Talking with Gordon Uyehara

Episode #172

Today I talk with award winning metal clay expert Gordon Uyehara.

He shares with me what it's like being an artist in Hawaii and how it influences his work.

It will surprise you!

I also review a fun new fiber book, perfect for spring, plus info on a few crafting tools and websites that I know you’ll love.

Check out for all the new crafting video downloads.

Transcription of Interview with Gordon Uyehara

Alison Lee:Ok Everyone, I know a lot of you have wanted to hear my next guest speak about some of his passions. So, I'm very excited today to have on Gordon Uyehara, learning how to say his name correctly. Gordon is a metal clay artist, he's an author, he's been born and raised in Hawaii which of course sounds wonderful. And he starts his life getting a Bachelor of Science degree, but he's ended up in becoming one of the gurus that we all want to follow in the metal clay world. I’m very excited to be able to talk today to Gordon. Welcome, Gordon to Craft Cast.

Gordon Uyehara: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Alison:My pleasure and I love talking to someone from Hawaii. I can sort of hear and feel the ocean breeze as we speak in my mind. It helps. So, fill us in. Now how did you get started in all of this? Sometimes I'm going to be sneaky right off the bat and say someone usually, usually has something happen when they are like eight years old that they never forget but then life goes on in other paths, and then it switches and turns. So how did your path get you to where you are.

Gordon: I’ve always been interested in art and my sister is a fine artist. And I've always like to draw. So that's my art background.

Alison:But you went off to school though for science?

Gordon: Right. I never pursued it. I was encouraged not to pursue it.

Alison:Oh really? How come?

Gordon: I guess because it’s the typical [inaudible] where it's not practical to follow art. How I got into meta clay though, after 13 years of working with computers, I was fairly sick of it. So, I decided to quit my job one early morning. And I was just wanted to pursue art, so I was looking at different things and I was trying different things and one of the things I decided to try was meta clay or silver clay because I saw it in a little blurb on the back of an Oakland newspaper.

Alison:So, it would say oh come to this class or something?

Gordon: They were just talking about silver clay and it sounded really interesting, and they had a number to call, and it was the crafts store. So, I went and took my first class at the bead store actually.

Alison:I love how people find stuff like this. But first, so you literally one morning you went to your job and said, I'm done and quit?

Gordon: Ah, yes. I was totally fed up and I was reading all of this Joseph Kambu, follow your bliss thing and I was reading Barbara Shear about, you know finding out why you do things or what is your motivation for doing things. And then I woke up at two o clock in the morning and said, ah hell with this. I'm going to quit. So, I just wrote a public resignation letter and I just sent it off.

Alison:I love it. And how did you feel after you did that?

Gordon: It was very freeing I think is the right word. I was scared but it's kind of empowering to do things like that.

Alison:Yes, absolutely. I love that. So now how long then between doing that did you then say, OK now I’m on my quest to find what medium I'm going to play in?

Gordon: It was couple of months before I discovered metal clay.

Alison:Right. So, went into this bead shop and did you say Ok, this looks good to me? This is home now?

Gordon: No. I actually, it was one of several classes I took actually. I did wire wrapping and basic beading stuff and I hadn’t really, I mean it was ok, but it didn’t really click. When I took the metal clay class, I wasn’t good at it and I didn’t even feel comfortable with it, at all. But there was something where I had to figure out how to make it work better and then pretty soon, I was just like totally obsessed with trying to make it work. I don’t know why but and I didn’t have any money, so I was running out of money, but I spent all of my time trying to figure it out, so it was kind of crazy.

Alison:I love that when people get obsessed about something. I always wonder what's behind it. I totally, I think it’s a passion. Something is talking to you somewhere inside of you at that point.

Gordon: Yes.

Alison:And we are hoping that it ends in a good way when we get that crazy.

Gordon: Yes. That's right.

Alison:So, alright so you start making things, and then what happens?

Gordon: Start making them a little bit better and better and then share it with everybody and they seem to think that I'm on to something. And then Sally who I took the class from decided she didn’t want to teach anymore. So, they asked me if I wanted to teach there and I said, well you know I never taught before. It's a good thing for me to try to teach, so. That's how I got starting teaching.

Alison:Now do you remember the first piece you made that you said wasn’t very good?

Gordon: I don’t remember the first piece, but I remember it close to the first piece and I think I have a picture somewhere.

Alison:Oh really?

