Sunset on the Waiakea River near Hilo, Hawaii, circa 1910
Helen Thomas Dranga, (1866-1940)
Watercolor on Paperboard
8.75″ x 6.25″
A painter primarily known for her landscapes of Hawaii and portrait depictions of Hawaiians and Chinese, Carrie Helen Thomas (or Tufts?) was born in Oxford, England. She married Theodore Dranga, and they lived in Oakland, California from 1894 to 1900 and then moved to Hawaii. 

Details regarding her maiden name are at times conflicting, but it is known that she did paint in Hawaii for about twenty-five years.  For example, some references list her as having been born in Oxford, England as ‘Carrie Helen Thomas’, (Forbes and Kunichika, from Hilo 1825-1925 A Century of Painting and Drawings, the catalogue of an exhibit held at the Lyman House Museum, Hilo in 1983-84) while others give her birth name as ‘Tufts’ (in Finding Paradise written by Don Severson in association with the Honolulu Academy of Art). 

With watercolor and oil, Helen Dranga painted numerous scenes around her home in Hilo, on the island of Hawaii, and her palette included the violet grays that she saw in the moisture-laden Hilo sky.  She also created images of scenes on other Hawaiian Islands. One exceptional example is a picture of the coastline at Punaluu, on the island of Oahu. Later in her career, she did portraits of her friends who were Hawaiian and Chinese, many of these works showing notable sensitivity. Flowers were also some of her subjects. 

Helen Dranga was among a number of visiting and newly resident artists in Hawaii in the early 1900s who wished to express in their art a sense of Island color and culture.  Along with Dranga, some of these artists were Theodore Wores, Bessie Wheeler, Hubert Vos, and Matteo Sandona, all 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’ (circa 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. 

1800 to 1940 was considered the ‘golden era’ of Hawaii, and artworks specifically from this period were gathered for the first time in the show ‘Encounters In Paradise’, which was exhibited at the Honolulu Academy of the Arts. Most of the pictures were obtained from museums and private collections, and included works by some of the above named artists, as well as Jules Tavernier, Charles Furneaux, John Kelly, and Hilo-based Helen 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.  A rare Paradise of the Pacificissue from December 1934 was auctioned around 2002, and its auction description mentioned the issue as particularly notable because it featured paintings by D.Howard Hitchcock, Lionel Walden, and Helen Dranga. 

Helen’s husband, Ted, is mentioned in various references about Hawaiian history.  He is known to have observed the 1924 explosions of the volcano Kilauea, and is also credited for having discovered the first living specimen of a rare cowry (mollusk), which he found at Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu in 1928.  In 1929, Theodore T. Dranga is noted in National Park Service records as having made arrangements to repatriate certain Hawaiian cultural items, namely some burial items.  These varied details about her husband’s activities may eventually shed additional light on the life of Helen Dranga and the places she may have visited and painted. 

Carrie Helen T. Dranga was a member of the Hawaiian Society of Artists, and her work is in the Lyman Museum in Hilo, the Honolulu Academy of Art, as well as numerous important private collections. 

She died in Hilo in 1940 and is buried in San Diego. 

Credit for the above information is given to:
Don R. Severson, Michael D. Horikawa, and Jennifer Saville authors of Finding Paradise, Island Art in Private Collections; Edan Hughes, Artists in California, 1786-1940; Lynn K. Manuel of the Lyman Museum, Hilo, Hi.; David W. Forbes and Thomas K. Kunichika, authors of Hilo 1825-1925, A Century of Paintings and Drawings; Dept. of the Interior, National Park Service, Federal Register October 10, 1997