Sunshine Arts, with locations in the Kahalu’u section of Kaneohe and on the ground floor of the Waikiki Marriott, didn’t start out as a gallery representing the largest collection of Hawaii based artists in the world. No, it did not. Instead, according to Owner Jim Franklin, it started with a mat cutting machine, $20 and a borrowed credit card.
“I was playing guitar five days a week at Aloha Tower in the mid-90’s,” recalls Franklin. “One day I ran out of money, and my couch surfing friend Holly Kitaura, now an accomplished artist in her own right, asked me ‘What are you going to do?’ The next day she stuck a video camera in my face and asked me the same question. The next day I pulled an old mat cutting machine out of my closet, and started learning how to frame.”
“I started making phone calls to photographers. Within a short period of time I connected with a successful photographer in Portlock who provided me with $100-200 worth of work each day. That was enough to make it.”
In 1997, Franklin had the idea of starting a local artist “co-op”, and came across a 20,000 square foot warehouse in Kakaako. “I had this vision of supporting local artists by bringing them all together in one shared space,” Franklin says. “I put out this impassioned letter and I received a response from a successful local businessman, A.B. Makk. He told me that he owned a building in Kaneohe and offered space in the building to house my growing mat cutting business as well as start an art supply store and custom framing shop.”
Franklin, however, was a Waikiki guy and thought that the Kaneohe location was too far to operate a successful business. He said no. Makk was persistent. “Finally I told him that, if he paid me a salary and let me use the space that we would form a business partnership. And that’s how Sunshine Arts found its first home in 1997.”
“We started as Sunshine Arts and Gifts,” says Franklin. “The building at one time housed an art supply store. Within two years I was succeeding as a custom framing shop and I started to believe that I could grow the business. In 1999, I bought out the partnership from Makk, and changed the name to Sunshine Arts Hawaii. By 2004 I was able to buy the building.”
Franklin invited the local artists he had connected with as a custom framer and they began to come in and hang their art in our gallery. “And that’s how the gallery came to be.”
That’s been a great thing for the Hawaii art community and visitors from around the world who get to take home a piece of Hawaii to display it in their home as a happy memory of their vacation on the islands.
Soon after the gallery formed, Franklin needed to bring someone in to help with the retail side of the business. He reached out to a friend, Laetitia Atlantis, a free spirit who had lived all over the world. “I asked her to come help me for two weeks,” Franklin says. “That two weeks has turned into 20 years. Laetitia has become such an integral part of Sunshine Arts, that when I pass on, I’m passing on the business to her.”
In part due to Franklin’s confidence in Atlantis, Franklin was able to expand Sunshine to Waikiki. “I wanted to bring the works of these amazing artists right to the heart of the visitor market in Waikiki,” he says. “We opened our gallery in the Waikiki Marriott in June of last year and by September we were covering our costs. Visitors embraced our art immediately and we were very optimistic on the future.”
Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
“Now we’re not sure about the future of the Waikiki store. The Kaneohe store is supported by the local market. But with the visitor shutdown, we’ve had to operate our Waikiki store by appointment open. We’ll see what happens there.”
Both Sunshine Arts locations carry art that ranges from as little as $10 to over $10,000. “We have a huge variety of art mediums and prices. Everyone that visits our galleries falls in love with something,” says Franklin. “Some of our best customers are people who come in for a framing job and leave with their artwork framed and a piece of Hawaiian art that they just had to have. That’s why we do many of our framing jobs on the spot- so people have a little time to browse the gallery.”
Visitors who want to take home a piece of Hawaii should visit the Sunshine flagship location in Kaneohe or visit the website at sunshinearts.net. And for those taking a drive to or from the North Shore, take the time to stop in to their bright yellow and teal building. Thousands of visitors to Hawaii have been glad they did!