By Julia Flynn Siler
Haiku, Hawaii — In the 1980s, artist Tom Sewell moved from Venice, Calif., to a rented room on Maui’s North Shore to study yoga. On one of his early morning runs, he discovered an area lush with guava, Christmas berries, flowers and bamboo. “I literally fell in love with the smell of the street,” he recalled.
He bought five acres from the attorney of a well-known yogi and a further 10, along with a partner, from a local Boy Scout council. The last two acres he bought from his neighbor, a native Hawaiian. Altogether, purchasing the combined properties cost him about $1.2 million and took him two decades.
For much of that time, he worked on designing and building his home. Using “A Pattern Language,” a book on architecture and urban design, as his guide, he did the architectural drawings himself, aiming to avoid anything toxic and to incorporate salvaged materials. He found a local carpenter trained in Japan to do much of the work. The result: a rustic Japanese-influenced style created to embrace the concept of wabi-sabi, or finding beauty in imperfection.
What started as a live-in garage is now a compound: a single-story, two-bedroom, one bath, 1,420-square-foot house surrounded by green lawns, a large studio, a four-bedroom house for his in-laws and three small cottages that house interns, visiting artists and friends.
The main home is made of clear, untreated cedar, with sliding shoji screens salvaged from a home in an upcountry Maui town. Entering through sliding wooden framed doors, visitors step into a large room with screens or windows on three sides, which look out onto the lawn, surrounded by jungle. The wooden ceiling is vaulted and the walls are decorated with his wife Michelle’s collection of antique woven straw workers’ hats collected by her grandmother, a military wife.
The master bedroom was originally the garage; part of the ceiling remains a clear polycarbonate that Mr. Sewell had used because it was cheap and easy to install. “When in rains, it sounds like you’re inside a popcorn popper,” said Michelle. The posters on their bed, which are made of bamboo poles harvested from their property, are draped with white mosquito netting.
What looks like a large Buddhist stone prayer wheel at the front entrance of the main house is a salvaged grinder from a nearby sugar mill. Throughout the 17-acre compound are massive iron sculptures Mr. Sewell made from the discards of abandoned sugar mills—totems to an industry that has almost entirely disappeared from the islands.
He made a few mistakes early on. He tried lining his driveway with Acacia Koa trees, which are native to the Hawaiian Islands, but beetles soon attacked and the trees died. A subsequent royal of coconut palms were hit by crown rot. Now, the 800-foot-long drive to the home is lined with Royal Palms.
Mr. Sewell, 71, who sells his art and photography, estimated total construction costs at around $300,000. A two-acre compound in Haiku, also with a four-bedroom home but with unobstructed ocean views, is listed for $2.7 million.
Tom has lived on the property since 1990. Michelle, a 46-year-old former schoolteacher-turned-interior designer, joined him a few years later. One of their fondest memories is when, in 2001, Tom slid open the doors of the garage-turned-bedroom and drove his 1950 Studebaker inside. He proposed marriage to her by holding up a sign made of photographs of him in various yoga poses that resembled letters which spelled out “Will You Marry Me?” They took their vows in the ruins of a nearby 1857 sugar mill.
The house remains a labor of love for both of them, requiring constant upkeep. “Sometimes I feel like its glorified camping,” Michelle said, adding that it’s hard to keep things from rotting and getting moldy. “If you let it, the jungle will take over.” She keeps a dehumidifier running much of the time.
Their place, in turn, has become a kind of clubhouse, with everyone from the pro surfer Kai Barger to documentary filmmakers stopping in for Monday night movies, a game of chess, dinner with poet W.S. Merwin and his wife or morning Qigong, the Chinese practice of exercise, breathing and meditation, on the lawn.
Says Antonio Piazza, a tech mediator who spends much of his time in Haiku, “It’s as if you took the fin de siècle Paris salons and transposed them to the verdant lushness of Maui,” he said.
They throw an annual dinner party for friends and neighbors that they call “The Dump Dinner”—everyone dresses up like hoboes. Corn-on-the-cob, kielbasa sausages, shrimp, and snap peas are laid out on a table covered with paper, with no plates or utensils. An accordion player performs. Most mornings, Mr. Sewell swims in the ocean with a group of friends who include Max De Rham, a one-armed treasure hunter known for helping to discover the Nanking Cargo, a collection of valuable Chinese porcelain found in a shipwreck.
“We create our own culture here,” Mr. Sewell said.