It’s not every day you see a beautiful mermaid bursting from a giant block of wood. Add the backdrop of a white sand beach and the glistening, halcyon Pacific Ocean at sunset and it’s easy to see why lots of people are stopping to admire Dale Zarrella’s handiwork. Chisel in hand, a relaxed smile on his face, Zarrella pauses to speak with passersby, breaking the invisible but often imposing wall between artist and viewer.
“I’ve met some of the most incredible people doing this,” says the sculptor over drinks at the Fairmont Kea Lani in Wailea, just a few hundred feet from where his striking creation sits silhouetted in the fading light. “It’s an interaction that I really enjoy.”
Zarrella says children especially are fascinated by what he does. “I love it when they come up to ask questions or to touch [the sculpture],” he says. “It brings it to life for them in a way that something hanging on a wall or in a museum maybe wouldn’t.” He’s also had adults from every walk of life including a few celebrities—like actor Jason Alexander of Seinfeld fame—approach him with curiosity and interest.
“It’s a fascinating experiment,” he says. “Some people are so engaged and others seem to be walking through life with no idea what’s going on around them.”
For Zarrella, the impetus to bring his work outdoors and ultimately to South Maui’s stretch of posh beachfront resorts came, more or less, from cabin fever. “I realized I spent so much time in the workshop that I would miss sunsets, I wouldn’t get in the ocean for a few weeks,” he says. He couldn’t leave the work, so he brought it with him.
Asked if he’s ever distracted by the attention, he says he gets his share of tranquility and quiet at home. He likens public sculpting to a musician performing a piece he’s already composed. “All the music is already written down,” he says. “Now I’m just playing it.”
Zarrella, who grew up on a farm in Connecticut and moved to Maui in 1985, has been sculpting since age nine. His work quickly gained recognition and as a teenager he was commissioned to create an 8 1/2-foot crucifix for the altar of his hometown church.
After making the transition from the chilly confines of New England to Maui, Zarrella says his “whole world changed.” He began using new, exotic kinds of wood and, most important, gained a new creative source: the sea. He started incorporating whales, sea turtles and other oceanic elements into his work.
Zarrella says the inspiration for sculpting mermaids came from a visit to influential Hawaiian artist and historian Herb Kane’s home. “He had a sculpture of a mermaid with a humpback whale he’d done many years ago in bronze. And I had a different vision of having her interact with sea turtles,” he remembers. The result of that idea is currently adorning the covered foyer of the Kea Lani; her sister sits in a state of emerging creation near the surf.
Ultimately, Zarrella hopes to produce an extensive “Wailea mermaids” collection. While the wood he’s using won’t hold up outdoors, he envisions bronze castings that could adorn the area’s manicured grounds.
Creating a mythical creature, rather than an animal that can be readily observed in nature, presents unique challenges for an artist. But Zarrella says he trusts the wood to help reveal the form. “It’s important to let the piece evolve as it wants to, rather than trying to control it, or force it to be what I want it to be,” he says. “I learned a long time ago that if I allow it to evolve naturally it’ll come out far beyond anything I can imagine.”
For Zarrella, this brand of thinking extends beyond his craft. “As humans we can over-think things or try too hard to control things,” he says. “I know artists who try and control every aspect; they need to know exactly how things are going to turn out before they even start. I notice that’s how they approach life. When they come upon a problem they get frustrated and angry.
“I learn from art and my art learns from life. Sometimes you just have to stay out of the way.” MTW