Washington Park artist uses murals as teaching tool for children

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During the 1990s, low funds forced schools across Colorado to cut budgets — art and music classes were among the first to go. And Washington Park resident and local artist Tommy Nahulu began to worry about what students were missing out on when their creative outlets were taken away. 

In 1994 he decided he wanted to find his own way to fight back against those cuts. So Nahulu went to Place Bridge Academy in Denver’s Indian Creek neighborhood and gave each student in the project a 9-by-12-inch canvas. He asked them to paint a scene of what they thought represented their school mascot, a roadrunner. 

Nahulu then took the individual canvasses and created a mosaic-style mural around a roadrunner that he painted. 

“Art seemed to be the one thing that connected kids to what was inside of them,” Nahulu said. “I felt they were losing more than an art class.”

After growing up and painting in Denver for several years, Nahulu now travels between Maui and Denver, spending time painting with children in both locations. In Hawaii, where he was born and lived as a child, he works with the Maui Boys and Girls Club. In Denver, he continues to work with local schools.

He hopes that by teaching kids about art, he can teach them about the importance of creativity.

Drawing inspiration

When working with schools, Nahulu approaches local businesses to raise money for art supplies. That way the school can keep money for its own supplies for students. 

In Hawaii, Nahulu is hoping to be a mentor to other Hawaiian-born artists. As a child, Nahulu loved the works of Herb Kāne, an illustrator for “National Geographic” and mural artist that depicted Polynesian life and culture. Later in life when he met his idol, Nahulu said it “was like looking at Santa Claus.” He hopes to inspire other artists the same way Kāne inspired him. 

For Nahulu, moving to the mainland of the United States as a child was a little bit of a culture shock at first. After spending some time in Washington, D.C., Nahulu joined his family in Denver at 13, where they lived in the ashram of the Divine Light Mission, a religious movement that started in India. Denver was the U.S. headquarters for Divine Light, which closed in 1979 after the movement changed course.  

Adjusting to schools and no longer living the island life took some getting used to, Nahulu said, but there were also new things to experience. 

“To me, snow was like a fantasy,” he said. “It was magical. Honest to goodness, when it snows today I still get that rush of how cool it is.”

A special gift

Nahulu’s work can be seen on several buildings in Capitol Hill, including murals of Johnny Cash on the Sancho’s Broken Arrow building and Jack Kerouac on the Fork and Spoon reastaurant. Both buildings are on Colfax Avenue. He also continues to work with schools. At Mark Twain Elementary School in Littleton, he helped children create a mural of its writer namesake for the library. 

In his public murals and projects with local schools, Nahulu said he enjoys meeting new members of the community. The large scaffolding he uses to paint public murals often brings out members of the neighborhood who talk to Nahulu about his work. 

Sharing art is a gift, he said.

The first mural Nahulu was paid for was a painting that featured staff members and the owners inside Rick’s Cafe, a bar and grill in Cherry Creek where he used to work. The restaurant was like family, Nahulu said, and the mural dipicted the staff doing some of their favorite activities -- skiing, white water rafting, even hang gliding. The painting was removed during some renovations.The location closed and is now Chopper’s Sports Grill. Nahulu did a charicature of Chopper Travaligni, an athletic trainer for the Denver Nuggets, whom the restuarant is named for.

But being paid for his work is not the only measure of success that Nahulu believes in. Working with children to teach them how to express themselves makes the job satisfying, he said. 

“Success can be measured in so many ways,” he said. “I like the idea and the concept of changing your world through your community.”

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