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The bio on his website calls Tom Sewell a “multi-media artist, designer, photographer, filmmaker, sculptor, environmental visionary, and self-proclaimed ‘Master of mischief, maker of dreams.’” On Saturday he turns 80 the way another fellow might barrel past 39, greeting each new day with the zest of the Cat in the Hat and a plunge in the ocean.
Few who meet Sewell ever forget him. Just ask the optician at Eyes on Main in Venice, Calif., for four decades his source for retro spectacles. Does the name ring a bell?
Says she, “It rings a gong.”
Though Sewell still shops for glasses on the West Coast, his home since 1989 has been on 17 acres in Haiku, up a narrow road that twists its dappled way mauka to the driveway where today a marker reads, “Enigma of the Mill.” The phrase commemorates Sewell’s colossal one-man installation at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Schaefer International Gallery in July 2006.
The central video component filled a wraparound screen measuring an immersive 28 by 120 feet. Running on a 40-minute loop, it documented in sometimes nightmarish, sometimes churchly images the transfiguration of cane into sugar, which for a few final moments appears through the lenses of a 3-D microscope in crystalline iridescence.
There’s a DVD of the video, but Sewell doesn’t recommend it: “It’s like looking at the ‘Mona Lisa’ on your cellphone.”
Local reactions at the time were a little extreme. “A Sistine Chapel for the 21st century,” one viewer raved, preposterously. “Sewell’s work is a sham!” countered an outraged naysayer, who went on to add, “It was formed as though by an infant reading Dostoevsky.”
The short-lived United Nations Society of Artists and Writers honored the piece with its annual Reward of Excellence. But the logistics of mounting “Enigma” were challenging, and to date, the work has never had another public showing — until this week.
On Friday, as if to get the birthday festivities rolling, but in truth by a stroke of pure serendipity, “Enigma” returns for one night only at the ProArts Playhouse in Kihei. True, the scale will be much reduced, yet the revival also signals a quantum leap forward. Rather than the original soundtrack, which was a pastiche assembled chiefly from preexisting recordings, there will be customized live music. The composer and performer is the Russian cellist Georgy Gusev, 32, a swashbuckling Apollonian who first encountered Sewell a mere nine weeks ago. Already, feelers are out for future travel to Moscow, St. Petersburg and Rome.
How do things happen so fast? As Sewell is fond of saying, “Magic is just a knock on the door away.” Sometimes you’re the one knocking; sometimes it’s your door.
LANKY, LIMBER yet elfin at 6-feet-2, tousled yet GQ-chic in the French fisherman’s Breton stripes he likes to wear, Sewell took an afternoon in late November to show a visitor around the Haiku property and his collection.
A stand of royal palms on a lower driveway leads to his studio, which houses photo and video archives and on weekly movie nights doubles as a screening room for his film study group. An upper driveway to the right accesses the rest of the compound. On the way to the Japanese-style pavilion Sewell shares with his wife of 17 years, Michelle, we pass the library-cum-guestroom filled with books, cases full of his handwritten dream journals, assorted antique dolls and a jaunty collection of Shriners fezzes.
Three monastic cabins for a rotating cast of interns who learn a lot more than photography and film are clustered a few steps farther on. Up to the right, there’s the free-standing, three-bedroom Mana House B&B vacation lodge, county-licensed and listed on Airbnb. The most recent structure is a brand-new exhibition and performance space called the Art Barn, adjoining the alfresco sculpture garden for Sewell’s supersize scrap-metal creations.
“One of my mottoes is H-A-L-F, which stands for Health, Art, Love and Fun,” said Sewell. “Another of my mottoes is, ‘Never make anybody wrong.’ That, and, ‘Always say yes.’”
Returning to the studio, Sewell settled in to share things he loves. A recent piece that means a lot to him is a photographic print, in gigapixel resolution and at true scale, of the wall of books in the private study of the late poet W.S. Merwin, Sewell’s longtime neighbor, friend and mentor. Apart from the poetry, just the titles of Merwin’s rich collection of reading material and unexpected adjacencies of books on the shelves provide as true a mirror of Merwin’s super-subtle, unorthodox, infinitely curious mind as could be imagined — provided the viewer’s mind is curious, too. It adds to the mystique to know that while the former poet laureate and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner sat for Sewell’s camera frequently, he never wanted to be shot in his sanctum.
NO DOUBT about it, Sewell is a character, and in the 20th century he would have been a natural subject for a book. In our age of digital streaming, the medium of choice for his biography would be a multiseason series on HBO, say, or Netflix. The outline might look something like this:
>> Season 1, “Goodbye, Minneapolis, 1939-66”: Emerging from childhood and his rough-and-tumble teens in Minneapolis, young Tom (as we’ll call Sewell’s on-screen avatar) cuts his teeth as a display assistant at the Dayton’s department store, then as self- appointed assistant to the director of the Minnesota Institute of Art.
In a prophetic sequence, Tom’s mother, Ruth Sewell, out on a stroll, sees a house she likes, steps right up and knocks on the door (that magic knock on the door!) to ask whether it’s for sale. Bingo! The owners are just packing up to return to Norway, and the Sewells get the house for cheap.
In the season finale, Tom, not yet 25, breaks out with Bottega, an open-door art bazaar he runs on a shoestring, setting the buttoned-up local art establishment on its ear.
“Bottega,” Sewell says now, “is where I caught fire.” The venerable Marcel Duchamp, in youth the madcap prophet of Cubism and Dada, pays Tom a euphoric daylong visit and declares Tom’s erotic collages of pictures clipped from girlie magazines the freshest art he has seen in years. He takes home two, one for Max Ernst, a fellow A-list surrealist.
