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For Ashland sculptor Wataru Sugiyama, it’s next stop: The Smithsonian

The notable Oregon artist is selected to show his ceramic pieces at the Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington, D.C., this spring, and he hopes to complete a 13-foot owl sculpture in 2024.

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Wataru Sugiyama talks about the process to be accepted in the Smithsonian Craft Show. He applied for the show at least six times before being selected. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
Wataru Sugiyama talks about the process to be accepted in the Smithsonian Craft Show. He applied for the show at least six times before being selected. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

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This story was published originally by Ashland.news, and is republished here with permission. Reach Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at hollyd@ashland.news.

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PHOENIX – Ashland sculptor Wataru Sugiyama has had two major goals in the past decade: Showing his art at the Smithsonian Craft Show and finishing an anthropomorphic owl sculpture he has envisioned for years that now stands 13 feet tall in his Phoenix studio. The 67-year-old Ashland resident is about to accomplish both.

After submitting his application to the Smithsonian Craft Show five or six times over the years, Sugiyama learned on Nov. 28 that his hard work has paid off: He was accepted in the ceramics division of the show as one of 120 artists across the country to take part in the annual showcase.

Works by Sugiyama, an accomplished artist, sculptor and ceramist, have been displayed in Ashland and all over. He still attends shows around Oregon, Washington and California, and has wanted to show his art pieces at the Smithsonian since his daughter graduated from Georgetown University several years ago.

“This is very, very hard to get in,” Sugiyama said, of the competitive craft show.

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Ashland artist Wataru Sugiyama. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
Ashland artist Wataru Sugiyama. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
Ashland artist Wataru Sugiyama came to Southern Oregon in the 1980s and attended Southern Oregon State College, now Southern Oregon University, where he found his passion for art. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
Ashland artist Wataru Sugiyama came to Southern Oregon in the 1980s and attended Southern Oregon State College, now Southern Oregon University, where he found his passion for art. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
Wataru Sugiyama talks about the process to be accepted in the Smithsonian Craft Show. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
Wataru Sugiyama talks about the process to be accepted in the Smithsonian Craft Show. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
Ashland artist Wataru Sugiyama. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
Ashland artist Wataru Sugiyama. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

He works with clay out of a studio barn in Ashland, and does bronzework and carves stone at the Jack Langford Studio, owned by his friend and colleague Jack Langford, located off South Pacific Highway in Phoenix. His works have been displayed at Hanson Howard Gallery for more than 30 years, although the gallery recently announced plans to close.

He learned the news about acceptance into the Smithsonian show after returning home from a show in Sacramento in late November. He was in bed when he noticed his iPhone beep. Sugiyama recalls being very tired and that he barely glanced over to see that the notification was from officials at the Smithsonian.

Assuming it was another declined entry into the show – he’s collected several over the years – he felt like he didn’t have the courage to look further.

Curiosity got the better of him, though, and, not wanting to put off the disappointment, Sugiyama awoke to look at the full message.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” he said jubilantly, looking at an email invitation to the Smithsonian Craft Show. 

“I’m 67 and I thought I’d never get in,” he added, “but I just really decided, I’d continue to apply till the age of 70.”

Wataru Sugiyama shows the email he received from the Smithsonian congratulating him on being selected to show his work at the 2024 Craft Show in May. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
Wataru Sugiyama shows the email he received from the Smithsonian congratulating him on being selected to show his work at the 2024 Craft Show in May. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
Part of Wataru Sugiyama’s entry portfolio for the Smithsonian’s 2024 Craft Show. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
Part of Wataru Sugiyama’s entry portfolio for the Smithsonian’s 2024 Craft Show. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

The three pieces he entered fit the show’s category of “Creating Joy,” he believes, because joy is the source of his creations.

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The first piece he is taking to the craft show is a ceramic elephant titled “Most Beautiful Moment.” In Sugiyama’s words, the piece is a creative, futuristic elephant that represents the bond between a mother and child and a father and his child.

