Jerry Oyama's studio is very revealing: pieces of bone, gnarled and smooth pieces of wood, red sandstone, plastic toy army figures, globes of the world. This is not about pretty pictures created to help, say, patients in a doctor's waiting room relax. Filled with tension, these raw materials seem almost itching to be applied in his three dimensional creations.
Oyama's space feels alive.
"I see this as a large adult sandbox," says Oyama, grinning as he sweeps his hand around the room. It's a full shop, with woodworking tools, saws and other loud equipment standing cheek by jowl with flat files filled with corals, pine cones, rocks and textured branches. "If I'm ever stymied, I open the drawers and start messing around," he confides.
Oyama, who signs his work "Big Mountain Mudworks," explains that his name is Japanese for "big mountain." He has spent a good part of his life under towering peaks – in California, Utah and in the Telluride area, all the while working with the materials of which mountains are made.
Much of his work – sculptures and shadow boxes – takes its shape from natural forms and material. Working in clay, Oyama may take casts of aspen trees, with all the scars and imperfections, or fashion abstract forms that definitely show a mountain influence. From waterfalls of stacked sandstones, to old metal pieces infused with fired ceramic forms that move in the wind, his pieces are very much alive. At once abstract and concrete, they hold a dynamic tension that is riveting. And then, there's the sense of humor he sometimes injects into his work.
Oyama sometimes flirts with the political – both personal and international. Sometimes his work is sensual, following patterns and in nature and sinuous textures. For instance, Oyama uses clay to capture the lines and scars of aspen trees in his aspen shadow box series. Colored with natural hues and fired, the abstract "face" of the aspen peers out.
Starting out as an English major, Oyama turned to sculpture because "I got sick of words. I liked the idea of being a country potter," he says. A stint in New York was followed by graduate school in Berkeley in ceramics, where he studied with Pete Voulkos, who "revolutionized ceramics into a legitimate sculpture field."
"We were fast craft maniacs, a group of people who worked like crazy, all the while surrounded by the tear gas that filled Berkeley at the time," he notes wryly.
Oyama took a circuitous route to Ophir, but has always found himself happiest when he has space around him and access to nature.
"I lived in the tiny town of Elk, California, where I did ceramics in an apple-drying shed, and also built a library for a local teacher," he recalls. "It was a magical place, with spiritual character. There was a huge garden and a minimalist existence. I was living in the garden of Eden." Oyama hiked through the woods to work, and learned skills that taught him to live lightly on the land.
In Alta, he met his wife-to-be, Allyn Hart, and the two of them discovered Telluride together. Together they spend the summers in their Ophir cabin, hiking, biking and most importantly, creating their art.
"It's nice how it worked out," he declares. "We have the luxury of exploring our own ideas." They work in the winter to fund their art "foundation" – "We don't have a patron or a foundation that funds our work," explains Oyama.
The Ophir house they share once belonged to Nelly Tatum, who died in the house in her 80s. They found letters from her son and revealing papers in the walls when they disassembled the house. "She may have been a shaman," says Hart. They found plants not found elsewhere. In true Oyama fashion, he made a gravestone for her, "to rest her spirit."
His studio rambles through the bottom floor of the three-story house, while Hart's is on the third level. Views to Waterfall Canyon are framed in the expanse of large windows. Oyama and Hart have assembled an admirable collection of natural and secondhand store items – waffle irons, bark, shells, etc. "Anything that makes texture is fair game," he explains. His ceramic pieces show the rubbings and indentations the ersatz tools create. He confesses that he "once made a smooth piece."
Oyama works in all kinds of media. Photographs hang on the walls, wind vanes made from old bicycle frames spin on the deck, and ghostly white oversized paper-covered lights float down from the ceiling ("a distraction").
"From crystals, I started making mountains," he says with a laugh. His work includes mountain shapes and desert forms, with strata emerging like rock layers, all the while punctuated by lots of forms – letters, numbers and shapes poking through.
Currently, Oyama is fascinated by the Power of Ten book. "The macrocosm is reflected in the microcosm, and vice versa," he explains, launching into an animated discussion about how mushrooms (on the micro level) are related to larger pieces of the world, like mountains.
"It's what Lynn Margulis [who spoke at a recent Mushroom Festival] speaks about. It's all living," he says. "There's a living, interactive web that actually covers the earth, like the cryptobiotic soils found in the desert."
Like Hart, Oyama sees the world in an abstracted yet connected way. Their forays into the natural world together energize and inspire their work. The aspen boxes may reflect a tree's history and textures, but "I see them as landscapes more than anything," he explains. "They are abstractions."
Oyama has moved from stacked sandstone waterfalls and ceramic mountains into a new series of globes of ceramics (and those toy army men). "The theme relates to the peril we're in," he says, not shying away from the political tradition of artists throughout the world, newly inspired by the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and abuses to the environment.
"The globes are the next generation of that Power of Ten thing," he says mysteriously.
Hart occasionally joins Oyama in his crowded studio, finding inspiration both in the clutter and his artistic musings. "I used to come down and do line drawings to be with Jerry," she explains.
"It led to my collages. I'd like to experiment in the shop now."
On the wall is well-used toy shovel. "It was mine when I was a kid; I recently found it at home," reveals Oyama. "Is it play? Absolutely. A sense of play is important."
Hart agrees emphatically. "Absolutely, play." It's also about jealously guarding their lifestyle, giving themselves the time, space and setting to explore.
Look for Hart and Oyama's artwork at the upcoming Ah Haa School Auction.
Allyn Hart and her work were profiled in the July 30 edition of The Telluride Watch. Their artwork will be on display for the upcoming Ah Haa Art Auction, which takes place Saturday, Aug. 14.