“Gift” – Public art at Library entrance

Gift by Wataru Sugiyama

“Gift” – Public art at Library entrance

A gift to the artist.
A gift to the community.
In memory of Jack Hardesty.
Artist: Wataru Sugiyama.
Ashland Public Art series.

“There was an empty pedestal along the stairway. My daughter and I looked at the pedestal, and I saw an image there. Then my hesitation was gone.”

Wataru Sugiyama

Why it’s called “Gift”

This sculpture is called “Gift” because Wataru experienced being guided during the entire process of creating it. The gifts he received through this artwork also involved people. Making it brought him closer to his daughter. It also brought him together in shared mourning with his friend Alice Hardesty, who purchased the sculpture as a memorial to her late husband Jack (who was also Wataru’s friend).

Inauspicious beginning

The beginning of this meaningful process was inauspicious. Wataru told me, “A friend came to my studio and said, ‘Hey Wataru, the city is looking for a stone sculpture.’ I felt like kind of a beginner at carving stone, and just said ‘Thank you for letting me know.’ At that point I was perhaps 40% interested and 60% thinking I’m not going to do anything about it.”

At this time, in 2008, the Public Arts Commission (PAC) thought about installing a rotating sculpture gallery along the Calle Guanajuato stairway, which connects Calle Guanajuato with Granite Street. The idea was to have two or three sculptures on pedestals for a year or two, then sell those (or give them back to the artists) and change them out for two or three new ones. From Wataru’s story, it seems that they were considering a stone sculpture on one specific pedestal along the stairway.

Wataru visited the site with his daughter

Wataru’s friend had told him the location being considered for this new sculpture. Skeptical but intrigued, one day Wataru took his daughter, River Davis, with him to visit the site – and that made all the difference. His story continued: “One weekend, my daughter and I went to the site. I was just curious where it was going to be. When I saw it I remembered, when she was in elementary school, her teachers organized the kids and their parents to clean up the weeds right there. I had a good memory of that day, some kind of connection with the place.”

Empty pedestal…’no hesitation’

“There was an empty pedestal along the stairway. My daughter and I looked at the pedestal, and I saw an image there. Then my hesitation was gone.”

Inspired, he and his daughter went right from there to Leave Your Mark, a business on Highway 99 that sells many kinds of stones. “First I was looking for sandstone, a much softer rock,” Wataru said. “Unfortunately, they didn’t have any sandstone that time. A lady came over and said, ‘How about this one, a piece of granite? I know it’s really hard.’ It was really beautiful. Sandstone usually has one color, but granite has little bit different colors. It felt like the stone was waiting for me or something. There was no hesitation.”

There is that phrase again – “no hesitation.”

Describing his carving of Gift on the Oregon Art Beat television feature about him, Wataru said: “I start with a conversation with the stone. It guides me. That’s the best way to shape it. Until I hear that voice, I don’t want to touch it.”

Wataru first talked to me about the sculpture Gift as I visited him in his small Ashland studio. We were surrounded by many of his whimsical works I had seen at Hanson-Howard Gallery and other galleries. Here are photos of several.

Wataru Sugiyama art.
Joyful elephants and other whimsical art by Wataru Sugiyama. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)
Wataru Sugiyama art.
Whimsical artwork by Wataru Sugiyama: the turtle band, with a patient mother. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)

With an abstract, ‘you can carve forever’

He made the point that stone carving was relatively new to him, and creating an abstract sculpture was also relatively new to him. Here is how he expressed the learning curve and the frustration he felt.

Gift by Wataru Sugiyama.
“Gift” by Wataru Sugiyama. Artistic view of the back of the sculpture and the library chimney. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

“I started carving, the whole winter. It’s an abstract, so no answer. With these [Wataru pointed to animal designs in clay in the studio] I can have a little more answer, but abstract you can carve forever, because no obvious finishing point. One day, I was exhausted, kind of getting fever. I had been working outside every day carving, then a missed shot with my hammer and chisel made a scratch that gave me a kind of inspiration. That was, again, not my talent but an accident. That’s why I call the sculpture ‘Gift.'”

Influence of Machu Picchu

During the year he was working on Gift, Wataru had a chance to go to Peru, to Machu Picchu. “One day I went to the garden of the Pachamama,” he said. “I saw water running on a stone there. Seeing water go through rock inspired me.”

With its original setting near Ashland Creek, the Public Arts Commission had suggested “water” as a theme for the sculpture. With this inspiration from the trip to Peru, Wataru carved a flowing pattern from the top to the bottom of the piece of granite. I asked, “Tell me more about the theme of water.” “It’s not logical,” he replied, “but way, way high up in the mountain there, it’s like a water source at the top, right? Imagine a stream coming down here from the source, then going into the hole.”

