Natural Selection

Natural Selection
by Stephanie Finnegan

Courtesy of Handmade Business

When Gordon Uyehara was growing up in Hawaii, he loved to explore the lush terrain that surrounded him. Fond of hiking in the hills and navigating the streams that he'd discover, he was very much a child of nature. However, in his very straightforward way, Uyehara lets it be known that his outdoorsy playtime wasn't just because he liked fresh air and warm weather.

"Illumination Ceremonial Vessel" is a silver clay creation from the artist.

"Remember, this was before personal computers," he emphasizes. "Plus, I didn't watch too much TV, so I spent a lot of time outdoors."

Growing up in Honolulu, he had a favorable climate for his childhood climbing and poking about. While indoors--like during his schooldays--he would listen to his teachers, but doodle in his notebooks: "I used to draw a lot of spaceships in class."

Artistically inclined, young Gordon was not encouraged to pursue a career in the arts. He attended college and majored in a "more sensible" field: information and computer science.

Post-graduation, he worked at the university, offering computer support. Though he had an excellent position--on paper--he was not fulfilled.

"I was reading Joseph Campbell and Barbara Sher, and one morning I woke up and decided to quit. There was not much planning," he recollects. "I was very unhappy, so I figured, 'Why prolong the torture?' I woke up at two o'clock in the morning and wrote a resignation letter. At dawn, I sent it out to the department."

His exodus from full-time academic employment occurred in spring 2002. Three months later, in the summer, he encountered a new path that would redirect his life. Having grown up following different twists and turns, Uyehara instinctively recognized this new direction as a course worth pursuing.

"Thagomizer (Stegosaurus)" captures the realism one would expect to find in a natural-history museum. It is bronze and copper metal clay over paper clay.

"I discovered metal clay when I took a workshop at a local bead store. Metal clay was completely unknown to me. The process sounded interesting; but when I tried it, I couldn't do it well. I had a desire, then, to keep working at it." For the uninitiated, like Uyehara was a dozen years ago, the artist explains his medium of choice simply, succinctly, and scientifically: "It has clay-like properties before it is fired. While it is being fired, the binders burn away. The metal particles sinter or fuse together to create a solid product."

Even when he was working at the university, Uyehara had kept his artsy side alive by sketching and drawing. Now he was taking his talents a step further, and it was a challenge he was determined to master: "The most important thing is to develop a feel for it. You have to spend time with the material. I like the process of going from a clay-like material to having a metallic piece. I like shaping things with my hands."

"Spiritual Evolution" is and older piece from Uyehara. It contains religious and scientific icons. Photo by Robert Diamante

Through his hands-on experience and watching other artists with this medium, the neophyte witnessed his aspirations become realities. He had a gift for sculpting and his immersion in this field ushered in a wave of creativity.

"Metal clay is special to me because it fits the way I want to express myself. I enjoy creating with it. Since childhood, I've always had an interest in the natural world, and I have always found sea creatures fascinating. It so happens I am surrounded by the ocean," he muses. "I live on the edge of Honolulu, in a suburb-like residential area. Picture single-family homes on small lots. It is close to modern conveniences, without being in the heart of the city. I do not live on the beach, but it is about 15 minutes away."

Contemporary ocean life and dinosaurs that roamed the earth eons ago are fair game for his talents. As his skills have evolved, so has his recognizable style and themes. Uyehara's work is aesthetically Darwinian--maturing, changing, growing, and building upon one motif to the next. It is a merging of an artist's loving eye with a scientific, realistic mind-set. Many of his pieces look as if they have emerged from a botanist's or a zoologist's sketchbook. "The bulk of my work is nature themed. I just make what I feel like seeing. I try to do something that hasn't been overdone, and I try to practice good design principles as well."

Uyehara has challenged himself to balance the many different sensibilities and requirements that are essential for an artist to thrive. He admits that it has not always been easy: "I also have fallen into that trap where many artists find the business side to be distasteful. Part of the problem, I think, is that there is that perception. It reinforces and perpetuates that crutch." He urges artists and "creative types" not to shy away from the dollars and cents, the business angle, of their professions. "Perhaps we should reframe the idea of being an artist to naturally include being business-minded and practical, without making it a big deal."

Talking about the concept of "left brain" versus "right brain," the to-the-point Uyehara declares, "Interestingly enough, real science does not support the right/left, creative/logical brain model. Creativity can be applied to any activity--not just in the creation of art. You can certainly be financially creative."

Uyehara is pleased with how the fossil top came out on his "Cretaceous Box."

Deriving satisfaction as an artist and as a teacher/lecturer in the metal clay realm, the 50-year-old has adjusted his viewpoints, has honed his business acumen, and has learned to make a living while making art: "Being an artist does include a lot of practical business routines and financial planning. I'm learning that--but so should any other career choice if you are to thrive within the current social constructs."

These days, Uyehara is caring for an aging parent, so his productivity has slowed down. His in-person teaching gigs have been put on hiatus, but he does have some online classes available. When he carves out the time, he returns to his desk and picks up his tools and begins to envision new life forms and births them. "I'm taking things as they come and learning to adjust. I make plans, but things happen. When I feel inspired, I have to work more then."

Learning to monitor the ebb and flow of his workdays with the time spent on his domestic responsibilities, Gordon Uyehara is still driven to create and to make his dreams a reality. It's just happening on a differently paced timetable than before.

"You're only here for a very short time," he concludes, "so be true to yourself."