Paia: Surfing, art mingle on Maui's north shore
Surfing and art mingle a lot in Paia — a blink-and-you-miss-it town — on the north shore of Maui.
The New York Times
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MAUI, Hawaii — It was just after 10 a.m. and the Paia Contemporary Gallery was getting ready to open. The sun was streaming through the glass storefront, giving everything inside a warm glow.
Alejandro Goya, the gallery's owner, was adjusting a small glass sculpture just a fraction of an angle.
"I'm interested in abstract art, as you can tell," said Goya, surrounded by crisp white walls and vaguely figurative sculptures, some costing a few thousand dollars.
But any notion that this was a high-priced gallery in a big city was punctured when a group of surfers walked past the front door — barefoot, boards under their arms, and wet suits unzipped to their waists.
Surfing and art mingle in Paia — a blink-and-you-miss-it town on the north shore of Maui. For years, this old Hawaiian sugar town has been a respite for stoners, surfers and, according to many locals, a certain low-key breed of celebrities like Willie Nelson, the Doobie Brothers, Woody Harrelson and Kris Kristofferson.
In recent years, however, the chill surfer vibe has been joined by a buzzing art scene, with a half-dozen new galleries representing artists like Mary Mitsuda, David Ivan Clark and Udo Noger.
Their works have not only attracted the attention of the international art-collecting crowd, who come here on holidays, but also that of major institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Meanwhile, boho-chic hotels and fancy farm-to-table restaurants have opened, and a different caliber of tourist (as in wealthy art buyer) has started turning Paia into an unlikely destination for contemporary art.
"You have all that exotica, these wonderful restaurants and top-notch galleries," said Michael Kessler, an artist who lives in Santa Fe, N.M., but recently had his first show in Paia. "I don't know any other place like it."
Former sugar town
In the late 1800s, Paia was an important sugar town in Hawaii. But by the 1950s, with the sugar-cane industry weakening, Paia had turned into a sleepy wisp of a village, making it a prime destination for hippies, artists and anyone looking for a quieter life.
This being Hawaii, Paia also has all the dramatic beauty you would expect from the South Pacific — dense greenery, powdery beaches and world-famous waves. But it has almost none of the tourist crush that plagues bigger Maui destinations like Lahaina and Wailea, an hour away by car.
Paia is still surrounded by cane fields and is pretty much the only village on the quieter, northern side of Maui. For decades, it was mainly a way station to the rest of the island.
Tourists stopped for gas and water, before driving into the upcountry, Maui's lush inland region. Or it was where just-married couples picked up the windy road to Hana, the secluded honeymoon destination on Maui's eastern tip.
But otherwise, visitors steered clear of Paia's narrow main streets and roads, all lined with tropical plantation houses — small, wooden and painted in adorable Lucky Charms colors.
Even as the rest of the island welcomed a Four Seasons, a Ritz-Carlton and other 750-room megaresorts, Paia has resisted modernity and held true to its weird little vibe. Just outside town, a rusty old mill stands as a vestige of its past.
Paia is also tiny. It's about as small as a town can be while still being called a town. Ask for directions, and you soon find that everything in Paia is either on "Hana Highway, opposite Baldwin" or on "Baldwin Avenue at the corner of Hana Highway." Or drop by Charley's, the town's greasy spoon, for dinner, and the evening's entertainment may well be Willie Nelson.
"Paia is what Maui used to be about," Goya said. "It's not where you come to get massaged in a fancy hotel."
But before Paia was an art destination, it was a surf spot. And the surfers were the canaries for the art scene that would follow. The surfing culture, which naturally dominates all of Hawaii, is especially pronounced in Paia: this is home to Jaws, a legendary wave that can climb 70 feet high and travel 30 mph.
Jaws is often credited with starting "tow-in surfing" — riding breaks so enormous that you need a Jet Ski to tow you in.
"The surfing here is maybe better than anywhere in the world, so first the surfers came, and soon enough everyone else clued into the magic of this place," said Archie Kalepa, a professional surfer born and raised in Maui.
Besides conquering Jaws, he is known affectionately as the unofficial mayor of Maui as everyone on the island seems to know him. "I still think of Paia as an old hippie town where you go to buy a doughnut from a mom-and-pop shop," Kalepa said.
The mom-and-pop shops still exist, but today they stand wedged between high-end art galleries. For the most part, the galleries — a handful of small, well-curated spaces that have opened in recent years — show no more than two dozen pieces at a time.
Prices range as much as the art itself, from Gauguin-inspired portraits of Polynesia to modern, color block paintings, as in Goya's gallery.
It makes for an eclectic community. "Paia is the land of the free, home of the strange," said Konrad Juestel, who owns Konrad's Ship Gallery, which sells hand-carved miniatures of Hawaiian canoes.
As he spoke, a woman with dreadlocks rode by on a bicycle with a basket full of kittens, as if on cue. Moments later, a man with a long white beard strolled by in a flowing caftan with his sheepdogs.
"We didn't have a Halloween celebration here for years because, frankly, we didn't think anyone would even notice," Juestel said.
What Paia does have in common with the outside world is its ability to attract people of means. And with the rising art scene, that's truer than ever.
"You can't swing a dead mongoose without hitting a millionaire around here," Juestel said. "This is the richest area of Maui, but it's hard to tell because there are so many hippies walking around."
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