An unpaved road turns off of East Main Street at the southern end of Ashland, passing by cows, abandoned farm equipment, and old cars to arrive at an archetypically picturesque old barn. Wander through the brush to the back, where you’ll find the studio of sculptor Wataru Sugiyama. The shelves that line the spare, 10’ x 12’ room are crammed full of his unique interpretations of traditional Japanese Haniwa imagery – meditating elephants, beatified boars, violin-playing foxes, and turtle monks – all in various stages of completion for gallery exhibitions and commissions.
The 64-year old Sugiyama has worked in the barn studio for nearly 15 years now, the location along Hamilton Creek suiting him better than one with more creature comforts. He will often rise from his work bench and wander down the dirt roads nearby, stopping at a nearby pond teeming with aquatic life, meditating on the rolling hills across the way, or playing his flute to greet the morning sun.
Nature has always been the source of Sugiyama’s inspiration, part of a deep intuitive relationship he has to the living world. “I do find beauty in nature. I love to talk to the rising sun (in fact, I pray toward sun goddess), to clouds, trees (I love to hug them), and to both living and non-living forms in nature,” he explains. “I am not only getting the ideas for shapes or colors toward creating my sculptures, but I am recharging myself.” Nature’s forms provide him with a spiritual energy, he says, towards his mission as a sculptor: to convey light into the viewers’ hearts.
Although he grew up in a Buddhist family in Japan, Sugiyama does not consider himself a serious Buddhist practitioner. Nor does he consider himself a follower of Shinto or Animism, practices that believe spirits exist in both living and non-living things in nature. Instead, he is open to any spiritual faith. His work draws on forms and inspirations from many cultures and religions, including the Ganesh of India; the Pacha-mama of Peru; the cheery, bald-headed Jizo of Buddhist tradition, guardian of travelers, women, and children; and, of course, the Haniwa of Japan. “I have never seen any gods or goddesses with my naked eyes, but I’d rather feel them when I am mindful in nature. I accept what I feel is right to my heart,” he adds. “My goal to create the sculptures is to make them as alive as if there was life in them, as if I am injecting life into them, and to have the viewers experience some catharsis – feeling sad, crying, laughing, smiling, healing.”
“To find my bliss”
Born in Tokyo, Sugiyama was raised in a traditional family with traditional Japanese ideas of careers and success. By age 26, he was an established civil engineer working for a construction blueprint company, a success by society’s standards, but one with an empty soul. He knew he had to leave and find his life mission, though he wasn’t sure what that mission would be. “I didn’t know my destination then, but my heart was calling to find what I really wanted to do with my life.” He started studying English at a private language institute in Tokyo. Eventually, his path led him in 1986 to Ashland to study speech communications at what was then Southern Oregon State College, now Southern Oregon University. While his family worried at this sudden shift in his career and goals, his parents nonetheless steadfastly supported their youngest child’s journey to, as he says, find his bliss.
That moment came when he had to take an elective as part of his degree requirement. He chose a ceramics class and quickly discovered a new way to communicate, to tell stories in a way that didn’t involve language, but that spoke to the spiritual life of his work. He completed his original degree, but then went on to pursue a Masters degree in fine art. Returning to Japan with support from SOSC to study Haniwa ceramics, he increasingly drew inspiration in his work from Japanese mythology, culture, and history. For his final MA project in 1992, he sculpted 156 Haniwa for a show, both educational and historical, in the college’s Stevenson Art Gallery. He was 34 years old and just beginning his career as a professional artist.
Haniwa, “circles of clay” in Japanese, are unglazed terracotta rings, cylinders and hollow figures of people, animals, and houses that were left on or around the tombs of society’s elite during the Kofun and Asuka Periods (c. 250-710 CE) of ancient Japan. The purpose of these sculptures is unknown, but they were likely meant to represent the wealth and status of the deceased. Another theory is that the Haniwa were meant to be protective spirits meant to guard the deceased and their tomb.
The most recognizable Haniwa are riderless horses, as well as birds, monkeys, and dogs. But the most elegant pieces are intricate human figures representing warriors standing alone or on horseback, archers with bows and arrows, female shamans, and monks. Most Haniwa are about a yard in height, but some are nearly five feet tall.