Gift by Wataru Sugiyama.
“Gift” by Wataru Sugiyama, in memory of Jack Hardesty. See if you can envision a flow of water from the very top, down the middle to the base.
(photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Alice and Jack Hardesty

In May 2009, Gift was installed on the pedestal Wataru had visited with his daughter, halfway up the Calle Guanajuato stairway. As mentioned, it was intended to be a temporary installation. Just two months later, in July 2009, Alice Hardesty told the Public Arts Commission she would purchase Gift. According to the Commission minutes, “She offered the piece as a gift of public art to the City of Ashland. The piece is offered in memorial of her late husband and former city councilor Jack Hardesty.” The City Council accepted the gift of “Gift” to the city that August.

Move to the Ashland Library

Wataru explained to me that he had been friends with Jack and Alice Hardesty for some years. Jack, a big fan of art, especially liked Wataru’s work. Alice told Wataru that Jack had left some money in an account, and that purchasing this artwork in Jack’s memory was a perfect use of the money.

Gift by Wataru Sugiyama.
This shows the setting of “Gift,” just outside the back door of the Ashland Public Library. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)

A couple years later, the Public Arts Commission developed plans for other art along the Calle Guanajuato stairway. Fast forward to December 2011. PAC commissioner Dana Bussell and Ashland head librarian Amy Blossom identified a permanent location for Gift near the rear entrance to the Ashland Library. Gift was installed there in June 2012. The sign on the sculpture says:

Wataru Sugiyama
In Memory of Jack Hardesty.
Art opens the eyes.

As Wataru spoke with me, he pointed to one spot that he said looked a little like eyes carved in the rock, and another spot that looked a little like hands praying.

Gift by Wataru Sugiyama.
“Gift” by Wataru Sugiyama. Do you see eyes? (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Wataru’s deep emotional connections

Wataru has deep emotional connections with a few of his artworks, Gift among them. He said the sculpture turned out a lot like his vision on the Calle Guanajuato stairway, and that it was very meaningful that his daughter River had first looked at the empty pedestal with him.

“I have a lot of sentimental memories with my daughter in this sculpture. I told her, ‘Daddy cannot live forever. So when someday I go, if you want to see me, come over here. This is kind of my gravestone.'”

Gift by Wataru Sugiyama.
Side view of “Gift,” by Wataru Sugiyama. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)

Wataru described how his art changed after his daughter grew up and he did not have to focus quite so much on making a certain amount of money every month. “Now, everything I do from my inner child. The more I enjoy, the more the art appeals to the people.”

Wataru Sugiyama

Watch an Oregon Art Beat video about Wataru

In this moving 10-minute segment from Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Oregon Art Beat show, Wataru talks about the making of Gift and also about his mother.

“Wataru, when did you become an artist?”

Wataru’s story is so unusual and so gripping that I’d like to share it with you in some detail. All you need to know as background is that Wataru grew up in Japan.

When I asked that question — “when did you become an artist?” — he replied, “I did not have any art experience when I lived in Japan. I used to be an engineer, helping build things like sewer pipes or tunnels for trains. Just smoking cigarettes, two packs a day, while I was drawing the blueprints. One day I got a call from the government, complaining that my lines were too thick. I thought, Oh my gosh, I cannot do this.”

“I felt like I needed to find what I really wanted to do with my life. I never consciously chose the path to become an engineer. I did it because my father recommended it. I didn’t know what else to do, so I just did it.”

“I finally got tired of working as engineer Monday through Saturday, go out drinking Saturday evening, then hangover on Sunday morning. There was no time for myself. One day I was sitting on the couch, and I heard a voice inside, ‘Wataru, are you sure you want to continue this?’ My answer was ready – ‘No.’ So I wrote a letter to the boss and told him I quit.”

“I wanted to study again, to look for something I really want to do with my life. I remembered that my favorite subject when I was in school was English. When I quit my job, I went to the private language institute in Tokyo.” For some reason, the receptionist told Wataru he could not study there full-time, but he could take night classes at the institute.

After three years of night classes at the private language institute, he met a woman who changed his life: Allis Cole. An American from Ashland, whose husband Philip Davidson was a Shakespeare actor, she encouraged Wataru to study English in America. As Wataru remembers the conversation, “She told me Ashland is very quiet, the right place for me.”

“Allis Cole was still in Tokyo when I came to Ashland, and I stayed at her husband’s house for a month or so. Then I went to school at SOU. First I had a speech/communication major because I really wanted to improve my English. Toward the end of the speech/communication major, I needed to take an art class, an elective to fill up my credits. That term I took a ceramics class. I was not interested in throwing the pots. I just wanted to make something with clay – and I really got into it! I wasn’t sure this was going to be my path, but I did like it.”

