Every artist can tell you what inspired them to begin drawing or painting, and Wheat Ridge Art League (WRAL) member Shirley Nakamoto is no exception.
“When I was little, I liked to draw from Walt Disney comic books,” she says. “I remember drawing Bambi and Dumbo, the Seven Dwarfs, and Lady from ‘Lady and the Tramp,’ which made me wish I had a brown cocker spaniel.”
Nakamoto grew up in Hawaii, where in elementary school, she would add pictures to her schoolwork, drawing characters such as Spanish explorers for a paper on the conquistadors. But it would be almost twenty years before the serious art bug would bite, giving her an insatiable desire for painting that continues to this day.
Her graduation from the University of Hawaii as a medical technologist was followed by a four-year stint at Queens Hospital in Honolulu.
“All my college classes were in the sciences; I had no formal art training. Then in 1971, two other techs and I moved to Colorado. The three of us worked and lived together. We worked three different shifts – one worked the day shift, one late night, and mine was evening. I bought a car that all three of us used to shuttle to and from work.”
One person would drive in at seven in the morning, and then the one who had just completed the night shift would drive the car home, and so on, through all the shifts.
“The rewarding part of the lab work was knowing you helped to identify problems. Looking through microscopes at slides, we might find cancer cells or low platelets. On rare occasions, we had people from southeast Asia who had parasites, and we could see malaria in the blood cells. I think I enjoyed looking at the colors.”
Discovering art helped to minimize the stress from her everyday work in hematology labs.
“In the mid-’70s, a friend I met at the lab said, ‘Come on Shirley, let’s take a class together.’ She really had no interest in drawing, but she knew I did. After drawing and listening to the instructor, I came out of there feeling like I didn’t know where I was; I was so fascinated and in a daze. But then I knew I had to get to work, and I literally needed to shift out from my right brain and get into the present.
“In my first marriage, my husband was gone a lot, and I’d come home from work at midnight, often going without dinner so many nights in a row and just collapsing. Coming home exhausted, I would draw or paint until two in the morning; it was such a relief from all of the hospital work.”
In her free time, she began to set up still life scenes to draw and paint. One was created by shining a lamp on several wooden spoons, revealing their cast shadows.
“I was so fascinated that I could draw that.” A few years later, she and another co-worker joined WRAL (founded in 1974), and Nakamoto began attending workshops and demonstrations there.
“I would join every workshop – mostly watercolor, but also drawing and acrylics – to learn something new.”
Nakamoto retired from St. Anthony’s Hospital in Denver, after 25 years as a hematology technologist. She met and married her husband Dave when they both worked at St. Anthony’s. When they retired, they began traveling in an RV with their two dogs, and she took photos along the way. Much of her inspiration for painting comes from photos taken on vacations.
“I wanted to paint everything I saw – I have thousands of pictures to work with.”
With no formal art education, most of what she’s learned has come from workshop participation. In addition to classes with other WRAL members, Nakamoto also took watercolor classes at the Arvada Adult Center, having been inspired by a book by watercolorist Tony Couch.
“I looked at his book and I said, ‘I want to do that.’ It was loose watercolor. My goal, still, is to paint more freely, to loosen up.
“I never thought I’d do oil painting, but at one point, I kinda got into a rut of not painting at all, so I took a class in oils. It’s fun, because it’s easy to correct mistakes.”
She has taken many classes with several of the League’s accomplished artists. One of her colored pencil works came out of a pet portrait class with Sandra Davis, another WRAL member.
Until two years ago, Nakamoto was in charge of organizing the WRAL demonstrations. She became so involved that for four or five years she tripled her volunteer involvement, taking photos for their Facebook page, programming workshops, and coordinating members to provide craft and technique demonstrations at the League’s monthly meetings.
Nakamoto tends to paint scenes from nature and is most interested in the watercolor medium, although she also implements acrylics, colored pencils and oils in her artwork. Her paintings have yielded numerous awards, including first place at the 2019 Wheat Ridge Carnation Festival.
“We have between 25 and 30 members in the festival now, and I’ll be showing again this August,” she said.
“I feel my experiences with Wheat Ridge Art League, and Arvada Fine Arts Guild have been responsible for my knowledge and inspiration of my art life.”