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‘Gift:’ Art at Ashland library entrance

photo by Peter Finkle Wataru Sugiyama points to his sculpture called "Gift" outside the Ashland library.

A sculpture outside the Ashland library is called "Gift" because Wataru Sugiyama said he experienced being guided during the process of creating it.

The gifts he received through this artwork also involved people. Making it brought him closer to his daughter, and it brought him together in shared mourning with his friend Alice Hardesty, who purchased the sculpture as a memorial to her late husband, former Ashland City Councilor Jack Hardesty.

The beginning of the process was inauspicious. Wataru's friend told him a new public art sculpture was being considered for a site along the Calle Guanajuato stairway, between Ashland Creek and Granite Street. Skeptical but intrigued, Wataru decided to take his daughter along to visit the site — and that made all the difference.

"One weekend, my daughter and I went to the site,“ he explained. ”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. There was an empty pedestal along the stairway. As my daughter and I looked at the pedestal, I saw an image there. Then my hesitation was gone."

The name "Gift" came from that moment of insight.

Inspired, he and his daughter went from the site to Leave Your Mark, a business on Highway 99 in Phoenix 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?' It was really beautiful. It felt like the stone was waiting for me."

As Wataru told stories of his life in his small Ashland studio, we were surrounded by many of his whimsical works carved from clay. Some I had seen at Hanson-Howard Gallery. He made the point that when he carved “Gift,” both stone carving and creating an abstract sculpture were new to him.

In May 2009, “Gift” was finished and mounted on a pedestal along Calle Guanajuato stairway as a temporary installation. Two years later, Public Arts Commission member Dana Bussell and Ashland head librarian Amy Blossom identified a permanent location for “Gift” near the rear entrance to the Ashland library. “Gift” was moved there in June 2012. The sign on the sculpture says:

"Gift," Wataru Sugiyama; In Memory of Jack Hardesty. Art opens the eyes.

When we visited the sculpture at the library, Wataru pointed to one spot that he said looked a little like eyes carved in the rock, and another area that represents the flow of water from the top of the stone to the bottom.

Wataru’s story is unusual. All you need to know as background is that Wataru grew up in Tokyo, Japan. When I asked him, “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 airplanes. Just smoking cigarettes, two packs a day, while I was drawing the blueprints."

Wataru realized he was only working as an engineer because his father told him to. He began to feel the need to discover his own path in life.

“I finally got tired of working as an 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."

Through a marvelous chain of circumstances, he studied English at a language institute in Tokyo, met an American from Ashland there, came to Southern Oregon University as a speech/communication major, enrolled in a ceramics art class because he needed to fill up required credits, fell in love with creating sculptures out of clay, was given an art scholarship by SOU President Joe Cox. He received his master's degree in art and became a professional artist specializing in whimsical pieces made from clay.

For decades, Wataru has worked hard at his clay art, and has added sculpting stone. 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.

You can watch a public television Oregon Art Beat video about Wataru. To find it, go to OPB.org and type "Wataru" into the search bar. In a moving 10-minute segment from the show, Wataru talks about the making of “Gift” and also about his mother.