Finding roots: ‘Big Wood’ brings joy to West Hawai‘i, provides therapy to its creator
October 28, 2022, 7:02 AM HST
Along the tourist drag of Ali’i Drive in downtown Kona on the Big Island, people do double takes with expressions of surprise and delight when they see a 7-foot towering green creation of spray foam, cardboard, two-by-fours, silicon and fake plants — and realize a real person is inside.
The novelty’s creator, Brandon Carpenter, calls himself “Big Wood.” Others call him “Groot,” the walking-talking tree from Marvel comics and “Guardians of the Galaxy” films.
Around town, people have affectionately started calling him “Tree Man.”
“The kids love him,” said Christine Kruger, barista at Kai Eats in Kona. “They just want to climb the Mr. Tree. I’m an old lady and I’m feeling like a little kid again.”
Carpenter walks areas of Ali‘i Drive not for money, but for the pure joy Big Wood brings to keiki and adults. The 36-year-old also does it as a form of therapy for himself.
“When I feel like I can’t take another step and see a little kid look up at me and smile, I feel like I can walk another mile,” he said.
Carpenter is at a period of his life when he feels less grounded, living out of a borrowed jeep. He said he has struggled since moving from North Carolina to the Big Island last year to find a stable job and living environment.
He was living primarily in Hilo, but moved to Kona about a week ago after he got kicked out of the room he was renting. He is now homeless and expects to soon lose his transportation/makeshift lodging, too. He’s trying to deal with all that turmoil, as well as his depression and anxiety.
“I can’t seem to find stability,” Carpenter said. “I want someplace to be comfortable and create art.”
Carpenter’s dream is to have his own brick-and-mortar gallery where he can put his art on display. While he does a little bit of everything, he loves creating wire sculptures.
While Carpenter dreams of a better life, he used his passion for art to create Big Wood for solace.
At a residence in Mountain View, he spent 200 hours and doled out $300 in materials on the costume he has wanted to make for about 10 years. Last year, he completed Big Wood.
Why a tree?
He wasn’t sure, saying: “I just always had an affinity for nature and everything green.”
But it’s not easy being a tree. The costume covered in moss, ivy leaves and fake flowers, with a small axe buried in the right stump leg, is hot “like solar flares.”
The 50-pound platform boots rub his shins raw.
“I literally bleed for this,” he said.
Carpenter, who is 5-feet-9 with a slender build, stalks about as Big Wood in front of Coconut Grove by Humpy’s Big Island Alehouse and sometimes down toward Hale Halawai by Kai Eats and Drinks.
When Kruger, the barista at Kai Eats, first spotted Carpenter in his tree garb about a week ago at the small beach next to the restaurant, she said she had to go over and take a picture with him.
“I loved the fact he put so much into his appearance,” Kruger said. “He looks like Groot and he’s a nice guy.”
Kruger said his costume is indeed a work of art.
Carpenter waves to people passing by and talks to pedestrians who ask him questions or who want a picture with him.
Sometimes, he just stands still. When he turns, it surprises people and then makes them happy.
These positive encounters lift him up. So does the tremendous support he has experienced from the community and businesses on Aliʻi Drive.
“From day one they were treating me like I was a celebrity,” he said.
The security at Humpy’s also has embraced him and supported his presence outside the establishment. Sonny Westbrook, security manager at the bar, said Tree Man is something new for tourists and local people.
“A lot of people love it,” Westbrook said. “It’s crazy to see a tree walking around town. He brings a lot of joy and he’s not harming anybody.”
Carpenter said he was approached by police who warned him it was against the law to panhandle.
He said he only started carrying a basket around because people would shove money in his pockets.
Westbrook said he wants to help Tree Man and is sponsoring him.
“I help when he needs something to eat,” he said. “I give him advice. I’m a friend to him and he’s a friend to me.
“I know he wants to get somewhere. He’s trying to make a living and survive like everybody else and I’m trying to help him out.”
Gina Torres, a bartender at Kai Eats, also is trying to help Carpenter. She first saw him by the Kailua Pier and knew she had to meet him. She looked for him for a few days until she saw him walking by at Humpy’s.
Torres talked with Carpenter while he was eating lunch at the bar by himself. She gave him permission to hang out in front of Kai Eats.
Torres said she has a big heart and Carpenter seems to be a good guy in a hard place. She’s hoping to help him make local connections that will help him get on his feet.
“We don’t mind him being here,” Kruger said. “I think he’s an attraction that everyone is willing to check out. He’s actually helped draw in people.”