Gordon: If I can dig it up. It is horrible. Looks like a little palm tree.

Alison:Oh well that's not too bad. My first piece is I always calling them a little pile of poop. They just look like nothing, just a little blob. So, you can at least recognize yours as a palm tree.

Gordon: Well, I wasn't making a palm tree though, I was making a little bug thing I think, looks like a palm tree though.

Alison:Oh ok. It got creative. So, alright. So now you start teaching which is again an interesting sort of segue now. And did you enjoy the teaching part?

Gordon: I was really scared to do it and of course that comes across. I can’t say that I enjoyed it at the beginning. It was kind of nerve racking.

Alison:Oh really? What was the scary part or the nerve-racking part?

Gordon: Just new ground to me and that I didn’t know enough. I think it was a typical thing for anybody who's starting to teach.

Alison:Yes. But there wasn’t that much, I mean how long ago did you start working in the medium?

Gordon: Well, it's almost 10 years now.

Alison:So, there wasn’t much known yet. You were one of the people starting out and you know.

Gordon: Well in Hawaii, there's just not a lot of people doing it and I was working in a kind of in my own vacuum.

Alison:Right Ok.

Gordon: Yes, so there was actually more than I've could have known and a lot of things I was figuring out by myself that even though it was the same like everybody else was doing, I didn’t know that they were doing it. Because I'm in Hawaii and they were kind of ahead on the mainland.

Alison:Right. Is it popular in Hawaii in the islands to be doing crat and work like this? Is it catching on as well?

Gordon: That crafts movement to me is not that strong here. I don’t know why but there are people doing crafts but it's just to me seems like the level of intensity seems to be a little bit lower here. Maybe we are just too relaxed.

Alison:I was just going to say, come on.

Gordon: I don’t know what it is. It's more like a bigger crowd doing polymer clay but even that is still you know not like the mainland.

Alison:Right. Right. But it's still out there with people. There is the need to make things is still there.

Gordon: Oh yes. Sure.

Alison:Alright so explain to people who are not familiar with your work, how your environment influences your style. How would you describe your style?

Gordon: Well, my environment. I don’t know it's kind of more subtle. I think, people say they see it in my work, but I don’t know. It's not [inaudible] conscious to me.

Alison:It's not. Oh, I was going to say you can.

Gordon: It's not but I think we take it for granted here in being in paradise.

Alison:Yes. I think I look at your work and I think has a lot of feeling of the shapes and flow of looking like beach and critters in the ocean and all of that, definitely shows up.

Gordon: Well, I do like nature, so I guess that's probably it. I like science fiction so I get a lot of you may see some of that. But more, I don’t know if you can tell right away but I also, I mean I'm influenced by a lot of music also. Lot of my idols are music people, so.

Alison:Like who? Who are some of your idols?

Gordon: I like Yes, you know the classic rock guys. But I also like guitar instrumental people like Satriani and Vai.

Alison:Did you say the group BS?

Gordon: Yes.

Alison:That's what I thought. I was thinking like, I remember. All of a sudden, I had a flashback, it was a little scary there. I remember that album Fragile.

Gordon: Oh, wow very good.

Alison:Thank you. Well, that was very [inaudible] there at that time. It was definitely creative music because that's when synthesizers were just being brought in and it had a whole other level or whole other texture to music.

Gordon: Art rock.

Alison:Yes. Oh yes. Well, that's interesting. So, are you the kind of person, do you play lock rock like that while you are creating and working on something?

Gordon: I play music and I think it helps but I don’t have to play it loudly.

Alison:You don’t? Ok. That's right. I forgot, Hawaii we are relaxed. We're not in New York City.

Gordon: Well, some people play loud music.

Alison:Yes. And some people, you know sometimes you need nothing. Do you ever sometimes just want total quiet?

Gordon: You know even when its quiet I have something playing in my head. It's really weird and.

Alison:No, I'm interested. Sometimes you just can't turn your head down and it’s a problem.

Gordon: Right. I usually have something tuned in my head all the time.

Alison:I like that. I understand totally what you mean. Well, would you rather be spending your time making or teaching?

Gordon: Well to be truthful, I'm first an artist so I'd rather be making almost, I prefer that before anything else.

Alison:And are you the kind of artist like how often are you working in the studio? Do you get up every day, do you have a routine, the creative routine?

Gordon: I did not have a routine. I find that the necessities of life get in the way of any routine I try to have. My mother, well she can get around, but she needs helps a lot of times. Yes, I have to make sure that she's taken care of.