“Even as centuries go by, I believe there will be (a) strong bond and love between Mother & Child, or Father & Child forever,” Sugiyama writes in an email.

The second piece is of an anthropomorphic elephant with two trunks that represent the essence of Sugiyama’s art.

“My definition of art is expressing my own feelings and inject them into my works of art!” he said in a text message. “Happiness, calmness, sadness, and anger (are) in this sculpture. This is the one which represents my definition of art.”

Sugiyama is also bringing about 20 other sculptures with him when he leaves for Washington, D.C., in late April because, in his whimsical words, “They want to go with me,” he told Ashland.news with a laugh.

Part of Wataru Sugiyama’s entry portfolio for the Smithsonian’s 2024 Craft Show. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
Part of Wataru Sugiyama’s entry portfolio for the Smithsonian’s 2024 Craft Show. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

His artistic philosophy is simple, he says, in that his goal is for his sculptures to look as if they are alive.

The third piece Sugiyama plans to show at the craft show is titled “Mortgage.” The anthropomorphic frog carries a house on his back, representing friends of Sugiyama’s who feel the pressure of making house payments throughout their lifetime.

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“We wish we could live our life peacefully without pressure,” Sugiyama said in an email.

Sugiyama’s art origins began at SOU

Sugiyama began working with clay while taking an elective ceramics class at Southern Oregon University after already spending several years as an engineer in Japan.

He arrived in Ashland in 1986 from Tokyo, where he was born and raised, with a plan to earn a master’s degree before returning home. But he would soon find out life had other ideas. 

Sugiyama took English classes to help him prepare for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).

A work by Wataru Sugiyama. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
A work by Wataru Sugiyama. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

Zuna Johnson, a 44-year Ashland resident, taught Sugiyama upper division English near SOU. She was an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher with the American Language Academy (ALA) when Sugiyama arrived in Ashland in 1986. 

“We ended up working one-on-one for a couple hours every day for I don’t know how many months,” Johnson said.

One of the requirements to graduate from what was then Southern Oregon State College was an arts elective. He chose ceramics.

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“When he put his hands in the clay … he suddenly had a complete enlightenment,” Johnson recalled in an interview with Ashland.news. “He flipped his whole life around and (eventually) became an artist.”

Zuna Johnson, right, poses for a photo with her then-student Wataru Sugiyama, seated. Photo courtesy of Zuna Johnson
Zuna Johnson, right, poses for a photo with her then-student Wataru Sugiyama, seated. Photo courtesy of Zuna Johnson

At the time, Sugiyama said his job as an engineer, while monetarily successful, “didn’t satisfy my heart.”

What he found with clay and sculpting sparked another feeling in him: “Living alive.”

He said the clay offers him “spiritual guidance” while he molds its shape.

“Logically, I cannot logically explain it,” he said.

“It was fabulous because it was the classic example of how upper education is supposed to expand your thinking, expand your mind, expand your possibilities — and for him it expanded him to the point of … revolutionizing his whole life plan,” Johnson said.

Johnson still has one of his first art pieces.

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“His philosophical work is how do I bring joy into my life and send it out to other people in their lives by creating my art,” Johnson said.

Wataru Sugiyama is considering showing this statue of he and his mother at the Smithsonian in May. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
Wataru Sugiyama is considering showing this statue of he and his mother at the Smithsonian in May. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

Sugiyama feels his art deeply but he emphasizes he has a simple philosophy about discovering one’s life passion.

“If you’re … really looking for something that feeds your heart, if you really get that where there is just passion, there is a path; there is a door,” Sugiyama said. “And you can open it.”

While Sugiyama was creating with clay in his ceramics course, he found that “door” and proceeded to walk right on through.

He made a unique ceramic piece that got the attention of then-SOU President Joseph Cox. Cox came down to the ceramic classroom studio to see the art piece.

“He encouraged me to (earn) my master’s degree,” Sugiyama said.

Sugiyama was given a full scholarship from the Ceramics Department to pursue a graduate degree in ceramics.

