A Whale of an Artist

Cris Gutierrez Ditches Catering Apron for a Palette of Driftwood and Coconuts

Last March, a beached whale on the rocky shore of Kahului Harbor near Kanaloa Avenue captured the attention of visitors and local residents. Sculpted entirely from driftwood, the impressive 14-foot cetacean stretches skyward in full thrust as it breaks the skin of some unseen ocean — an Insta-worthy breach forever frozen in time. 

Cris Gutierrez Ditches Catering Apron for a Palette of Driftwood and Coconuts. By Sean M. Hower

A year and some change later, the whale sculpture bears the scars of sea, salt, and time but no attributing marks, not even a single initial crudely etched into wood betray its creator’s identity. “It’s just meant to be there, something to look at,” explains Crisanto “Cris” Gutierrez, the humble sculptor responsible for the rustic public art piece. “If people like the whale and it brings them joy, that’s enough reward for me.” 

Originally from the Philippines but living on Maui since 1980, Gutierrez is no stranger to artistic expression. Before embracing his art full time, he spent two decades in the catering space where his handmade plant stands served as decorative props for high-end events. Married with three adult children now on their own, he was already considering changing careers when COVID hit.

Cris finishing up minor repairs as the environment always takes a toll on his larger pieces. By Sean M. Hower

“With the pandemic, I couldn’t do any more catering events due to restrictions,” Gutierrez, 61, recalls. The unanticipated break allowed him to take a breath, do a deep soul dive, and visualize the next chapter of his life.

“I really wanted to switch course, so I went to the beach to pray, meditate, and think about what I wanted to do,” he remembers. 

After much introspection and heartfelt chats with his higher power, Gutierrez decided to ditch the catering and focus on his plant stands. His creative juices engaged and pumping, he soon discovered he possessed a unique talent in constructing rough-hewn driftwood sculptures that depict island life — from ocean- and land-based fauna to hula dancers, surfers and cyclists. 

Turtle driftwood sculpture in Kahului. By Sean M. Hower

He started out modestly, sculpting rudimentary fish at home with wood collected from the stretch of shoreline skirting Kahului Beach Road.

“I was looking for material one morning and decided I’d try making a whale,” he recalls. “I was kind of nervous about it, but thought to myself, ‘If I make it and it stays here, great!’”

 The first day of construction involved fashioning the whale’s skeleton using wood and just enough wire to hold the shape. If the preliminary framework was still there when he returned the following day, he vowed to complete the ambitious undertaking. Finding the skeleton undisturbed, Gutierrez went to work. Using driftwood gathered nearby, he meticulously stacked and fitted the oddly shaped pieces into the structure with Jenga-like precision.

Turtle detail made from tree bark driftwood. By Sean M. Hower

Many of those who regularly travel Kahului Beach Road seek out the whale as a tangible reminder of the natural beauty that surrounds us. A recent encounter between Gutierrez and a carload of would-be protectors exemplifies the growing bond connecting whale and commuter. While making necessary fixes to the sculpture’s overall integrity, two vans pulled over in defense of the driftwood cetacean after mistakenly interpreting his intent as destructive rather than reparative. “They were yelling, ‘Hey braddah, what do you think you’re doing?’ They didn’t know that I made it. I was so happy that they were screaming at me and protecting the whale!”  

Gutierrez is passionate about this emerging artform, and he plans to tackle a mermaid and an octopus next. His talents aren’t defined by driftwood alone; plants that he shapes into animals and other figures adorn Holy Rosary Church in Paia, his place of worship.

Overall, he’s immensely grateful for this newfound direction. Unlike catering, he can work anytime and under any condition. “I leave everything in my trailer,” he explains, “leave it in the sun or the rain, no problem.”

Most of all, Gutierrez loves being his own boss. He cherishes spending time in nature with his wife — his greatest cheerleader and the spark fueling endless beach walks in search of driftwood. 

Find Cris Gutierrez and his driftwood sculptures and plant stands at the Saturday Kahului Swap Meet near the UH-Maui College campus. To reach him directly via his business, Drift on Maui, call 264-1421 or email lcrisg@aol.com.

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