This Local Woman Has Been Taking Classes at the Honolulu Museum of Art for 60 Years

A drawing class in 1957 led McKinley High School student Carolyn Dilag Nakagawa to become a lifelong learner at the Honolulu Museum of Art.

Editor’s Note: Through our partnership with the Honolulu Museum of Art, HONOLULU Magazine publishes a monthly blog written by Lesa Griffith, the museum’s communications director and a talented Hawai‘i writer on arts, culture and food. This piece is written by the museum’s web project manager and content coordinator, Adele Balderston.

  Carolyn Dilag Nakagawa

McKinley High School student Carolyn Dilag, right, dips her toes in the pond at the Honolulu Museum of Art’s Chinese Courtyard. Dilag was taking part in a sketching session for her first drawing class at the museum in 1957.
Photo: Courtesy of Honolulu Museum of Art/Raymond M. Sato


The Honolulu Museum of Art’s archive is chock-full of photos of events and people at the museum from the past 90 years. They include shots of art classes, like this one of 16-year-old Carolyn Dilag Nakagawa in a beginner drawing course in 1957. She took the class on a lark during the summer before her senior year at McKinley High School.


Museum graphic designer Sarah Smith used the image in the museum’s spring 2018 course catalog because she thought it was a great shot. What she didn’t realize is that Nakagawa is still taking classes at the museum, 60 years later.


A few days after the new catalogs went out in the mail, Sogetsu Ikebana instructor Bertha Tottori paid Smith a visit. “She came in with a catalog and a handwritten note from the student!” says Smith. “It was so sweet—Carolyn wrote that she and her children saw it and they were so excited. She was just so happy to revisit the memory of her younger days, drawing in the museum.”

  Carolyn Dilag Nakagawa

Carolyn Dilag Nakagawa today, back in the museum’s Chinese Courtyard.
Photo: Courtesy of Honolulu Museum of Art/Adele Balderston


Nakagawa said that when she saw the catalog, she instantly recognized the photograph. “Sixty years ago, it was a different era,” says the mother of five and grandmother of 10, looking over the top of stylish fuchsia-colored glasses. “There were only maybe half a dozen in the class—not more than that because it wasn’t something that was really advertised. That was the beginning of my journey, without knowing it would continue.”


Since then, Nakagawa has steadily worked her way through the course catalog, from sculpture with Rochelle Lum to painting with Anthony Lee to the ikebana class she just finished. “Name it, I’ve taken it,” she says. Out of all the courses she’s completed, Nakagawa says her favorite was Sparking Your Creativity, a drawing and painting class taught by Tamara Moan. “That one was inspiring because the lesson was that no matter what level you are at, when you think of art, it’s an appreciation of what you can do,” she explains.


What keeps her enrolled at the museum’s art school? “There’s no place else that’s inspiring for me,” she says. “The people who take these classes, they’re serious about learning something—they’re not just run-of-the-mill. And the people who teach the classes, they really get passionate about what they do.”


If anyone is a testament to the inspirational, rejuvenating powers of art, it is energetic, ageless Nakagawa, who hands out little cards sporting affirmations such as “Dance like no one is watching,” accompanied by her lively illustrations. “I don’t know if I’m 77, 17 or 7!” she laughs. And when asked where she gets her verve, she replies, “Every single day my mantra is ‘Draw, paint, read, nap.’”


Spring adult classes begin Jan. 22. Browse course offerings and register online.



Lesa GriffithLesa Griffith is director of communications at the Honolulu Museum of Art. Born in Honolulu, one of her early seminal art experiences was at the Honolulu Museum of Art, when on a field trip her high school art history teacher pointed out that the ermine cape in Whistler’s Portrait of Lady Meux was not just a cape—it was visual signage leading viewers’ eyes through the painting.