Wataru Sugiyama was working as an engineer in Japan, smoking and getting drunk with his co-workers on weekends.

"I was one of the cogs in the machine," he said.

A 26-year-old at the time, Sugiyama decided he wanted more out of life. Looking for a new direction, he sat on his couch one night and remembered how much he had enjoyed studying English.

"The following day, I went to my company and said, 'I quit.' I went to a language institute in Tokyo to be a student again. They said, 'You're too old,'" he recalled.

Sugiyama persevered and was allowed to take night classes, where an English teacher from America encouraged him to move to Ashland. He came to America and enrolled as a speech and communications major at Southern Oregon University, then known as Southern Oregon College.

An elective course in ceramics set him on his current course as a sculptor working in clay, bronze and stone.

Sugiyama is exhibiting clay sculptures that draw on Japanese history and culture through Aug. 2 at Hanson Howard Gallery, downtown at 89 Oak St. in Ashland. He is paired with artist Peter VanFleet, whose swirling, energetic paintings bring to mind abstract expressionist icon Jackson Pollock.

As a homesick student at SOU, Sugiyama struggled to have meaningful conversations with his fellow students and was reminded of the superficial discussions he had with co-workers back in Japan. But when he began to incorporate Japanese elements into his sculpture, his fellow students grew curious and asked him about his country's history and traditions — opening up the conversational floodgates.

Now approaching 60 years old, Sugiyama still uses art as a means to make connections with others. He has a studio in Ashland and also shares a large working studio space outside Phoenix with four Rogue Valley sculptors — including Jack Langford, who he credits with introducing him to stone and marble carving.

Visitors to Hanson Howard Gallery will see Japanese influences in Sugiyama's clay sculptures currently on display.

The piece "Respite" combines whimsy with tradition, showing a small boy reading a book while astride a horse, an open umbrella poking up from the saddle.

The horse is done in the style of Haniwa terracotta clay figurines that were buried with the dead as funerary objects in ancient Japan. Haniwa sculptures frequently depict horses as well as people with ghostly eyes and mouths.

The sculpture "Warrior with Dove" features a soldier dressed in traditional samurai clothing with a diminutive white dove perched on his outstretched hand.

Sugiyama used great horned owls that return each year to nest near his Ashland studio as inspiration for the sculpture "Meditating Owl." The human-like figure has the head of an owl with its eyes closed. The palms of its hands are pressed together in a meditative Buddhist stance.

Sugiyama has adorned the owl in a cloak made of hundreds of tiny, intricately detailed clay feathers, with its feet in traditional Japanese sandals.

"My intention with art is I want people to have the experience that my sculptures are alive. Sculpting makes me very happy. It makes me feel alive. I have no complicated philosophy. I try to give them a life as if they are alive because they make me feel alive," he said.

Hanson Howard Gallery is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, call 541-488-2562 or visit www.hansonhowardgallery.com.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.