John Koga's childhood home is a study in sudden inspiration. The painting in the background is by one of Koga's mentors, Satoru Abe. On the dining table are Koga's pieces, including a work in masking tape.

Art Sense

John Koga creates with anything
from marshmallows to shrink wrap

Children are usually heirs to family treasures, but in John Koga's case -- space being limited in the two-bedroom Makiki home he shares with wife Karin, daughter Maile and son Marc -- his parents are the beneficiaries of his creative endeavors. Their home, like Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, is a wonderland of life-size foam-and-clay sculptures and wood carvings, plus tabletop forms, paintings, ceramics and the oddity or two.

Award Winners

Winners of "Commitment to Excellence" awards:

Servco Excellence Award

"Blind Poems II," oil on can, by Kloe Kang

Newcomer award

"Talking Thru a Moss Description," handmade paper/wire, by Shannon Hiramoto


» First place: "O'io'ina (A Resting Place)," handmade paper/plants, by Martina Roblin Neveu
» Second place: "Cotton #1," fiber paper, by Rujunko Pugh
» Third place: "Shut Your Eyes and See," mixed media, by Renee Iijima
» Honorable mention: "You've Got Mail," watercolor, by Dave Devenot


» First place: "Tumbleweed," fiber, by Pat Hickman
» Second place: "Big Five," bronze/steel, by Mat Kubo
» Third place: "Graceful Joinery," eucalyptus/cedar/mano, by Anson Chang
» Honorable mention: "Can't See the Trees for the Forest," stoneware, by Kenny Kicklighter

What can one say about a jelly jar filled with a trio of marshmallows poked through with needles?

I said, "Oh look, they're nice and toasted, too."

He said, "Oh no, that's mold."

It's all art to Koga, who needs no paint nor clay nor fancy tools to indulge his creative whims. He is one of the few artists able to move as easily from paint to clay to wood carving as from masking tape to shrink wrap.

Koga is one of the featured artists in the Honolulu Japanese Chamber of Commerce's 27th annual "Commitment to Excellence" Art Exhibition at Linekona School, featuring works by 67 artists, including a who's-who of invited artists, and honoring the late Tadashi Sato. Koga is showing two large sculptures, "Sugar" and "Within" -- the former of plaster, which has been sold for $3,000, and the latter of wood and bronze -- that demonstrate his work at its most formal and monumental.

On the flip side are works of humbler origins, such as the marshmallows, that reflect personal flights of fantasy. He really needs no gallery audience to motivate him to create.

Pulling out something from under a table that looks like dried gourd, he splits it open to reveal something that looks organic, like the inside of a dried pineapple or breadfruit.

"I did this while I was watching TV," he said of what turns out to be a tree branch wrapped with layer upon layer of masking tape. "It turned out so beautiful."

There's a childlike sense of wonder in his approach to materials that comes naturally to Koga, who grew up surrounded by art made by relatives who used materials at hand. His grandfather was a woodcarver who created foot-and-a-half-tall kokeshi dolls and cranes. The carvings were inspirations for two of Koga's earliest grade-school woodcarvings, a smooth, graceful swanlike creature and wooden totem with a doll's face.

Koga also had an aunt who painted in oils, and another who carved faces out of avocado pits, a medium Koga also employs from time to time.

Some of his grandfather's birds were carved from driftwood, and the notion of unleashing the potential lurking within found objects continues to drive Koga.

"I play a game with my kids called Shapes, and it'll start with a quick drawing of an organic shape, and we have to try to make something out of it, trying to see what you can pull out of it. Everything has potential."

His wood carvings give life to lychee, mango and Norfolk pines that have fallen or been cleared from property. "I don't go cutting down trees. I guess I've convinced myself that I'm actually saving their lives by giving them a second chance."

His sculptures, "Sugar..."

LIKE MOST Hawaii artists, Koga doesn't have the luxury of working on his art full time, fitting his art-making activities in with work and family responsibilities.

For 14 years he's been the chief preparator at the Contemporary Museum, where he stages exhibitions. Before that he worked for the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts.

His bill-paying jobs have been eye-openers into the business side of art, and he says he might have quit creating if not for his cheerleaders, including his family, artists Satoru Abe, Sean Browne, Sanit Khewhok, Fred Roster and Fine Arts Associates' Greg Northrup.

"It's so easy to stop, and when you work in the art world, you see the business side and the reality of putting on a show. I think it can be discouraging," he said. "But then I'll be doodling and an idea comes in, and I just keep going.

"Having a creative spirit, I think we're all born with that, and there are moments when you get an idea -- whether it's in writing or in dance -- and it's a guiding spirit. It might be there for just a moment and it's gone, but it's something that continues to energize you and allows you to continue what you do. It's the key to living creatively; it's the spark of life."

When inspiration hits, he'll often grab the closest model -- himself.

"I use me because it's safe," he said.

He's produced photographs of his finger, a smiling face drawn on the nail, rising above a bloodied cut. Once he tied his finger, cutting off circulation until it turned purple so he could photograph that.

He's had friends wrap him in shrink wrap and clear plastic tape for a life-size sculpture.

"It was a 3 1/2-hour process, and I was sweating because my skin wasn't breathing, and in the end they cut me out."

Shades of Houdini! But was there a Plan B, if Plan A went awry?

"We didn't think about that," he said.

He's also in the process of making sculptures of beeswax, using his face as the model "as a funny play on ego.

"I always want to have a good laugh in the end. Like most of my work, it always ends with a good laugh. If I'm not having fun with my pieces, I won't finish it."

But behind the laughter is serious thought. Those familiar with his work often note a fascination with a certain male appendage and female breasts. Among the works on display at his mother's house is a sculpture encircled by breasts that he calls "Life Fountain."

"It's a funny play on our culture. My kids were breast-fed for a long time, which I think is important for their health and well-being. It's one of our basic needs, but it's now a symbol of full sexuality. It's part of life and should not be so taboo."

...and "Within," are part of the "Commitment to Excellence" exhibition.

KOGA HAS BEEN known to stage impromptu one-man shows whenever inspiration hits or when his works demand to be shown, and as Honolulu's art scene continues to grow, he would like to bring in mainland artists to start dialogues here, plugging the local art scene into the national circuit.

"I'd like to make Hawaii into a better art scene in all creative areas. Any time we can talk about art and a creative way of living, it adds to the richness of the community. It's just continuing the legacy that (artists) Tadashi (Sato) and (Satoru) Abe created for us.

"They didn't have anything when they started, and they certainly worked hard to lay a foundation, so we could do what we're doing now with more freedom. Those guys, they all gave back, and it's so important.

"Artists need to work together to make the big scene happen. You can see that now in Kailua and downtown. It's all there, and I'd like to help out where I can help out."

The shadow of the John Koga and some of his pieces fall onto a garage wall.

"Blind Poems II," an oil on canvas by Kloe Kang, won the Servco Award of Excellence.

| | |
E-mail to Features Desk


© Honolulu Star-Bulletin -- https://archives.starbulletin.com