Born in Switzerland, trained in Africa and married to an Indian doctor he met on the Queen Mary while voyaging to New York, artist Sepp Koch seemed destined to become the kind of cosmopolitan artist whom Hawaii welcomed. He had a passion for Old World craftsmanship and a New Age appreciation for texture and materials, and spent nearly half a century creating beautiful pieces in his home studio.
But Koch might have been just a bit ahead of his time. He died two years ago this month, and his widow, Dr. Noni Koch, is determined to show off her husband’s creations. She has opened a private gallery in his honor on the second floor of 1227 Waimanu St., behind the KHON-TV studio near Ala Moana Center.
"I want the public to know about Sepp’s work, and also, I do it to keep myself sane!" laughed Noni Koch.
"He didn’t quite gain full recognition for his work," mused Ron Kent, another master woodworker. "Hawaii is quite a small market, and Sepp did things with such a broad range — wood, metal, painting, everything — that he didn’t get pigeonholed as one kind of artist. He executed them all wonderfully."
Koch’s work regularly shows up on online auction sites, going for hundreds of dollars.
Kent can actually pinpoint the date that wood-turning exploded as fine art. "It was 1983, when the Smithsonian showcased a collection of turned wooden works. Suddenly, wood was the thing. Nowadays the wood-turning scene is focused on creativity and gee-whiz works, but then, craftsmanship is what mattered, and Koch was a master."
Although Koch’s work began to be picked up and exhibited by state and local galleries, as well as a long-running display at Honolulu Airport, his wood-turning days were largely behind him when the scene got hot in the ’80s and ’90s.
He left behind hundreds of partially turned bowls, calabashes, dishes and other containers. "He collected everything," said Noni Koch. "We still have stumps in the yard from his wood collection. Me, I’m more like Gandhi — throw everything out!"
Koch has renovated and decorated a former office space to show off her husband’s work, even including a door carved for their son. Admission is by appointment at 222-2448. She is also selling off their huge collection of near-finished wooden pieces at reasonable prices — you can either finish it yourself or admire it as a work in progress, interrupted.