At the North Hilo sculpture garden of artist Michael Shewmaker, bigger is better.
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Art often demands an ability to see things that are not always specifically shown to you but may be presented in such a way that your mind begins to wander, to imagine possibilities it hadn’t considered before. Sometimes it requires a sense of humor or an appreciation of the unusual. Michael Shewmaker, an artist living and working on the North Hilo coast, creates massive abstract sculptures displayed in his own backyard sculpture gallery that are strikingly beautiful, humorous, thoughtful, and structurally and energetically robust, compelling a viewer to imagine the possibilities, perhaps some never considered.
When I visited Michael’s sculpture garden, I was awe struck by the size and scale of his pieces, while also being intrigued by the process of making each sculpture. The large pieces had me wondering how they were produced here on our island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Michael shared that when he creates a piece, he designs a small version as a model, which is then sent off to his fabricator who creates the pieces and ships them back to him. He’s had incredible luck, he tells me, that the fabricator creates his pieces exactly as he envisions them. The only constraint, however, is the size of a shipping container in order for him to get the completed pieces back home. This is one disadvantage to living on an island in the middle of a vast ocean—had he been stationed on the mainland, he could use trucks to ferry his pieces around.
Still, the limitations of size and scope do not seem to be holding Michael back. Only a quick glance of his sculpture garden would tell a viewer that his imagination is always at work, and doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon. The garden is the work of the past 15 years of his life; and in his late 60s, his future goals include working more with clay or stone. However, as we sit on his lānai (patio) sipping iced tea, he shares, “To me, these are my maquettes. I want them to be tremendously larger, 300, maybe 600 feet.” Already awe-inspiring at this humbling size, it doesn’t take a ton of imagination to imagine the beauty of these in this larger scale.
But for Michael, all of this is a privilege, to have your life’s work so readily available, right in your own backyard: “I asked myself, what is the goal? I could do more making the garden than scattering the pieces with the wind. Once I started, I had a dream that if you could do two pieces a year, then after five years, you’d have 10 pieces, 10 years, I’d have 20 pieces. And that’s how it’s gone.” But not every piece of his work resides in his garden. Some have traveled extensively to North Carolina, Colorado, Los Angeles, the Grounds for Sculpture Garden in Hamilton, New Jersey to Art Week in Miami, and almost everywhere in between. “Every piece is strictly from my imagination. It is a huge privilege to create art as I see it, especially at this scale.”
“Every piece is strictly from my imagination. It is a huge privilege to create art as I see it, especially at this scale.”
- MICHAEL SHEWMAKER
Most of Michael’s work is abstract, but a few pieces are representational. While abstract is his first love, he has sculpted a lion, inspired by the Sphinx sculpture he saw at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) in New York City. This sculpture as well as the sculpture of Braddah Iz gives visitors a familiar starting place: “These pieces give those who come here and can’t relate to abstract art something to start with. People often have to develop a taste for abstract art.”
Then there are the Pop Art pieces, the ones that make Michael laugh. As we walked up to this giant yellow piece, a sculpture with the word “it” written in lower case letters that sits at the bottom of his property, Michael says, “Well, this is ‘it,’” in a way that tells me he relishes the joke each time he says it. And who could blame him? This, really, is it. And why the yellow, I wonder, when everything else is the color of steel or white? “Because the best yellow is the Lamborghini yellow,” he says. He specifically looked up the color from a 1970s model, found the ID number, and voila, this is now “it.”
The other piece that makes Michael laugh is a massive metallic nut, sitting at the top of his property. As we walk up to it, he tells me the story of how he had spent years hoping to make a circle, something to capture the chi force that has been influential over his and his wife’s life, but had been unable to come up with a way to do a complete circle. One day, a nut fell on the ground in his workshop and the sun hit it in just the right way. “I thought, eureka! It has such power, but it’s also ridiculous,” he says with a laugh. It turns out that this piece is also the only one that violates his “must fit in a shipping container rule,” as it was fabricated in two pieces; but the effect the piece emits makes it seem like it was the perfect piece to break a rule or two.
A large percentage of his work is circular in nature, with winding curves weaving in and out, creating striking visuals, but also a juxtaposition between the life force the circles represent and the “lifeless” stainless steel that he works with. When I ask if there’s a favorite piece, he doesn’t hesitate to say Continuum, a white piece made up of multiple spirals that resolve into a complete loop. It’s not just about picking a favorite, though, but rather about the creative process. “I love the process,” he says. “If it wasn’t for that, it wouldn’t happen.” And how wonderful, I marvel, that we are fortunate to have access to his art here on our big little island. In some ways, Michael considers himself an ambassador of sculpture, to open people’s minds to possibilities they might not have considered, and to be awestruck by the scale and beauty of his work. “One thing I am trying to accomplish is to give people a chance to see something they couldn’t normally see.” And in this one backyard overlooking the blue Pacific, it truly is a sight like no other.