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The Centenarian Headline

The 102-year-old reflects on art and teaching others to find joy in creating.

Esther Nowell

→ By Martha Cheng


“Save the light,” says Esther Nowell, the 102-year-old instructor of a watercolor class at the Downtown Art Center. “You need some lights, you need some darks. Use your imagination—what does it need? Try it all, that’s my motto.” Her students paint the sky and sea—though it’s clear that the class is not the main focus for everyone. Some students don’t want to just learn about the magic of paint and water. They want to understand the magic of Nowell herself.


“Thank you for being an inspiration of teaching when old,” says a faculty member at Hawai‘i Pacific University, sitting in the front row. After the session, students ask her to sign their paintings or stay behind to help her carry supplies. Maybe the secret to a long life is the closeness of other people, including students like Sarah Chinen, who took her ceramics class six years ago and says Nowell inspired her “to whimsy.” She now helps chauffeur Nowell. Another friend, Alana Burrows, has known Nowell for decades. “She lost her house and she came to live with me,” Nowell says. “At first I was doing something for her. Now she’s doing everything for me. She helps me take a shower. She feeds me, does all the shopping. I’m so fortunate to have her.”

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Photos: Aaron K. Yoshino
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“I have a nice peaceful life.”

According to “The Story of Esther,” a hand-drawn booklet that Nowell put together, she was born in Ohio in 1920 to Jessie, an osteopath, and Solomon, a farmer. They moved to Hawai‘i when Nowell was 18 months old. She took art classes beginning at age 6 and she’s been teaching art for so long she says she’s forgotten when she started. “I believe everyone is an artist,” she says. “I enjoy helping my students find joy in their art.”


Not a lot troubles her these days. “I have a nice peaceful life,” Nowell says. “I’m upset with the condition of the world, the politics and the greed and the self-interest, but I don’t let it overtake me.” In lieu of the news, she watches Wheel of Fortune.


“Any regrets?” I ask.


“I wish I’d been nicer to my mother-in-law. I was awful.”


“What’s your other regret?” Chinen says. “You always tell me, ‘My only regret …’”


“It’s too personal.”


For today, she will save the dark for herself and share the light.

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