“So I kept doing it and doing it [art and sculpture]. Then school President Dr. Cox gave me a full scholarship to study art in graduate school at SOU. A second-generation Japanese American gave me a room and food while I studied. Still I needed to work as a janitor early in the morning, cleaning bathrooms. I got an M.A. in art.”

“After graduation, I rented a studio space at the same time I cleaned up at Mihama Restaurant. I felt kind of weird, because when I graduated, I got a summa honor. My parents even came from Japan to the graduation. Then a couple weeks later, I ended up cleaning the bathroom at Mihama.” Wataru laughed at his memory, then went on: “I felt like, it’s okay. I have to accept the reality, because I have to rent a studio space.”

For years, Wataru worked hard at his clay art. Well-known potter Jim Robinson was a mentor who introduced Wataru to art shows in Seattle, San Francisco, Sedona and many other cities. Little by little, people got to know his work and he supported himself through his art.

From clay to granite and marble

Wataru met local sculptor and expert bronze caster Jack Langford through a friend. I wrote about Jack’s work in the article “‘We Are Here’ Honors Native Americans (Bronze Replica, Part 2 of 3).

Jack came to Wataru’s studio and looked at his work. He said, “Wataru, you’ve gotta carve stone.” Wataru thought Jack was crazy. His art was made with clay, not stone. But Jack dropped off one stone at Wataru’s studio. That piece of stone sat there for two years. Wataru laughed as he said, “Then one day, I started getting triggered, thinking I wanted to do something in different media. That was Jack’s influence.” Wataru has great respect for Jack’s capabilities as an artist, and thinks of him as expert with metal, wood, stone and more.

Wataru has been working with stone, as well as clay, ever since. Gift, of course, is carved of stone. The photos below show another one of Wataru’s creations, this one in marble.

Wataru Sugiyama art.
Wataru Sugiyama art in marble, called “Bonding,” in the private collection of Raymond Barry. You can see it on Clear Creek Drive. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)
Wataru Sugiyama art.
Wataru Sugiyama art in marble, called “Bonding,” head detail. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)

Wataru’s huge new artwork stirred my emotions

When I first stood before this nearly-13-foot tall sculpture, I had a mixture of emotions. First was surprise at how large it loomed above me and before me. After that, I was in awe of the detail I noticed carved into every surface, from the bottom to the top. Finally, when I settled down and stood quietly with the artwork, I felt a deep relaxation within me.

Wataru Sugiyama art.
May You Feel Peace Within” by Wataru Sugiyama, sculpted in clay – overview of artwork. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)

Therefore, I was not surprised when Wataru showed me this drawing of the planned sculpture. It looks like he began working on it during February 2020. You can see where he later wrote his title for the sculpture: “May You Feel Peace Within.”

Wataru Sugiyama art.
“May You Feel Peace Within” by Wataru Sugiyama, design illustration and title. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)
Wataru Sugiyama art.
“May You Feel Peace Within” by Wataru Sugiyama, sculpted in clay – detail of feet. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)
Wataru Sugiyama art.
“May You Feel Peace Within” by Wataru Sugiyama, sculpted in clay – detail photo. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)

Wataru’s description of “May You Feel Peace Within”

In his description of the sculpture, Wataru wrote: “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. I’ve been sculpting in a small barn in the forests of southern Oregon for 15 years and have become quite close with a family of Great Horned Owls that nest in the rafters above my studio. Watching has always given me a sense of stillness and calmness even as the world around is far from that.”

This resident owl at Wataru Sugiyama’s art studio inspires his sculptures. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)

“The non-owl portions of this sculpture are influenced by the spirit of Kannon. She’s a Buddhist Bodhisattva, which means she has chosen to forgo her own enlightenment to stay behind and help everyone who suffers in this world. I believe she dwells within this sculpture.”

“Those two elements brought together became this anthropomorphic owl. 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.”

Something about standing before this artwork does take me to a peaceful place within.
Wataru Sugiyama art.
May You Feel Peace Within” by Wataru Sugiyama, sculpted in clay. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2021)

Making a large bronze statue takes big bucks

Wataru envisions a bronze casting of “May You Find Peace Within” that will reside at an outdoor sculpture garden or museum. The challenge: making a large statue like this in bronze is very expensive. Wataru is raising money toward his goal. If you would like to donate a small amount, or if you could donate thousands of dollars towards the bronze casting, you can reach Wataru at his email address, listed below under References.


Sugiyama, Wataru. His email address is watarusculpting@gmail.com.

Sugiyama, Wataru. Interview and personal communications, July 2021 and other dates.

Oregon Art Beat feature about Wataru Sugiyama, October 2020, Oregon Public Broadcasting. (You will find the link in the photo essay above.)

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