In May 2021, arts collaborative and boutique Ohanga opened at 225 Goddard Row in Newport, right off Thames Street, to much fanfare, with crowds gathering to enjoy live (and lively) music from Dan Blakeslee and to sample food, drink, and art. After the party, we chatted with Ohanga about who they are and what they’ll be up to in the city by the sea.

WUN: What is Ohanga about? Can you talk about the concept of “nest” as the name translates in terms of supporting local artists?

O: Ohanga was founded with a very simple mission: to support Creatives through the difficulties that their businesses have always faced that were even more exacerbated by COVID-19 with the closing of in-person events like art shows, markets, and galleries.

“Ohanga” means “nest” in Maori, the language of the ancient indigenous population of New Zealand, and we found it to represent the perfect intersection of two important elements. The first is the incredibly inspiring Maori traditions of storytelling, creative expression, and fierce protection of their culture – ideals that we strive to meet every day. The second is everything you think of when you imagine the word “nest”: a comfortable, supportive space where birds reside as they learn to spread their wings and fly.

That’s what we want to be. We want to provide artists, artisans, and makers with the resources they need to grow their brand and achieve a sustainable income – even if that means that they eventually fly away, because that’s the entire point. We want to support the artists that are having trouble! We can’t possibly support the entire artistic community in Rhode Island, so when artists feel like they can face the art market on their own again, they move on and leave space for someone else who needs our attention. Another nest association is the concept of being a business “incubator” for the “eggs” of these fledgling artists.

Artist Pia Hogue poses in front of one of her painted molted horseshoe crab pieces

WUN: What brought you to open your gallery/connection space Newport? What are some of your favorite things about the city?

O: Ohanga was founded in April of 2020, when in-person spaces were closing left and right due to the pandemic. Opening a physical store was unfathomable at the time, so we launched as an online company. Our founding team in those early stages was made up of mostly engineers and computer scientists, which represented the category that most creatives struggle with in their own one-man/woman business: technology.

But one of our mottos from the very beginning was “online connections for offline interactions.” We’re aware that people will always crave that in-person experience, despite more and more consumer behaviors moving online, particularly because of COVID. Although we started online, in the back of our minds we always knew that our mission to celebrate and support artists and makers was only achievable by bringing this community of creatives and supporters together into a common shared space. Our goal remains to manifest our same passion for storytelling and supporting the arts in person, right here in Newport. So that’s how we ended up with our fabulous space on Thames Street.

What we love most about Newport is the sense of community, despite the influx of seasonal tourists. We felt this most during our grand opening on May 15th—we couldn’t have done it without the support of the Brick Marketplace Board, and the lovely comments we received from our neighboring stores throughout the actual day of the event was absolutely heartwarming. Everyone knows everyone in Newport!

Additionally, we’ve been so excited to meet customers coming to Newport from all over America (and the summer hasn’t even started!). We can only imagine the kind of lively atmosphere and energy that permeates this seaside town during the hot months to come!

WUN: How do you connect with the artists whose work you show? How do you grow your community?

O: With the help of family, friends, and some early believers in the community, we were able to complete the recruitment of our first round of Creatives for our online market to launch in early November 2020. Since then, the community has started to grow organically through word-of-mouth, and we continue to be pleasantly surprised at how connected the Rhode Island community of artists, artisans, and makers is. It’s very rare for an applicant to not know anyone that is already an Ohanga Creative!

Artist Jennifer Pipe holds up one of her favorite watercolor prints

Once we accept a Creative into the community, we are continuously engaged with them. Not just throughout the creation of their profile and the curation of their products in our online and in-person market, but afterwards, too. Artists are involved in all of our various initiatives, from our magazine Etch to our seasonally themed gift boxes. We’ve also started doing Ohanga Live sessions – livestreaming Facebook videos where an Ohanga team or community member hosts a chat with another Ohanga creative on just about anything.

We’re especially excited to accept Creatives with new ideas for gift boxes, events, and partnerships—we love when creatives take initiative!

WUN: Ohanga has said it wants to be a place where people can come to learn about their local creative economy and engage with the makers of their community, and your website mentions that you plan to hold classes and events. What kind of events are you envisioning, and who will teach the classes?

O: Our grand opening event’s success made it obvious that people are just waiting for a reason to get back out there and support their local economy in-person. It has inspired us to organize more fun events with live music and catered food that will bring more attention to our fantastic community of creatives.

We also look forward to organizing classes and demonstrations right out of our space in

Newport or even within our artists’ studios. For example, Kelly Allen-Kujawski from Rarities Books and Binderies could hold book-binding classes, Robyn Bourgoin from An Inspired Outlet could show us how she builds her reclaimed wooden canvases, Dan Lake could teach a painting class, Shawn Boyle could lead a workshop in photoshop, and more! We’ve already started brainstorming a collaborative walking photo-tour of Newport with one of our photographers and a local tour guide, where guests would be led to scenic locations and taught photography tips and tricks to use on their personal cameras, all the while learning about the town’s history and important landmarks.

WUN: Those sound great! As for tangle items: what would be your dream item to carry that you don’t already (is there an artist you haven’t been able to connect with yet but adore)?

O: We’re so proud of the broad range of products we carry in the Ohanga Market; we really have everything from sweet and salty foods with long shelf lives to body products to home decor, clothing accessories, jewelry, functional art, fine art like sculptures and traditional paintings, and more. There are, however, a couple of areas that are a bit underrepresented, so we are currently hoping to receive more applications from woodworkers and ceramicists. We would also love to start exploring pet products, so that not just humans but also animals will soon find our space welcoming!

WUN: You mentioned having to open as an online store initially because of the pandemic. How are things going so far as a brick and mortar venture?

O: Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve recognized a strong and exciting momentum to support local economies. People want to buy from small neighboring businesses. What we suspected, however—and what the post-COVID reopening across Rhode Island and beyond is proving—is that the main obstacle is time. Most individuals care about the origin, quality, cost, and environmental impact of their shopping habits, but they’re simply too busy to explore their local creativity economy or to spend their weekends at art fairs and artisanal markets.

That’s why Ohanga has expanded from our first fine artist to now supporting maker businesses of all kinds, from food to functional art to visual art. The curated products both in the Ohanga Market online and at our in-person store at Newport exist within the Ohanga promise of being local, sustainable, and fair trade. We’re making it easy to live and love your local!

The Latest From WUN