Tom Sewell delights in documentation. Each
morning, the artist hands over his iPhone to his assistant, Ines Gurovich, who
downloads the photos he took the day before and selects highlights to print.
She then assembles the prints into a montage that she pastes into an oversized
journal. It’s an ambitious approach for a diary, but Sewell’s zeal for all
things creative is insatiable. “There’s at least a hundred photos a day,” says
Gurovich, a Peruvian painter and sculptor who has been working with Sewell
since 2018. “Sometimes it’s hard to pick which ones.” Sewell’s images capture
the miscellany of his daily life—a tree or shadow or building might catch his
fancy—though most shots are of people. “He talks to everyone,” she says. “A lot
of beautiful women,” Sewell quips. The two laugh.
A multimedia artist and photographer based on Maui, Sewell believes one can find art anywhere and in any form. He certainly does. Now 80 years old, he has spent a lifetime collecting and creating, cultivating and celebrating experiences, places, sculptures, and friends. His specialty, however, is objet trouvé, or “found art.”
Throughout Sewell’s 17-acre estate in the cool, green uplands of Ha‘ikū are such treasures. Along the rolling grounds, massive steel gears from Maui’s now-defunct sugar mills return to life as delightful window frames. Enormous industrial drills serve as building posts. The magic continues indoors where, in a tidy, side office of his art studio, boxes of Kodachrome slides, photography binders, and film cassettes line an entire wall, all neatly named and numbered. Many are accompanied by miniature snapshots depicting their contents. There are troves of letters from friends and mentors (he names Basil Langton among them) which he lovingly reads and re-reads. Nearby, in his library, a collection of worn tomes—Sewell’s dream journals—sits on cozy rows of shelves. Each morning for the past few decades, Sewell has sketched the remnants of his dreams. Some become blueprints for reality, like a Japanese rock garden he created for his wife, Michelle Sewell, an interior designer.
If the estate seems a merry reflection of his character, the artist is quick to note that life hasn’t been and isn’t always easy. Fortunately, he has managed life’s ups and downs—bad breakups, health issues, financial difficulties—with his signature optimism. “There were times I had to go to the pawn shop with my camera in order to pay the rent,” Sewell says. “But my middle name is Serendipity. I wake up each morning and think, ‘What miracle is going to happen today? Is something going to be in the mail? Will somebody come to visit?’”
Growing up in Minnesota, Sewell was a tall, skinny kid, calm and a little self-conscious. His mother affectionately referred to him as “rug head” because of his mop of curls. As a teenager, he developed a flair for the illicit. Robbing gas stations and stealing tires became his forte. “I think I might have had some kind of attention deficit disorder,” Sewell muses. “That crime stuff was really exciting.” It wasn’t long before he was caught. “I managed to escape jail time by the skin of my teeth,” Sewell says. “I went straight then.” By 19 years old, Sewell had come into a more positive outlet for his energy, trimming windows at Dayton’s Department store in Minneapolis. There, he met Joe Wright, an “educated, elegant, and stylish” gentleman who was the head of the display department. Wright left an indelible impression on Sewell, who began to emulate the dapper men of downtown—the cut of their suits, the polished shoes, their knowledge of art and design. “I’d wear a suit and tie and fedora hat and go to jazz clubs,” Sewell recalls. “I loved the idea of being grown up.” He chuckles in mild amusement at the follies of youth. “I even started smoking.”
Sewell’s immersion in art and culture laid the groundwork for a lifetime of creativity. He went on to run an art gallery in Minneapolis, work at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and start a design magazine called Main. In the 1960s, down on his luck and ready for change, Sewell moved to Southern California. In Venice, he began converting derelict industrial buildings into sought-after real estate. The endeavor proved lucrative, but for Sewell, it was the process of transforming nothing into something that enlivened him.
This leitmotif surfaced anew when Sewell settled on Maui in the ’90s. Here, he found inspiration in the most unlikely of scenes: the island’s declining sugar empire. “The sugar mills were some of the ugliest, loudest places on Maui,” Sewell says. Stepping into the industry’s rusting mechanical belly, Sewell marveled at the beauty in its brutality. Ideas surrounding duality of light and shadow, weight and lightness, decay and growth sprang to mind.
For more than a decade, Sewell regularly visited the sugar mills and documented their activity. “I was so interested in the colors and patina, design and decay, the juxtaposition of objects,” he says. In 2006, he debuted “The Enigma of the Mill,” a grand art installation featuring giant giclée photo prints, panning video, and audio recordings. It was a mesmerizing panoply of sight, sound, and movement: thick streams of molasses pouring into vats; wet steaming pipes; close-ups of sprockets, cogs, and gears. The custom musical score, including pieces by Kronos Quartet and Xploding Plastix, was dominated by rhythmic clanging metal, its jarring notes woven alongside a stirring melody. To this day, even speaking about the installation stirs something wondrous within Sewell. “The sugar mill is really my soul,” he says. His eyes glint as if he were a schoolboy with a gleeful secret. “Again, it’s that finding of art in the most unexpected places.”
The art-making continues at the Ha‘ikū estate. Here, elements collected from the island’s sugar mills find place in Sewell’s home and heart. Dotting the property are his large-scale sculptures, crafted from scrap bulk steel sheets salvaged from the Pā‘ia mill. The sheets, arranged together vertically onto concrete slabs, are perforated with series of shapes: crescents and chevrons, triangles and trapezoids. Originally, the cut-outs were utilized as pieces for mill machinery, items such as blades, guides, and seals. Today, their remaining negative spaces are whimsical plays on form and light. Sewell invites guests to sit, walk, and even dance within the sculptures. “You should see what it’s like at night,” Sewell says. “It’s just beautiful.”
On a summer afternoon on the artist’s property, two men use a telehandler to maneuver a large sheet of steel—another retrieved sugar-mill gem—flush against a building wall. It’s a painstaking process of stop-and-go because the sheet, though pierced throughout with geometric forms, still weighs half a ton. Under Sewell’s careful instruction, the duo inch the sheet into its dedicated space. Their brows are furrowed in consternation and concentration. Sewell, however, grins from ear to ear. “I love this,” he says. To Sewell, it is art in motion. It is also an irresistible opportunity to employ large machinery. His wife appears and greets him with a kiss on the cheek. “You get to see the whole show today,” she says to me as I watch the piece being assembled. “Tom and his Tonka trucks.”
Later, Sewell takes a stroll on the grounds. The day has begun to cool, and the late afternoon sun etches the airy, steel sculptures with thin veins of gold. Suddenly, Sewell hoists himself up onto one of them. He locates a foothold in a circular cutout, and then another and another. Higher and higher Sewell climbs, the artwork transformed into a piece of play, an impromptu jungle gym. Upon reaching the top, his face shines with joie de vivre. From his perch, he scans the sky above him, ready for the day’s next miracle.