On a recent afternoon, we stopped by Janell Nakahara’s “Philosophy and Art” class, part of the museum’s Art to Go outreach program. “Philosophy and Art” is a pilot program for a group of children from Ala Wai Elementary School, selected because of their need for a boost in self-esteem. Nakahara works with the students to help them express themselves through art.

We asked Nakahara, who has been teaching at the art school for seven years and is now an outreach program manager, to tell us about her background and what inspires her to teach.

Where are you from?
I was born in Honolulu and raised in beautiful Mānoa Valley. I attended Mānoa Elementary School, Mid-Pacific Institute, and the University of Hawai‘i–Mānoa, where I majored in art history with a minor in English.

How did you become interested in art?
I remember being a shy, little girl in the third grade, sitting in my little chair at school, when all of a sudden I heard my teacher talk about archaeology. That was it! From that moment on I knew I wanted to be an archaeologist. There was just something about unearthing a piece of history, learning about a past civilization through artifacts that has fascinated me all my life. Forever wanting to be an archaeologist was not the only thing that inspired me to learn more about art, but it was also thanks to another event in third grade that got me even more interested in art. Getting a ribbon (which I still have!) for winning third place in a Mother’s Day art and writing contest, encouraged me to believe in myself, which sparked an even greater love for art.

Although it was not until I went to college, when I was sitting in an art history class that I heard my professor mention that she is an archaeologist, it was then that I finally realized how close I have gotten to my love of archaeology and art. I am not an archaeologist, but I am lucky and blessed to be working at the Honolulu Museum of Art School, where I am surrounded by remarkable artifacts and artwork from around the world.

What is your medium?
Drawing with pencil is my medium of choice because it allows me so much freedom to sketch things anywhere, at anytime. I always carry a little notebook and a pencil for those “just in case” moments when I feel like sketching something that catches my eye.

Nakahara shows her class how to apply paper mache strips to their masks.

Janell Nakahara shows her class how to apply paper mache strips to their masks.

You’ve taught classes mostly for young artists, what inspired you to teach kids?
My son, Kescher, is definitely my inspiration for teaching young artists. Seeing him enjoy art and how he uses it to express himself has had a profound effect on me as a teacher and a mother. When I see my students, I just think of my son and ask myself, “What if those students were my children, how would I want a teacher to educate them about art?”

Do you do anything special to help engage your youngest students?
The youngest students I have ever taught were three-year-olds and I noticed they love to get their hands on things, so I try to borrow artifacts from the amazing Lending Collection at the art school. These young artists need to be able to see, feel, smell and hear different kinds of artwork/artifacts. It really gets their inquisitive minds moving even more. It’s amazing!

One-on-one creavity session: Nakahara helps a student with a detail on his mask.

One-on-one creativity session: Nakahara helps a student with a detail on his mask.

Why do you think art education is important?
Art education is imperative for young students because creativity, along with academics, can really heighten a child’s ability to learn. I have also seen firsthand how many students have gained self-confidence from learning about and creating art. Art can be therapeutic, expressive, and is just plain fun—which is something that is essential for any child.

What do you hope students will take away from your class?
As an art educator, I always hope that I have inspired, motivated or encouraged at least one young artist to see art in a different light, to embrace what they have learned, and to know that art will always be there for them. I encourage my students, even the youngest ones, to “draw, paint and create,” because sometimes we don’t want to say or write how we feel or what we think, but we can always use art to express ourselves, to communicate to the world how we feel inside.

Do you encourage your students to use the museum as inspiration?
I absolutely love taking my students on museum trips. In fact, I think that the art school is so fortunate to have such terrific access to the museum. We can walk right across the street to the museum almost anytime and get inspiration from everything from artwork, artifacts, architecture and even nature (such as the gardens and courtyards). While we are at the museum, I always encourage my students to carry around their paper, drawing board and pencil so they can draw things that catch their eye because it is important and it is extremely interesting to see what each student sees and how they see it.

Nakahara and one of her students discuss how he'll secure the "nose" onto his mask.

Nakahara and one of her students discuss how he’ll secure the “gold-tipped nose” onto his mask.

Is there a particular work that kids really love or react to?
Most students have a lot to say about almost everything we see at the museum, but one work in particular seems to really pique their interest is the wall of masks in the Indonesian gallery. Young artists will sit and stare at this huge wall full of different masks, eager to share their thoughts and ideas.

What’s the most interesting comment you’ve heard from a student while exploring the museum?
The most interesting comments come when I hear “I wonder…” When I hear the young artists saying things such as “I wonder who wore this kimono,” or “I wonder why this bowl is painted blue and not green.” It’s a clear indication that their creativity is flowing freely and inspiration is right around the corner.

Finally, what’s your favorite work in the museum’s collection?
It is so difficult to choose one particular artwork from the museum, but I guess if I were to pick just one as my favorite, it would have to be Claude Monet’s Water Lilies. Words cannot even begin to describe the way in which this painting moves me from seeing Monet’s Impressionistic brush strokes, to the captivating way light is depicted through his use of delicate colors that dance and swirl around so soothingly. Every time I go to the museum, as long as time permits, I make sure that I visit this painting at least once before I leave. There is just something about the painting that draws me to it time and time again.