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Tale of a humpback whale

Paia man turns from catering to driftwood

Cris Gutierrez works on his driftwood creations, including a hula girl, at a farmers market last week at Po‘okela Church in Makawao. The Maui News / LILA FUJIMOTO photos

KAHULUI – When the pandemic shut down Cris Gutierrez’s teppanyaki catering business, he spent more time at the beach in prayer – and in driftwood.

“I prayed hard,” Gutierrez said. “I go hang out at the beach, enjoying the driftwood, asking nature if there’s anything I can do.”

He gathered driftwood to make planters.

Then he decided to take on a more ambitious project.

About two months ago, he created a driftwood humpback whale along the shoreline outside Kahului Harbor. He spent two days sculpting the 15-foot whale, using 300 to 400 pieces of driftwood he collected from the surrounding shoreline.

The Paia resident created the driftwood humpback whale and honu outside Kahului Harbor.

Gutierrez wasn’t expecting the reaction, including a text that his niece in Germany received saying a social media post about the whale had gone viral.

“I’m just so happy that people are appreciating it and liking it,” he said. “I hope it will stay there for a while.”

The whale has drawn the attention of passersby, including Kula resident Deborah Linn, who stopped with her daughter, Journey, on Sunday to look at the whale and the driftwood honu nearby.

Gutierrez created the 5-foot-square honu about a week and a half ago.

“What a lovely gift,” said Linn, who had seen the whale soon after it was made and wanted her daughter to see the creations. “It’s like a gift to people who live here and a gift to people who are driving by.”

Cris Gutierrez puts finishing touches on a driftwood hula girl displayed with his other creations at a farmers market last week at Po‘okela Church in Makawao.

She wanted to say thank you to the sculptor.

“Thank you for being so amazing and awesome,” she said. “It’s really such a sensational gift for everyone to enjoy.”

With no artist’s signature on the whale or honu, she and others have wondered who was responsible for the creations.

“The fact that it’s mysterious makes it more appealing,” Linn said. “He’s not asking for any credit. He’s just sharing his passion. It’s so genuine and so heartfelt and so aloha.”

Gutierrez said he can’t draw but could see parts of the whale, and later the honu, in the driftwood pieces. “It’s all God given to me,” he said. “I pray a lot. I kind of envision it and everything is around.

“When I made the honu, I was looking for the head. I saw the leg, the fin.

“It’s not as easy as people think. I have to search and pick which ones are usable.”

He estimated that 60 to 70 percent of the driftwood pieces making up the whale aren’t in good condition. During stops to check on the whale, he has replaced a few pieces that fell off.

“If someone messes it up, it’s OK,” he said. “If somebody approached me to dismantle it, I would do it.”

Except for the foundation, no wood was cut to create the whale. Gutierrez used nails, which he counted to make sure he didn’t leave any behind, and whole pieces of driftwood.

“It’s like a puzzle, I guess,” he said.

Before the pandemic, the 60-year-old Paia resident had a teppanyaki catering business that he started in 2003 after working at restaurants including Benihana. He has lived on Maui since 1980 after moving to Hawaii from the Philippines in 1975 when he was 14.

Gutierrez hadn’t thought about shifting his focus from catering to driftwood until about four months ago.

He made 10 or 20 smaller driftwood whales and drove around Kahului with the creations in the back of his truck.

People started calling the phone number on his truck asking if the whales were for sale, and he sold them for $50 each. He later learned that some of his whales were being resold for $90 to $100.

Now, he has made driftwood pets as well as whales, selling them at the Wednesday farmers market at Po’okela Church in Makawao and the Saturday swap meet at Maui Marketplace in Kahului. People who see his booth will ask if he’s the one who made the whale at the harbor.

With tourists returning to the swap meet, Gutierrez said he’s considering making smaller driftwood pieces that they can take home.

While he still has his grill for catering, he said he won’t do events but may still cook for smaller groups.

“Cooking is probably one of the hardest jobs to do also. You set up, break down,” he said. “It’s time to move on to a different avenue.”

He recently changed the name of his business from Flying Knives to Nuts Driftwood & Beyond Maui.

“I’m hoping I can master it,” he said. “That’s what I really want to do.”

At Kahului Harbor on Sunday, both Deborah and Journey Linn wondered if another driftwood sculpture might soon appear at a spot near the whale and honu.

“They kind of speak for themselves,” Journey Linn said. “They’re beautiful.”

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at lfujimoto@mauinews.com.

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