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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, May 9, 2004

Nowell's pint-size art captivating, amusing

 •  Figure forms are central
 •  Big risks taken on tiny works
 •  13 Island artists partake in creative game of painting shared canvases
 •  Art Calendar

By Victoria Gail-White
Special to The Advertiser

Esther Nowell's "Let Us Entertain You," a watercolor of musician cats playing Chinese instruments, displays the artist's feline fancy.

Tom Tierney

'Cat Show': Watercolors and Ceramics'

Esther Nowell

10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays

Through May 28

bibelot gallery


The "Cat Show" is not all watercolor paintings of cats — there are a few monkeys and some people and ceramics — but definitely enough cats to satisfy any cat lover. Esther Nowell has always loved cats and has kept one or more around during her long, creative life.

A Hawai'i resident since 1922, Nowell's artistic abilities were evident early in life. In the third grade, she was awarded a scholarship to take children's classes (the first time they were offered) at the Honolulu Academy of Arts.

In 2002, she traveled to China on a pottery tour, and in 2003, she journeyed to Vietnam. On both trips, Nowell made sketches of people, places and details that caught her attention.

"I tried to be inconspicuous about it," she said. "But I drew a crowd around me as I was sketching — so much for being inconspicuous. You'd have thought they'd never seen anyone draw before." In the sketchbook, there is a page where she attempted to turn a photo she had taken of a mother and child into a painting. "It was dull," she said. "So I drew them both as cats."

Her sketchbook is available for perusal if you ask for it at the desk. Leafing through it gives the show a context and illustrates how some of the compositions and details for the art works evolved from those trips.

Nowell puts enough detail and color into her mostly postcard-size watercolor paintings to make them fancifully alive. Similar to illustrations in the most memorable children's books, they are charming and captivating in a lighthearted way.

Many of the cats are portrayed in Asian-style clothing amidst Asian- style furniture.

There are three cats in kimono doing a fan dance, cats holding kittens in their arms, meditative cats, a Buddha-like cat, a Princess cat, a siren cat sprawled out on a chaise holding a peony, two musician cats playing sanxian and pipa (Chinese instruments) and so forth. Nowell's imagination is ripe with comical juxtapositions.

Her ceramic sculptural whistles, rattles and small figures are as amusing as her paintings. In most of her gray and blue teapots, bowls, plates and shoyu pots she stains the clay with a cobalt blue oxide in patterns (both geometric and floral) that she has collected and then uses a transparent glaze.

"I must assure you there are no deep, hidden meanings in my work," she writes in her statement. "I'm not ashamed of making things that are colorful, not at all serious, and hopefully will make you smile."