It’s pouring in Honolulu, the kind of rain that can be heard from inside a bustling art gallery during a show. I’m hurrying through the downpour, avoiding giant puddles, when moments later, artist and curator Lisa Shiroma appears in a knee-length gray dress and tall black boots. Her hair is jet-black and is pulled back into a ponytail. Unlike the weather and the color palette of her attire, Shiroma’s demeanor is warm and bright. She opens the door of the Koa Gallery at the Kapi‘olani Community College campus and ushers me in.
The cozy gallery is on the first floor of the Koa Building, where KCC’s art department is located. Since it was built in 1980, many respectable artists have shown here—Keichi Kimura, Isami Doi, and Lucille Cooper, to name a few—who have paved the way for other local artists to gain recognition within the community. Shiroma, the gallery manager, gives me a tour of the space, where Mixed Media Miniature, an annual exhibition presenting the works of more than 150 artists of different mediums, is on display. Hanging in it are two paintings by Shiroma, one of Grumpy Cat, the Internet-famous feline whose pouty face garnered him millions of views, and another of Boo, the adorable Pomeranian dog with 19.3 million Facebook likes. “I think people are naturally drawn to animals because they have a special ability to make people feel comforted and unconditionally loved,” Shiroma says of her work. “In my paintings, I try to capture the twinkle in an animal’s eyes to make it look more lifelike. I think the eyes are the most important part of the painting, and I spend a lot of time trying to make them look right.”
Shiroma, who is in her mid-30s, calls herself something of a late bloomer. Although she won awards for her art as early as kindergarten, she didn’t realize her full potential until after she had already graduated with a bachelor of arts in psychology from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. “At the time, I was working with an autistic girl, always encouraging her to do art—sort of like the unfulfilled wishes of a parent,” she recalls. “But then I realized it was me who really wanted to do art.” She enrolled at Kapi‘olani Community College and began working as a lab assistant for the sculpture instructors. Shiroma had a knack for sculpture (Titty Bar, a bronze chocolate bar with boobs, was displayed in the Japanese Chamber of Commerce’s Commitment to Excellence exhibition), but it was painting that especially resonated with her. “It all started in 2012 in my last semester of school, when a friend suggested I paint a cat wearing an aloha shirt drinking a Mai Tai,” she says. “It was fun, so I painted another cat drinking a cosmopolitan. I’ve been painting animals ever since.”
In addition to being the gallery manager, Shiroma is also an art teacher at Kuhio Elementary, a part-time instructor at the Honolulu Museum of Art, and does small-scale metal casting in silver and bronze for local jewelry designer Andromeda Hendricks. Since curating her first show in 2012, when Koa Gallery director David Behlke asked her to pool a few students to present at KCC’s 220 Grille, Shiroma has organized shows in such places as Kissaten Coffee Bar, W Bistro (now closed), and UH’s sculpture courtyard. “Introducing the artists to each other at the opening receptions was like the icing on the cake,” she says. “The artists, who would isolate themselves and work all the time, had a chance to show the fruits of their labor and get validation from their peers.”