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Without a regular income, he started working early morning shifts, starting at 4:30 a.m. as a janitor, cleaning restrooms and the ceramics studio, a job he held for two years.

He met a Japanese-American couple who gave him a room and provided him with food.

“So I stayed until I finished (my) graduate degree,” Sugiyama said. 

In a soft, feisty voice, Sugiyama said he was a “very lucky man — no doubt about it.”

His work was shown at SOU, and, after graduating, he rented a mountain studio to work with clay.

In the years following, he became a father to a daughter, in what he describes as a transition point for him. He realized that to provide for his family, he needed to create art he could sell.

Sugiyama said he has made more than 1,000 pieces of art to date and shows in Oregon, Washington and California. Most incorporate animals, for which Sugiyama holds a deep fondness. Others showcase the love and connection he has with his daughter and for those in his life whom he has lost. 

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Still another piece delves deeper into the pain he felt upon learning that his mother secretly aborted twins — a boy and a girl — due to financial concerns, without Sugiyama’s knowledge. A piece that depicts the two children with his mother, he says, helped him heal from the discovered loss.

Wataru Sugiyama stands next to his 13-foot-tall owl sculpture, Peacefulness. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
Wataru Sugiyama stands next to his 13-foot-tall owl sculpture, Peacefulness. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

An anthropomorphic owl called ‘Peacefulness’

Standing next to one of his prized sculptures in process, Sugiyama is dwarfed by the 13-foot-tall sculpture he calls Peacefulness.

The towering anthropomorphic bird has long been a picture in Sugiyama’s mind for some time and, as the COVID-19 pandemic brewed in 2020, he started crafting it.

He was first inspired to create an owl sculpture because of a family of great horned owls in his barn studio in Ashland.

Sugiyama witnessed as the owl couple eventually added a baby owl to the nest.

He saw them as a teacher or mentor, as sometimes, when he would work late in his studio, he  would hear the owls, “Whoo-whooing” above, almost as if to say, “Wataru, why you still working so hard?”

“I had a really strong connection with them,” Sugiyama said.

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Wataru Sugiyama stands next to his 13-foot-tall owl sculpture, Peacefulness. He hopes the sculpture eventually will be sold and cast in bronze. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
Wataru Sugiyama stands next to his 13-foot-tall owl sculpture, Peacefulness. He hopes the sculpture eventually will be sold and cast in bronze. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

An image of the owl, standing, with his arms crossed, and his head a little bit tilted, was deeply set in his mind over years.

He spoke to Langford about the image that he wanted to create.

But it wasn’t until the pandemic that it began to take shape.

He earned a $5,000 scholarship to create it, with assistance from Langford on building the base.

“I just really wanted to make it as big as possible,” Sugiyama said.

The sculpture is complete, but currently plans are in place to make a mold and then to bronze and then weld the piece once it is sold.

He hopes it will be a legacy piece.

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“I feel that was my life goal,” Sugiyama said. “Before I die, I wanted to get into the Smithsonian and I wanted to finish. That to me is enough.”

“If you have a vision and you really want to do this … be patient,” he said, noting all the pieces came together in time. “And the right (moment) — it happens.” 

Peacefulness, a 13-foot-tall owl sculpture by Wataru Sugiyama, was inspired by a family of owls that share his barn studio outside Ashland. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
Peacefulness, a 13-foot-tall owl sculpture by Wataru Sugiyama, was inspired by a family of owls that share his barn studio outside Ashland. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

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Works by Wataru Sugiyama

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Also see Wataru Sugiyama: Building beauty, ArtsWatch editor and writer Beth Sorensen’s August 2021 profile of the artist.

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Reach Ashland.news staff reporter Holly Dillemuth at hollyd@ashland.news.

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One Response

  1. Thank you for this wonderful article in Wataru’s good news. It’s very exciting!! Great images, too!
    And also, thank you for all of the fabulous work you do with representing the Oregon arts. 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼

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