By Tiffany Merlo Phelps

Tom Nagata’s wife, Judy, otherwise known as his “muse,” favors the color purple, orchids, and butterflies. Therefore, the Nocatee artist tends to feature these very things in his acrylic paintings because as Tom states often, “when my muse says paint a certain color, I listen to my muse. Whatever my muse wants, she gets.” Tom credits Judy with helping him work through artistic frustrations and views his creations as a “team effort.” Every room in their Del Webb home reflects that collaboration. The dining room showcases animal paintings, the master bedroom purple orchids and the guest bedroom tiger paintings, just to highlight a few rooms. Tom’s art studio, located upstairs, includes his work space plus two areas that resemble art galleries with 71 of his paintings on display. Near his desk are 36 white porcelain tea cups containing his own palette of colors, favoring blue, and, of course, purple. The acrylic is mixed with distilled water and covered with petri dishes to keep the pigments from drying up, allowing Tom more time to work on tones and hues. He applies the paint in layers, and it sometimes takes two to three months for him to complete a 30” by 40” wrapped canvas. Always in bright colors, always with ties to his Hawaiian heritage and always with his muse at his side (often wearing a shirt that features one of Tom’s prints). 

Q: Where are you from originally? 

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A: I was born of Japanese-American parents in 1947 in Honolulu, Hawaii. I left Hawaii in 1965 to attend Ohio University on a baseball scholarship, and I graduated in June 1969 with a bachelor of fine arts in graphic design. Two months prior to graduation, I sold my art portfolio in exchange for airfare to return to Hawaii to see my mom and to report to the Selective Service draft physical. I was disqualified due to athletic injuries, but I was able to see my mom, which was so important to me just in case I had been selected to go to Vietnam. 

Q: You spoke about your late mom’s influence on your life. Please share those details. 

A: I can still hear my mom’s voice even now. She told me that my artistic creativity was a blessing from the Lord and to use it to spread happiness. That is why I paint with bright colors. She was a positive force in my life and still is. 

Q: After you sold your art portfolio, your career trajectory changed. Please explain. 

A: Even though art was my primary passion, no art portfolio, no art interviews. So, I began my career in education in January of 1970. I began my second passion — coaching baseball in the Paint Valley School District in Bainbridge, Ohio. I got married in 1972, moved to Fort Myers, started teaching in the Lee County School District and raised three sons.

Q: How would you describe your artwork? 

A: My artwork is more realistic, which is easier to appreciate for most people. I paint what I want to paint, and I play with details the way that I see it. Most often, when painting canvases larger than 12” X 16”, I compose the subject matter using a primary image and a secondary image working with positive and negative space. I also use full colors for the primary images and use subtle and muted shades for my secondary images which makes them appear to be in the background. 

Q: How did you meet Judy? 

A: We first met when we taught together in 1976 at the Caloosa Elementary School in Cape Coral. Fast forward 30 years, and we randomly ran into each other at the Edison Mall in Fort Myers. We were both single at this time, and it was a blessed meeting. We were married in 2013 at my cousin’s home in Kailua, Oahu, Hawaii. We decided to move to the Jacksonville area for better medical access to Mayo Clinic for Judy’s sister. We moved to the Del Webb community in 2019 after living in the Fort Myers area for 46 years. The first thing I noticed when we visited here in 2018 were the blooming magnolias. I saw all those big blossoms. So beautiful. We love our new location and its people and are looking forward to many more years of happiness here. 

[Author’s note: For more information on Nagata Art, visit or email]

Photo by Tiffany Merlo Phelps 
Tom Nagata 

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