceramics and glass require a great deal of material and equipment, so Gallagher accepted his pay in glass, an oxygen generator, a diamond saw and glass-cutting tools. This enabled him to set up a working studio.
He then got another job, teaching ceramics to fifth- and sixth-graders at the Academy Art Center at Linekona. While the glass job was short-lived, the teaching job will continue into the fall, when he will teach ceramics to high school students.
As luck would have it, Leeward Community College just happened to have two extra kilns, so Gallagher picked them up and began using them for his experimental art.
LIVING THE DREAM
Through RISD friends, Chesebro and Gallagher found an idyllic cottage with open space. They arranged to farm its terraced land in return for a reduction in rent.
Chesebro and Gallagher put their backs into the project, growing a prodigious crop of fruits and vegetables. This includes starfruit, watermelon, cantaloupe, liliko'i, lychee, mountain apple, three types of potatoes, taro, tapioca, cashews, noni, papaya, and even artichokes. They are cultivating a "salsa garden" with several types of tomatoes and six varieties of chili peppers.
They are beekeeping, producing 20 to 40 pounds of honey every six weeks. They even have chickens that lay eggs and a puppy, an adorable poi dog named Nalu who's smart enough to leave the chickens alone. The wild boars that sometimes roam disturbingly nearby are viewed simply as an exotic addition to the bucolic setting.
"We never grew anything before; it's all trial and error," Gallagher explained. "But, hey, we're starving artists, so the more we grow, the better we eat."
Gallagher laughs about how he pictured Honolulu before arriving here. "It shocked me. I didn't know there was a giant metropolis. I thought it was all like the North Shore."
Chesebro added, "Everyone pictures beaches and palm trees and not homeless people and traffic."
Having settled in so happily, however, she said now she can't imagine leaving.
"We're getting close to feeling settled in and setting up our studios," Gallagher said. "We're pretty much dialed in and can enjoy the business opportunities here, as well as the life."
THE BUSINESS OF ART
The business of art in Honolulu can be quite different from that in New York or Los Angeles.
Sculptor Bud Spindt, a Windward-side artist who works in glass, comments, "Honolulu, from a business standpoint, is a more difficult place to be. The market is in New York, but it's highly competitive there.
"You have to approach it from the mindset 'I'm going to make art as a business and I'm going to find a way to have it pay off so I can keep making art.' "
Spindt considers quality of life to be critical: "That's why I'm here and work in Hawai'i. Maybe I could be making a better living somewhere else, but I enjoy living here so much and the people and making art here, so I'm willing to stick it out."
The demographics of Honolulu can also affect business patterns. Many young creatives leave the Islands for college or in the post-college years to pursue education and experience. Chesebro and Gallagher chose a reverse path.
Jewelry designer Weitzman, who started the business in San Francisco before establishing herself in Honolulu, said moving to the Islands was a shock.
"In San Francisco, there is no shortage of creative, entrepreneurial, motivated, somewhat overeducated and underemployed young people," she said. "In Hawai'i, many of those kinds of young people move to places like San Francisco for greater opportunity. We did not fully appreciate how much we needed to adapt our business — product design, manufacturing, etc. — to make it happen in Honolulu.
"For the first couple years, it was extremely difficult running a studio/business, but extremely inspiring in terms of developing new art based on the outrageous beauty of the natural surroundings."
Weitzman offered aspiring Hawai'i artists this advice: "On an art level, be original. The location is so sacred and fantastic, there is no shortage of inspiration, so no need to get preoccupied with the work of other local designers to get your ideas. On a business level, right now is kind of an exciting time for young designers because online sales are really becoming increasingly important. ...
"The good news is you don't have to travel so much to L.A., Vegas or (New York City) to exhibit your work to buyers. If you can establish a Web presence with your work (which we are currently trying to do), there is less of a need to rely on the antiquated trade show model to sell it."
Chesebro and Gallagher expect to set up Web sites but do not have the funds right now. They are, instead, relying on gallery shows (see box on D1) and www.coroflot.com (click on "portfolios," then search for "Chesebro").
Scaling down from installation pieces to small pieces such as jewelry can be an easier path for Island artists. That's what Gallagher is doing as he segues from life-size installation art to artful jewelry.