>> Season 2, “Venice Preserved, 1966-89.” Tom goes West and high jinks abound. He lands in Venice, Calif., once a Shangri-La for swank Angelenos, now a drug-infested gangland artists flock to for the low rents. Tom leases an empty warehouse for 10 cents a square foot and subdivides it into studios, which he rents out for $1 a square foot. He transforms a crumbling, fake palazzo into the hip Venice Flea Market, abuzz with studios, galleries and other commercial spaces.
Time for another Sewell mantra: “I love to find value where there’s none.”
>> Season 3, “Finding Paradise (1989-the present).” A hot-yoga retreat brings Tom to Haiku. Enter Michelle, across the floor at a Valentine’s Day dance. A curvaceous honey blonde with brains, part Amazon, part gazelle, she becomes Sewell’s companion, wife and favorite photo subject.
As a working artist, Tom submits entries to Art Maui annually; most years, he places. One day he drives by Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co.’s sugar mill in Paia, with a friend’s 3-year-old in tow. “What’s that?” the lad asks. “A ninja factory!” says Tom, ever the fabulist. He parks, knocks on the door, tells the man at the door that “a couple of kids would like to take a look around” and discovers “a gold mine.”
“It was like stepping into Dante’s Inferno,” Sewell says now. “Filthy, dusty, noisy, dark, polluted, with all those gigantic moving parts and shafts of light slicing in from different directions. And somehow, from all this chaos came snow-white crystals that we eat, granules like jewels.”
LIKE ANY synopsis, this one only scratches the surface. In one pre-Bottega arc not to be missed, Tom hitches a private Cessna for a flight to Brazil, where he spends a year as a gaucho, an expat social columnist and a frisky marketing guru to a leading jeweler. A quest for enlightenment takes him to India, where he studies yoga and begins recording his dreams. Vacationing in France’s Loire Valley, he notices a newspaper ad for a “petite maison, grande grange” (“little house, big barn”) and picks it up for a song.
Whirlwind visits bring glimpses of Paris, the Orient Express and the grotesque sculpture garden of Bomarzo, 40 miles north of Rome, with its infinitely photogenic “Mouth of Hell.” In the Cold War-era Soviet Union, Tom heads a delegation of peacenik “citizen diplomats.”
An enormous cast of co-stars and supporting players includes poets, scientists, “tangueros,” pranksters and the spiritual role models from all walks of life Tom calls his mentors. Meet Tom and Michelle’s nephew Finn, formerly their niece Audrey, 14 as of this writing, whose eyesight has been in steep decline from birth. To stock the youngster’s memory bank, Tom and Michelle arrange once-in-a-lifetime grand tours to the Big Apple and the Continent. In a scenario made to order for the Coen Brothers, Tom’s brother Don, who has always liked the good stuff, dies in his sleep. His loved ones wash him, dress him in his favorite Armani and buckle him into the front seat of a luxury Lincoln sedan for the ride to the cemetery, where he is not expected. In the end Don is accepted for cremation, in a florist’s discarded cardboard box.
Casually confessional, potentially explosive disclosures touched on juvenile delinquency, even armed robbery; a shotgun wedding; two love children of whose existence Sewell learned only after they had grown up. Asked whether any of this was off the record, the Man Who Says Yes just said no.
AND what of the art? Over the decades, Sewell’s output has been massive, yet ultimately it has been little seen. The attendance at “Enigma of the Mill” in 2006 was 3,841, notable among them HC&S workers bused in from the mills, who went away beaming with pride. For Maui those were healthy numbers, but the Sistine Chapel of the 16th century gets up to 20,000 a day.
Sewell’s monumental sculpture has looked impressive at Art Maui but makes its best showing en masse on home ground at Haiku. And the impact of his videos, like anyone’s videos, is that of ripples on the sea.
“Tom’s art form is performance, just as mine is production design,” says Sewell’s bestie since Venice and frequent house guest Dennis Gassner, whose resume lists Hollywood blockbusters such as the James Bond thriller “Skyfall” and the soon-to-be-released World War I epic “1917.” The entertainment lawyer Don Franzen, another pal from the California days, concurs. “Tom’s never the life of a party,” Franzen says. “He is the party.”
A mantra from his Venice years: “How much fun are we going to have today?” There are artists, and it looks like Sewell is one of them, whose tangible output is almost incidental. What matters is the life.
In the end Sewell’s greatest creation — far outweighing “Enigma” — may well prove to be his unique archive of still images, videos, entries in dream journals and collages in his large-format diaries. Going back decades, the stash documents not only the wild carnival of his life, but also the cultural ecosystems Sewell flourished in and, by his flourishing, helped transform: a gold mine (or should we say a sugar mill?) for the cultural historians of tomorrow.
What’s to become of it all? “My wife asks me that question,” Sewell says. “I ask myself, ‘Am I just self-obsessed?’ Did you see the profile of Philip Glass the other day in the Times? The writer asked him what he thought would become of his music when he was gone, and he said he didn’t care. ‘I’m not going to be here.’ Same for me.”
If so, why has he gone to such lengths to hang onto his ephemera every step of the way? To organize the files so meticulously? And lately to digitize fragile films and photographs before the tooth of time gnaws them to pieces?
And what’s with that boxed set of what look like pamphlets over there, lying on a worktable strewn with albums and papers? Down one slender spine runs the title, “Bottega Gallery.” Others read “The Venice Years,” “Maui,” “Muses & Mentors” and, most intriguing of the lot, “Life as a Performance Art: An Invitation.” Intimations of immortality?
“Oh,” Sewell says, “that’s just a mock-up for some videos I’m working on.”