By Léo Azambuja
Kela’s Glass Gallery in Old Kapa‘a Town is probably the closest you could get to being inside a kaleidoscope. As you look around the gallery’s large collection, the unique and stunning pieces of glass art seem to create ever-changing patterns.
The largest glass gallery in the state of Hawai‘i, Kela’s represents about 140 glass artists, and 15 of them are from the Islands. Everything in the store is made in the U.S.
“We represent American and local artists only,” said Ken Ishii, who owns the gallery along with his wife, Mimi Ishii. “All the pieces here have at least some element of glass, and they are all handmade.”
A glass artist herself, Mimi makes one of the most unique glass jewelry in the world. Utilizing dichroic glass, originally developed by NASA, Mimi’s earrings and necklace pendants change color constantly. Depending on the background, orange turns into blue, purple turns into green, and green turns into pink.
“She is the only in the U.S., and probably in the world, who makes this jewelry,” Ken said of Mimi’s art pieces, adding her jewelry is extremely popular. “This line is our best line, this is what we are known for.”
There is something for everyone at Kela’s. The most affordable pieces at the gallery are from a different line of earrings also created by Mimi. Tiny colorful glass earrings, which look bigger than they are due to their striking pearlized interior, sell for as little as $17. But even the most expensive piece of art, a five-foot-tall mouth-blown glass jar, is not out of reach at $4,750. In between those prices, hundreds of art pieces, some purely for form, others for both form and function, are displayed at Kela’s.
Many artists, especially local ones, have an important venue at Kela’s to sell their pieces. But unlike most galleries, Kela’s does not do consignment. They buy the pieces directly from artists.
“We treat the artists with respect,” Ken said. “We pay upfront. We take our risk to buy and pay even if it doesn’t sell. That really helps the artists.”
One of Kela’s formulas for success is finding young artists and promoting them. And the gallery also represent many established artists.
Another success formula is the relationship with their customers. Kela’s has been operating for 20 years, and many of their repeated customers started buying from the gallery more than 15 years ago. During the holiday season, former customers usually click on Kela’s website and make online purchases. The gallery then takes it up a notch and does special packaging and even sends greeting cards.
Shipping a glass piece of art is no easy task. Imagine a glass octopus shipped to Russia, one of many exotic destinations for Kela’s glass artwork. Ken said he perfected the packaging to a point that you could punch a cardboard box, and the glass wouldn’t break. Part of the secret is layering the cardboard boxes.
Many customers get worried about the shipping, but when they receive their packages they usually reply with an email thanking the gallery. Mimi said some happy customers even take pictures of the art pieces, where they set them, and email the pictures to the gallery.
It’s the personal connection, Mimi said, with both the customers and the artists that really helped the gallery to stay in business all these years.
A little over a year ago, Kela’s moved from its original spot a block away to its current location, in the corner lot next to Kapa‘a Beach Park. They bought the empty lot and built their new store there.
“It made Kapa‘a a little bigger,” said Ken, smiling.
Find Kela’s Glass Gallery at 4-1400 Kuhio Hwy. Visit www.glass-art.com or call (808) 822-4527 for more information.