He is also creating unique piercing jewelry out of his porcelain pieces, a new niche for the Islands.
While Chesebro took the straight path to RISD, graduating from high school and the University of Rhode Island and going straight to graduate school, Gallagher's path has been a bit more winding.
A surfer since the age of 12, he took a train from Miami to San Diego after high school to check out the surf in California. He then hitchhiked to Los Angeles, thinking he would spend a little time there, then head up to San Francisco. A little time turned into 12 years. "I was living on a sailboat, which I loved, and I'm dying to get back to that lifestyle. Just dying," he said wistfully.
In L.A. he did faux finishing and refurbishing of vintage furniture for high-end Hollywood folks. He also tried to write several books — but never finished any of them. "That's why I decided to go back to school at age 30," he said.
Chesebro grew up in a family of artists. Her father is a painter and her four siblings are all involved in art. However, she is the only sibling trying to make a living at it. "No matter where you are, you can make a living at art if you're passionate and willing to work hard," she said.
Gallagher added in the same breath: "So why suffer and live somewhere you don't want to live?"
Chesebro and Gallagher met in the halls at RISD. The ceramics and jewelry departments are in the same building. Chesebro said she had an eye on Gallagher: "He was working harder than anyone there. He was on a mission and so driven I didn't even want to interrupt him to say 'Hi.' "
"Nothing could distract me from grad school," Gallagher said. "It was 100 percent work."
She even tried to meet him by taking a jujitsu class he taught. It wasn't her thing, so she finally got up the nerve to talk to him in the hallway. They hit it off right away.
ROOTS AND SHOOTS
While both Chesebro and Gallagher are creating jewelry, their artistic roots and materials differ. Gallagher's preference is to work with large installation pieces, while Chesebro enjoys the intimacy of jewelry.
Gallagher is predominately an installation artist. His graduate work, porcelain "carpets," won a national ceramics award. He is now experimenting with clay from O'ahu riverbeds, melting it at different temperatures to see how its form and texture are altered with varying temperatures. Three sculptures created with these experimental materials are on view in the Peggy Chun Gallery.
Some of his current jewelry has its basis in his fascination with old pane glass windows, and experiments with devitrification — altering the glass under high heat and pressure.
"I went to contractors who were renovating homes and they would have Dumpsters full of windows," he explained. He collected the windows and experimented with them.
"One broke, and I realized how beautiful they were inside," he said. He can sculpt approximately 1,000 jewelry pieces from a block of devitrified glass.
Always pushing his materials beyond their normal use, Gallagher started making small porcelain quills during graduate school. Chesebro taught him how to turn them into jewelry, such as pendants and earrings. Now the porcelain quills are a signature design for Gallagher.
Growing up in a fishing village on the coast of Maine, Chesebro has always been inspired by the ocean. Living on the Pacific, she anticipates her palette and her style will become more tropical. She has begun collecting shells and beach glass and plans to incorporate them into her pieces.
Chesebro's current signature pieces, her sea urchin earrings, are made of oxidized brass.
Class projects at RISD included intriguing — and labor-intensive — pieces such as a "Crustacean" bracelet made of enameled copper and silver, a complicated "Vertebrate" necklace painstakingly sculpted from sheets of silver and a "Lotus Leaf" silver brooch with little pearls moving about in the pukas. She would love to find a way to make them part of her line, but would have to streamline her processes.
Robin Quigley, RISD department head and professor of jewelry and metal smithing, said she's not surprised that Chesebro chose Honolulu as a place to launch her career.
"I got the feeling she was ready for another experience outside of Rhode Island," Quigley said, adding, "Amber has been a beachcomber in Rhode Island, and now she's a beachcomber in Hawai'i. She's very connected with the sea."
Quigley is confident that Chesebro will find her way as a jewelry designer. "She always had her eye on functional jewelry," Quigley said. "She is a hard worker, and she is seriously invested in making her education work for her."
For these two recent graduates, art is what it's all about.
"You're either gonna get, like, an average job or get super-lucky and get a teaching position and start an art business," Gallagher said, "or you're gonna do what half the people who graduate from RISD do — something completely different from art. So many people graduate and then never do art, essentially, again."
This talented couple hopes to keep art in the picture.