When Gov Kate Brown issued her “Stay-at-Home” order back in March, it was as though Ashland sculptor Wataru Sugiyama had received the assignment for his latest sculpture weeks earlier.
“I started creating this sculpture before this pandemic,” recalls Sugiyama, who immigrated to the United States more than 30 years ago from Japan.
“The title of this sculpture is ‘May you feel peace within.’ I am planning to make the sculpture face a little bit looking down, so the person standing close in front will have an eye contact.”
The 13-foot-tall sculpture is an anthropomorphized owl, whose sweeping wings wrap around its torso in a gesture of self-care. Sugiyama considers the project “a mission from the universe.”
“I will try my best to make the sculpture’s eyes as gentle and tender as possible. I am trying to inject my feelings of mercy, compassion, forgiveness and love. My message (is) that whoever stands and looks up in front of the sculpture will right away feel calm and peace within.”
Masterful and highly collectable, Sugiyama’s sculptures range from the whimsical to the sublime and evoke both mirth and awe. Since February, Sugiyama has made almost daily trips to from his home in Ashland to work in a large studio he shares with other artists in nearby Phoenix, Oregon. Like many artists, he is used to working in isolation.
“I do not need the contact with many people. I wake up in the morning and work at the studio alone. I see two (of) my sculpture friends from time to time. But basically, work at the studio alone. So, my life as a sculptor is not affected by this virus.”
When the wax and clay sculpture is finished, Sugiyama plans to submit it for inclusion at the Meijer Sculpture Garden in Grand Rapids, Michigan. But before that can happen, Sugiyama will face several challenges.
“I am facing the financial difficulty. I was planning to buy some mold materials & tons of bronze to complete this large sculpture. Now I have to see how it goes.”
So far, gallery shows in San Francisco and Sacramento, California planned for early next year are still moving forward, but Sugiyama knows that could easily change.
Then in September, the Almeda Fire came within yards of Sugiyama’s studio in Phoenix. Unable to get there due to road closures, Sugiyama said his studio partner, artist Jack Langford had to climb onto the facility’s roof and douse embers with a garden hose.
“All houses across Highway 99 from (the studio) burned down. But the sculptures are safe,” Sugiyama said.
Though relieved, he is not one to worry in the first place. A lifetime of mediation practice has equipped Sugiyama to stay calm in difficult times and to trust the spirit voices that guide his hands, his chisel and his life’s path.
“Until I hear that voice, I don’t want to do anything,” he explained. “And I still have plenty time before the bronze process, so I would like to spend enough mindful time to (make the owl’s) facial expression best.”
“I feel lucky I am able to inject my passion into my sculpture every day at the studio since most of people stay home in stress, do job on computer. But I want to see people walking on street, smiling.”
He also hopes the completed bronze owl sculpture will provide comfort and cheer to people experiencing difficult times long into the future.
“At this point, (I) do not know where the sculpture goes, but I know the sculpture knows where to go.”
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