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Sunday, March 26, 2017

Helen Thomas Dranga

Portrait of a Polynesian Girl, ca 1910, Helen Thomas Dranga.
Twenty-three years ago (June, 1994), my wife and I, along with our then twelve-year-old son, celebrated our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary with a visit to the Hawaiian Islands. It was then I had my first glimpse of Hawaiian art. And it was, but a glimpse, in that at the time there was so many other thing to so and see, this first look consisted mostly of the work of contemporary painters hung for sale in some of the tourist venues we visited. In 2019, Lord willing, we'll be going back to celebrate our fiftieth anniversary (minus our son) at which time I plan to take a closer look at some of the artists I've studied since, who helped create the rich artistic heritage of our fiftieth state. One of them I plan to look at more closely is Helen Thomas Dranga.

Helen Thomas Dranga,
passport photo, 1922
Helen Dranga was not all that prolific and ranks well down the list of important island artists such as D. Howard Hitchcock, Charles W. Bartlett, and Jules Tavernier. She was, however, well educated as an artist, having studied at the Kensington Art Academy (Royal College of Art) in Lon-don, England. If that sounds strange for a Hawaiian artist, keep in mind that Helen Thomas Dranga was born Caroline Helen Thomas in Oxford, England, in 1866. Her father was a plumber, painter, and decorator (nice combin-ation). Miss Thomas moved to the United States in 1892, probably in search of a husband. Twenty-six years old at the time, she was rapidly approaching the prospect of becoming a Victorian "old maid."

The Artist's Home, Helen Thomas Dranga
It worked. She somehow found a Wisconsin merchant of Norwegian stock named Theodore Dranga. They were married in 1895. A year before the couple were actually married, they moved west to Oakland, California, where they remained for the next six years before really moving west to Hilo, Hawaii in 1900. The Drangas had two children and were to spend the rest of their lives enjoying the beautiful coastal scenery Helen painted (I'm guessing) mostly for visitors. Helen Thomas Dranga died in 1927 at the age of sixty-one.

On Waiakea River, Near Hilo, Hawaii, Helen Dranga
Helen Dranga painted numerous scenes around her home on the island of Hawaii. Her palette included the violet grays that she saw in the moisture-laden Hilo sky. She also created images of scenes on other Islands. One exceptional example is a painting On Waiakea River, Near Hilo, Hawaii (above). Later in her career, she did portraits of Hawaiian and Chinese friends as well as native Hawaiian flowers (bottom). Helen Dranga was among a number of Hawaiian resident artists in the early 1900s who wished to express in their art a sense of Island color and culture.

Kahaluu, Kaneohe, Helen Dranga
The period 1800 to 1940 was considered the ‘golden era’ of Hawaii. In 1992, paintings specifically from this era were gathered for the first time in the show "Encounters In Paradise," which was exhibited at the Honolulu Academy of the Arts. The paintings were obtained from museums and private collections, and included works by Jules Tavernier, Charles Furneaux, John Kelly, and Helen Dranga. All were a part of a general movement to capture on canvas images of Old Hawaii before it disappeared. One such example of Dranga’s work is Portrait of a Polynesian Girl (top), from 1910, which depicts a Polynesian girl dressed in white and garlanded with an orange ilima flower lei. Warm light through the foliage of pandanus leaves illuminates the ground and her figure, creating a lively pattern of light, shade, and reflection on her face.

Hawaiian Landscape, Helen Thomas Dranga
Helen Dranga’s compositions also regularly appeared as covers of Paradise of the Pacific Magazine throughout the 1920s and 1930s. These magazines themselves have become collectibles. Dranga painted the Hawaiian landscape with a remarkably sensitive touch, a trait which also marked her portraits and skyscapes. The Hawaii State Art Museum, the Honolulu Museum of Art, and the Lyman House Memorial Museum (Hilo, Hawaii) are among the public collections holding works by Helen Thomas Dranga. If my feet and legs hold up, I plan to visit every one of them the next time we're in Hawaii.

This untitled work by Helen Dranga
 is one of my favorites.

Ohia Lehua Blossoms,
Helen Thomas Dranga


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