Point of View
Artist Geoff Lee: making a living doing what he loves.
If your Christmas collection happens to include one of Geoff Lee’s gorgeous blown glass ornaments, you might want to hang it particularly high in the tree this year, away from grabby hands and swishing dog tails. Oh, and wrap a bit more bubble wrap around it when you take down the tree. In Christmases yet to come, your ornament will be a piece from his early years, before he blazed a new trail in custom lighting and etched his personal mark in the 2,000-year-old craft. Don’t worry, though. He’ll always be a Kailua boy, doing what he loves right here at home, finding inspiration in sunrises over Kailua Beach and the ‘Alae ‘Ula that wander into his shop along the marsh and squawk at him while he works.
I caught up with Lee one Thursday afternoon in town, at the new Lanikai Juice in Kaka‘ako, where we rendezvoused after he caught a few midday waves at Kewalo. He’s the guy you like right away: casual in board shorts and slippers, intricate tattoos peeping out from underneath his T-shirt, oozing passion for things he loves. Get him talking shop, and his eyes light up like a teenager in love. Ask him about his family—his parents, his wife and his four-year-old son, Sage—and that teenage love morphs into a deep sense of purpose and place.
“When I first started out, my will to succeed was driven by my ego. Now it’s driven by my desire to provide,” he tells me.
Lee’s story of starting out is an inspiring one, especially for artists and those who look to make a living doing what they love. He first discovered blowing glass in high school at Punahou, where, to his surprise, he realized he was rather good.
“It was a huge confidence builder for me,” he says, recalling how he and his buddies became known as the “glass guys” around campus. When college loomed, he followed his dream to the mainland, eventually earning a B.F.A. in glass blowing from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
A 21-year-old Hawai‘i boy with big dreams, Lee learned from the masters, first apprenticing with the greats in Seattle, in a studio where glass greats like Dale Chihuly worked.
“The dream studio guys did big and colorful pieces that sold for thousands of dollars, and they drove big, fancy cars, but I knew it didn’t really happen that way,” he says.
For a time, however, he got to breathe their air, learn from them and discover what might be possible. From there, he went on to Ohio to work as a journeyman in a small studio making glass fruits and vegetables to sell in craft fairs and boutiques.
Watching his parents begin to age, Lee came home to get his Masters at the University of Hawai‘i, studying under his mentor, Rick Mills. It didn’t take long for his Hawai‘i community to rally around him, turning his dream into reality.
“I knew I had three choices: open my own studio here, go back to the mainland or quit blowing glass.” With the help and support of his community, only one option made sense.
Lee chose Kailua for his studio back in the early 2000s, just as the building boom took off and before the Great Recession began.
“I remember going to Kailua Beach with my mom, how much she loved it. Then we’d go to Island Snow for shave ice. We even rented kayaks from Twogood and went out to The Mokes.” Lee may have grown up in Hawaii Kai, but Kailua felt like home.
In his new studio, with a lease from Kaneohe Ranch and monthly payments looming, Lee made it work. Throughout the rest of the year, he taught classes, made ornaments every Christmas, made vases, glasses, paper weights and other works. Thus, he also found a niche in the business community of Kailua. He laughs, talking about the bumps along the way—particularly the monthly HECO bill. For a glass studio, the furnace is what it’s all about, and firing it up doesn’t come cheap.
“I remember leaving the HECO bill on my desk for days, just moving it around, before I’d get the courage to open it.”
Upon turning 40, Lee set sights on his next challenge. “I’ve loved making approachable work, pieces that aren’t snobby, work that people can love,” he says. “And I’ve discovered I love the challenge of the business side, too.”
Lee sees his next chapter as keeping up with the growth and changes he sees in Kailua. What started as a grimy artist studio is being transformed into a working gallery; “I’m just making it sparkle,” he says.
His new work focuses entirely on custom lighting, “accessorizing your kitchen,” he calls it. His new venture, ‘A‘a, promises to introduce custom lighting lines for homes around the world, inspired by the colors and lifestyle of Hawai‘i.
“Lights are what I do best,” he tells me, “and it gives me the opportunity to work with someone who might not buy art regularly, but who wants something unique.”
While the furnace is shut down this fall, Lee and his new business partner, Isaac Berg, are feverishly working against a year-end deadline to have the new studio spit-polished, the 2015 catalog published and a website up and running.
“I probably won’t get to do much more surfing at noon on Thursdays,” he concedes.
As for what inspires Lee, that hasn’t changed. “My parents are proud of me, I think, and that feels good. They always told me that if you can make a living doing what you love, you don’t need much else.”
GEOFF LEE ‘A‘A HAWAII | 171-A HAMAKUA DRIVE
263-4527 | AA-HAWAII.COM