HawaiÊ»i’s best-kept secret shouldn’t be its artists. GalleryHNL brings them out of hiding.

Standing in artist Theresa Heinrich’s workspace, which is just a wide corner on the second-floor, open-air hallway of University of HawaiÊ»i at Manoa’s Art Building, I hold a small ceramic piece shaped like a cocktail umbrella.

“I dip the actual umbrellas in ceramic slip, let them dry and then fire them in the kiln,” Heinrich tells me. “And all the paper matter inside burns out and leaves just the shell. Then I glaze them—basically putting a surface of glass around the outside and adding different color.”

There’s a plastic container filled with glossy ceramic cocktail umbrellas right next to us, and we are now surrounded by elements of Heinrich’s work—much of it gathered in containers, stacked on low shelves up against the hallway’s railing. We’re also being watched by an audience of ceramic heads decorated with colorful ceramic leaves and flowers and small birds on delicate branches.

“These are Styrofoam heads that have been dipped in slip, and then I dress them up,” Heinrich explains. “I call them reliquaries, because each one has a little nook that can hold something.”

Heinrich is a Bachelor of Fine Arts student scheduled to graduate from the university this spring, and one of just four artists whose work will be showcased in a new exhibition opening early May at the former Gentry Pacific Design Center on Nimitz Highway. The show is part of a recently formed partnership, entitled GalleryHNL, pairing UH Manoa’s Art Department with prominent HawaiÊ»i art collectors Mark and Carolyn Blackburn, and Honolulu-based architect and designer Sanford Hasegawa.

According to Gaye Chan, Art Department chair at UHM, GalleryHNL is a multi-focused effort to bring more attention to the university’s range of talented artists, not only including students, but also faculty and alumni.

“We have really amazing exhibitions here, but for whatever reason, people don’t seem to know about them,” Chan says. “Even people on campus aren’t always aware.”

Last year, Chan invited the Blackburns, who own Manu Antiques on South King Street in Honolulu, to visit the university’s annual exhibition for graduating Master of Fine Arts students.

“They came to see the show, and they were totally blown away by the quality,” Chan says. “They told me, ‘This is world-class work. Why didn’t we know about it?'”

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Mary Babcock's "Kalama 2" (detail) made of reclaimed nets and lines.

Chan described the Blackburns as art and culture philanthropists who are “smart, crazy intense, excitable people.” “They said, ‘We should do something together,'” Chan recalls. “And that’s how GalleryHNL was born.”

The new partnership not only will include future exhibitions around Honolulu, and possibly the state, for selected artists affiliated with UHM, but GalleryHNL also will offer them representation and introductions to the Blackburns’ extensive global art connections.

“Basically, we want the artists to stay in HawaiÊ»i, and we want to give them a chance to continue their work as a livelihood instead of doing other things to survive,” Chan says, adding that many UH Art Department graduates are forced to relocate because it’s such a challenge to make it in HawaiÊ»i as a contemporary artist.

For Heinrich, the upcoming GalleryHNL exhibition is exciting not only because it will be her first big show, but also because she believes that being a part of the new initiative gives her hope that she might be able to remain in the Islands after graduation. The difficult reality for so many HawaiÊ»i artists like Heinrich, who are creating thoughtful contemporary pieces today, is that there simply isn’t much of a local audience—and very few places to show their work.

“I’m back here on this little corner of the floor busily making things, but once I’m done, I don’t have anything to do with them,” she tells me. “I sometimes end up breaking them and recycling them, and maybe that’s one of the ways my pieces evolve. But I can only store so much sculpture in my home.”

During my Art Building visit, I also spoke with Tom Walker, a current MFA student at UH and another artist whose work was showcased in the premiere exhibition. We talked further about the authentic inspiration you’ll often find in the work of contemporary artists at the university.

“Nobody’s relying on clichés that have come before, or things from tourism marketing or stereotypes about what it’s like to live here,” he says. “I’ve never seen a dolphin. I’ve never been swimming with whales, and I’ve only seen a real pineapple growing outside like one time in my life. All these things that I’m supposed to be experiencing in Hawai’i, I don’t experience any of them.”

Speaking in front of one of his 8-foot-tall paintings loaded with vibrant color cascading in bold, regimented stripes, Walker told me his work had been inspired, in part, by a printer error that created long drags of color on a restaurant menu.

Beauty derived from non-traditional inspiration is, in fact, something that connects the work of all four artists in the upcoming GalleryHNL show. Mary Babcock, an associate professor of art at UH, creates stunning weavings made from ropes, nets and fishing line she’s found washed up on the beaches of O’ahu and along rivers in Oregon.

“Th ings we consider to be refuse are often beautiful materials,” she tells me. “We don’t have to look outside of our own garbage to find things we could bring back into our homes and our environments to create a sense of beauty.”

For Jonathan Swanz, a lecturer at UH, light’s properties, as either a particle or a wave, depending on the instruments you use to study it, inspired a gorgeous series of chaotically twisting glass sculptures.

“What is a viable subject for inspiration?” Chan asks me. “It doesn’t have to be a dolphin or the queen. It could be [what] your computer does when it’s not hooked up properly. Th at’s real, and that’s viable inspiration, [and] that’s beautiful.”

For more information, visit galleryhnl.com.

All photos courtesy GalleryHNL