Over the years, Sugiyama’s reputation as an artist grew. Although there were years when he subsisted on ramen and the encouragement and support of friends, by the time he moved into the barn on East Main Street, he had acquired a significant following of collectors and galleries. While much of his representation is in Northern California, he has had a long relationship with Hanson Howard Gallery in Ashland and has shown his work at the Portland Japanese Garden’s popular Behind the Shoji event. His mediums began to expand beyond ceramics to stone, bronze, and wood. In 2009, former Ashland City Council Member Alice Hardesty purchased a granite piece, “Gift,” in memory of her late husband, Jack, who had been a longtime admirer of Sugiyama and his work. The piece is publicly sited behind the Ashland Public Library on Siskiyou Boulevard.
In loss, a new beginning
In May 2014, Sugiyama returned once more to Japan, this time to attend the funeral of his mother. In his grief at her loss, he had no motivation to work, or to even return to Ashland. To distract himself, he went to the Shiga Prefecture near Kyoto, a region known for its ancient temples, shrines, and castles. Sitting at his sister’s home at Lake Biwa, he looked across the water and saw Mt. Hiei, long revered by the Japanese as a scared site, a holy mountain where the Tendai warrior monks built the sprawling Enryaky-ji Temple in the 9th century.
“While seeing the mountain I felt I had to get up there for no reason other than I sensed someone was calling me from there.” He told his sister and brother-in-law about this sensation and the three drove to the summit of the mountain, arriving just in time before the temple closed. They entered the main pavilion, Konpon-chudo, where candles have been kept lit for 1,200 years, and approached the huge, dark altar where a statue of Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of healing, resided.
“Strange to say, I prayed there for nothing, but for everything. Just then I did not know what happened to me, but I sensed I was fully energized with a very powerful force in my whole body, and I thought I heard a voice say, ‘Get back to the U.S. and follow the mission.’”
Recharged and newly inspired, he returned to Ashland and reached out to a sculptor friend, Jack Langford, who offered him additional studio space in his large complex in nearby Phoenix, equipped for metal and stone sculpture. Sugiyama did not hesitate to accept the offer, as he wondered if this might be what the voice in the temple had been intending.
The Rhinoceros – One Who Sees Off
The new studio provided him with substantially more space than the little barn studio, allowing him to begin to work on much larger-scale sculptures. Langford’s complex also offered a forge for firing metals, scaffolding, and the expertise of other sculptors on site. “I started with the figure of a rhinoceros standing in a meditation posture because I needed to feel peace within myself after my mother’s death,” says Sugiyama, who, for the first time, found himself connecting to his own personal emotions through the creative process. “The many curved geometrical textures represent all my feelings and emotions in order to center myself to be able to see my mother’s soul off.”
As the figure he named One Who Sees Off progressed, he knew he wanted to impart peace and comfort, not only for himself, but for anyone who has lost a loved one. “When I curved one of the eyes in this Rhino, I saw my mother’s soul off with sadness and strength,” he notes. “I added a small bird just about to take off from the right hand since in Japanese culture the bird guides the deceased soul to heavenly world.”
Unfortunately, One Who Sees Off was never fully realized, as the molds for the 5-foot sculpture were lost in the deadly 2020 Almeda fire that tore from Ashland to Talent and Phoenix. The molds, made of wax clay and waiting to be cast in bronze, were destroyed when the storage unit in Talent where they were kept was burned to the ground in the fire.
May You Feel Peace Within – A new inspiration
Even as he completed the molds for the rhinoceros, Sugiyama already had a vision for his next monumental sculpture. Each year a different pair of Great Horned Owls nests for several months in the rafters above the barn studio in Ashland, arriving in early summer and returning to the mountains with their fledglings in the late winter. “Watching them has always given me a sense of stillness and calmness, even as the world around is far from that,” he says, noting that in traditional Japanese culture, owls are viewed as offering protection from suffering. “Although I don’t remember the exact moment I envisioned this sculpture, perhaps the image of an owl has been building steadily in my mind through the years.”
When in Japan, Sugiyama had also seen the statues, some monumental, of Kannon, a Buddhist Bodhisattva, one who has chosen to forgo her own enlightenment to stay behind and help those who suffer in this world. The owls and the figure of Kannon are brought together to become May You Feel Peace Within, a 13-foot anthropomorphic owl.
