Filipino Futures

Leeroy New showcases his alien creations at Foster Botanical Garden for Hawai‘i Triennial 2022.

Text by
Kylie Yamauchi
Images by
Marie Eriel Hobro

Born and raised in Honolulu, artist John Koga freely admits that he and Kajsa Koga, his wife and longtime business partner, “didn’t know what we were doing” when they relocated to Hawai‘i Island’s quiet upcountry town of Waimea in 2019. Living first in a modest residential subdivision, they later moved 20 minutes away to a verdant ranch where only gentle mists impede the stunning mountain views.

“Something magical has happened,” Koga says, wearing board shorts and slippers as he gives a tour of the former stable stalls that now serve as his studio and unofficial gallery. “Likeminded hearts find each other,” he adds, in reference to the small group of artist friends he’s invited over this morning. “You can breathe and think clearly here.”

With soft-edged, abstract shapes and luminous, often pastel hues, several of Koga’s paintings in the repurposed stable resemble those from his 2021 solo exhibition at Halekulani, along with the four original oil paintings and two-story showpiece commissioned by the hotel, the latter of which is entitled “Halekulani” and spans the shared showcase wall of Orchids and La Mer. The titles of the four paintings intended for the hotel’s rooms and suites—“Dancing Spring,” “Heavenly Water,” “Land Sky Ocean,” and “Coral Blossom”—hint at the profound influence that Hawai‘i’s natural landscape has had on Koga’s imagery. “I often try to bring out the soul of the stone, the mountain, the cloud, the water, and that’s what I’m trying to convey to my audience,” he says.

In the gallery portion of his Waimea studio, one new canvas leaps out for its undulating ribbon of red across a black mountain with indigo sky, evocative of the flowing lava for which Hawai‘i Island is famed. Koga says he created a similar painting for the Halekulani show after witnessing the island’s largest brush fire, which consumed more than 40,000 acres of nearby ranchlands. “I was really moved by the fire, because at nighttime looking toward Maunakea, you couldn’t judge the distance,” he says.

Overall, the paintings’ elegant simplicity and inviting tones reflect the influence of his painting mentors, Harry Tsuchidana and the late Tadashi Sato, whose works have also been exhibited or collected by Halekulani. Koga speaks with gratitude about the opportunity to “hang out and have pupus” with these senior artists and his mentors in sculpture, Satoru Abe and Bumpei Akaji, who, like Koga, descended from Japanese immigrants who worked on Hawai‘i’s plantations. “They went into fine art when everyone else was becoming businessmen,” Koga says.

According to a 2001 profile in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, which described his early exhibitions of sexually charged carvings and scatological sculptures, Koga initially made a name for himself in Honolulu as an enfant terrible. “I tried to understand the game of art—and museums and auction houses and galleries, and the role they all played in the business of art—and I also tried to figure out for myself how you get known,” Koga explains, admitting he’d try to cause “enough trouble” to gain press. “I always pushed boundaries.”

By 2007, Koga’s austere stone sculptures had caught the eye of Ralph Pucci, whose galleries in New York, Los Angeles, and Miami also showcase luxury furniture and lighting. Although Ralph Pucci International began carrying Koga’s stoneworks, castworks, and bronzes, it wasn’t until 2018 that Pucci asked the artist to design his own line of furnishings: fluid, three-pronged chandeliers and minimalist, orb-topped floor lamps using Pucci’s proprietary plasterglass. “My gut instinct is he really wanted me to be known as a sculptor first,” Koga says. “Then, he let me cut loose.”

Koga credits the great Isamu Noguchi, “one of the people I’ve always studied and admired,” for inspiring this foray into furniture design. The influential American sculptor “was immersed in all the different parts of our creative process, whether it was working with Martha Graham in dance, or making sets, or doing huge installations—or, of course, furniture-making,” Koga explains. “Understanding that maybe not everyone can afford his sculptures, here’s something for the masses that he created for their physical living spaces.”

Koga’s sinuous lighting fixtures share kinship with his undulating, puzzle-piece-like sculptures, one of which stands gleaming in his Waimea studio as it awaits final touches. The local artists that Koga has invited on the tour—kapa maker Roen Hufford, weavers Lynn Martin Graton and Joan Namkoong, and lei maker Mary Sakamoto—seem equally intrigued by an egg-laying red hen in the artful chicken coop he built next door. In this new, rustic exhibition space, Koga looks forward to sharing his friends’ artworks, too.

“It’s just who I am as far as helping others, not only others in art, but the community as a whole,” says Koga, who also volunteers at the weekly community meals in Waimea. “When the heart and mind have the right intentions for the community, for our ‘āina (the land), and how we take care of each other, that for me is one of the most important parts of what I consider living.”