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A few years ago, when Nori Sakamoto happened to see John Koga’s photo in the paper, he was surprised. He had known Koga as the friendly guy who often stopped into his restaurant Pioneer Saloon for a plate lunch. Sakamoto had figured that Koga was probably a construction worker, judging from the paint that seemed to always cake his hands, but the article detailed Koga’s extensive accomplishments as an artist.

It seemed like kismet. Sakamoto had been looking to expand his ventures as a restaurateur—this time, he conceptualized a coffee-shop-meets-art-gallery, but he wasn’t too well versed in the art world. So the next time Koga and his business partner, artist Lawrence Seward, stopped by Pioneer, Sakamoto pitched his idea.

That conversation grew into a partnership for ARS Cafe, which serves up coffee, tea, sandwiches, baked goods, gelato and more—and doubles as an art gallery. The wall of ARS’ main room plays host to rotating exhibits that Koga and Seward curate each month. Since its opening in 2015, ARS has featured work by various artists, many of them local, in a range of media, from paintings and drawings to mixed media installations, ceramics and photography.

“We don’t have many galleries in Hawai‘i,” says Sakamoto, adding that galleries may be intimidating for people outside of the art world. “And I wanted to create a place where everybody can come and enjoy art.”

Dreaming up innovative spaces to showcase art has been something that Koga has been doing throughout his career. During his two decades with The Contemporary Museum, Koga became known for his side project of putting on what he called onenighters: He’d create impromptu art galleries showcasing his work and that of other local artists in people’s homes, businesses on the brink of closing, and other unusual locations.

“If I had an opportunity to open a gallery or a space while I was working at the museum, I would do that, to do it my way,” Koga says. “I have dragged Lawrence into a lot of it where it is just a part of who we are now.”

“Sometimes reluctantly, I get dragged into it,” Seward adds. “But sometimes willingly. There have been some questionable ones, but (ARS) was a more good idea one.”

The pair runs a business installing high-end art for individuals and businesses, but their working relationship stretches all the way back to the mid-1980s, when they met as art students at University of Hawaii at Manoa.

“There was this one crazy guy always making incredible art, and that was Lawrence,” Koga recalls, sending both of them into a fit of laughter.

They bonded over their mutual passion, and perhaps, their strikingly similar trajectories: Both men have been creating art as long as they can remember—starting in their early childhoods with painting and drawing, or projects like carving a toy car out of wood. Th ey both entered UH thinking that they’d apply their artistic inclinations to architecture, or maybe design, something practical. But ultimately, both couldn’t shake the feeling that they wanted a greater deal of freedom in their work and chose to major in art.

After college, Seward headed to New York University for graduate school, later launching a career as a painter and sculptor in the city, while Koga went to become one of the most widely recognized sculptors in Hawai‘i.

They both have showcased their work extensively, but they readily admit that Hawai‘i is not the easiest place find career success as an artist. With a smaller market and a less active collector base, the local art scene is not as vibrant as in other, larger cities.

“In most towns, you have artists who are asked to donate an artwork to a fund-raiser or they are asked to put a piece in an exhibition,” Seward explains. “But in this town, the way we do it, we have to make the art, and we have to put on the fund-raiser, and we have to organize the space.”

With such a steep barrier to entry, it can be tough out there for up-and-comers to establish themselves. Th e gallery at ARS, they hope, can help to grow the local art world.

“If you don’t create your own thing, it is just not going to happen,” Seward says. “You can’t sit around [and] say ‘what is wrong with this place?’”

Moving forward, Koga and Seward hope to expand the gallery’s reach further, perhaps offering art classes after school, or hosting life drawing at night. Next up, ARS is planning a music month throughout April featuring various performers.

“We want to be able to support the next generation—it really just helps to stabilize and build the next layer of foundation for the future of the arts,” Koga says.

ARS Cafe is located at 3116 Monsarrat Ave. For more information on ARS and what’s to come at the gallery, visit ars-cafe.com.