“I believe Kannon dwells within this sculpture,” he explains. “I sculpted my feelings of compassion and love into this figure and now, when I stand in front of it, I feel a calming sense of compassion resounding from it. As a sculptor it would be my greatest joy if those who stand and face this sculpture also feel peace within, even just for a moment.
“So the anthropomorphic owl became my second mission work.”
How a 13-foot bronze sculpture comes to be
Work began on May You Feel Peace Within in 2019. Drawing on his original field of civil engineering, Sugiyama painstakingly drew a kind of blueprint, with each piece of the owl numbered. The next step was to create a wooden rectangular base with wheels on the bottom, which allows the base to spin and makes it easier to work on and around the sculpture.
Six 14-foot long rebars, each a quarter inch in diameter, were then attached to six flanges on the wooden base.
Next, four plywood panels were attached to the rebars and 24 Styrofoam sheets, each 8” x 4”, were cut and scraped. This early stage alone took six months before the wax clay was ready to be affixed and carved.
At this point in the process, the Almeda fire, the same wildfire that destroyed the storage unit where the rhinoceros molds were stored, also came dangerously close to where the anthropomorphic owl was now being constructed. While Sugiyama stayed to protect his Ashland studio in the event the winds shifted southerly, Jack Langford stood atop the roof of the Phoenix studio, hosing the buildings down to protect them and the artwork within from the windborne sparks of the wildfire. Sugiyama remembers the moment Langford called and reassured him “It’s safe, Wataru, the owl is safe.”
When the sculpture is ready to be cast in bronze, it will be divided into many individual sections with flashing plates, which are subbed directly into the sculpture surface. After all of the individual sections are made, silicon rubber material is applied on the surface of the sculpture. The mother mold material is then applied on the surface of the cured silicone rubber material and allowed to harden. In the past, sculptors used plaster for this stage. Finally, each individual section is marked with a number from the blueprint.
Each mold that is sectioned by the flashing plates is peeled off. Melted wax is applied on the surface of the silicone rubber mold with a brush. After the wax cools, it is peeled off. Then each piece of wax sculpture is dipped into microscopic silica particle liquid, so that the surface of the owl becomes a shell. “It is kind of like battering your shrimp tempura,” explains Sugiyama. He repeats this process about ten times before the shell is complete, then applies a blow torch across the surface to melt and remove the wax within. The melted wax that runs out of the shell is called Lost Wax. What is left behind is the hollow shell of the anthropomorphic owl.
Eventually, bronze nuggets will be melted and poured into the individual molds. After the molten bronze cools, the mold shells are broken to reveal the bronze pieces of sculpture. Any remaining ceramic or silicon shell is removed with a hammer and chisel or sandblasted off with an air-compressor. The last stage in the process is welding each piece back into its place on the finished owl.
The towering anthropomorphic owl remains for now in the wax clay stage, although the sculpture itself is completed. While Sugiyama is still raising the $70,000 needed to complete the work, he is already feeling the power of the sculpture and the spirit he feels lives within it. “It is kind of strange to say, but I feel the sculpture is much more peaceful and powerful than before,” he explains. “I feel totally peaceful whenever I look at it. I feel like the sculpture has been absorbing the feelings of the viewers who have come to see it in the studio and were moved when they stood in front of her. Now I feel more and more the sculpture is alive as with the spirit of Kannon dwelling inside.”
His hope is that May You Feel Peace Within will eventually be installed at the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculptural Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The Haines Art Foundation of Ashland has submitted the documents, but the process has been stalled due to Covid restrictions. Sugiyama would be satisfied to see it in an urban park or garden, so that the public can feel the compassion emanating from the piece, funded as a personal legacy or corporate commission. “At this point, the sculpture knows where to go.”
Wataru Sugiyama’s work can be viewed by appointment (firstname.lastname@example.org or at 541-601-0713) at his Ashland barn studio or at the Phoenix studio. His works are also on display at Hanson Howard Gallery, including in a current exhibition with Jon Jay Cruson through August 14. The gallery is at 89 Oak Street, Ashland, Oregon, and is open noon-5 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, noon-4 p.m. Sundays, and by appointment. Works are also available for commission at www.watarusculpting.com.