Alison:Oh, you are a good guy.

Gordon: I try to be, my yard is in shambles right now. I'm kind of trying to take some time off and trying to get the home base in order.

Alison:Why is it in shambles? Was it weather-related?

Gordon: Well, it was a hard transition since my mom used to take care of the yard. When she became less mobile.

Alison:It's your turn.

Gordon: I was really not ready to take on the responsibility of homeownership. Now I'm trying to take on more responsibilities and have a good attitude about it.

Alison:Oh good. It's good. That's what we have to do. And you know what? You'll probably like gardening.

Gordon: What I find good about digging in the dirt is it really gives you time to think about stuff.

Alison:Right? And you can sort of arrange it. I think it's very good therapy.

Gordon: Yes.

Alison:And it’s nice to look at when it's all done.

Gordon: Yes, when it's all done.

Alison:Exactly. Especially when it’s all done. Well now do you work in, for people who are not familiar with the metal clay why don't you tell them about all the different ways you can get it and maybe which ones you like to work in and why?

Gordon: All the different ways you can get it?

Alison:Meaning we know the different metals, that there are silver, copper.

Gordon: Oh, I see. Well in addition to fine silver there's now sterling silver and there's a coin silver version and there is bunch of base metals and they are copper, bronze, white bronze.

Alison:Oh, I don't even know about all these. What's coin silver version, Gordon?

Gordon: Coin silver is the PMC pro which is 10% copper.

Alison:And it’s called coin silver because that's what coins are made out of or something?

Gordon: Yes. Coin silver I could be wrong, but I think coin silver was typically about 10% copper and the rest silver. And it was because it was more durable that way. And since then, they came out with a sterling which is 7.5% copper. And they have a whole bunch of brands of bronze and some fast-fire bronze.

Alison:And what's in bronze? Can you explain to me what [inaudible] bronze are? The only way I know about bronze is making baby shoes.

Gordon: Bronze is a copper and I say like the meta-adventures bronze is 89% copper and 11% tin.

Alison:So bronze is made out of those two elements, copper and tin?

Gordon: There's a lot of varieties I believe but that's what that one is. Brass is with zinc instead of tin.

Alison:OK. So that one is copper and zinc? I get that right?

Gordon: Yes. And actually, there is a brass clay if I remember correctly. Does Hadar make steel clay?

Alison:Steel Clay?

Gordon: Yes.

Alison:What's in steel?

Gordon: You are going to have to ask her about that.

Alison:Alright, I'll ask her.

Gordon: Yes. I didn’t try that one yet.

Alison:I just love all these metals and what makes them up and which ones are pure and which ones are you know, combined of a few different things and then, you know it obviously changes their strength and their color and all that stuff.

Gordon: Right. And recently I've been doing the copper and the bronze thing because I've found that I'm liking that color combination.

Alison:I think they're beautiful. I know that so many people have switched to copper just because it's cheap now to work with, with the price of silver. But I think copper is finally getting it’s time in the light, in the sun because it’s so beautiful.

Gordon: Yes. it's so rich so I like that.

Alison:And is that an easy substance to work with?

Gordon: It's not as easy as the fine silver product because you have to worry about the oxidation during heating and the presence of air or oxygen to copper and then the heat that copper will turn black. So, we don’t have to worry about that. When we're doing the fine silver, the base metals the oxidation will interfere the centering, so we have to fire it in carbon granules.

Alison:All the scientific stuff make it come out good.

Gordon: Yes.

Alison:But now let me ask you something. Are you the kind of artist because you said you draw, so do you draw your pieces out first? Because some of your things look like nature, they are realistic, or they are complicated. Are you someone that starts with a drawing and then says, ok that's it and now I make it? Or do you?

Gordon: Typically, or most of the time, maybe about 98% of the time I would start with a sketch.

Alison:You will? And does it look like the sketch when you are finished?

Gordon: Usually it’s fairly close, I may go off on a different tangent a little bit but usually it's fairly close.

Alison:Yeah. I was going to guess that about you.

Gordon: The reason it turn out pretty close to the sketches because I'll sketch it several items and usually what you are working out is to proportions and the balance. So, you don’t want to stray too much because then you might.

Alison:You've worked it out right.

Gordon: You lose what you were trying to work out in the first place.

Alison:Right. And are you someone who uses still pencil to paper or are you doing everything with your iPhone and taking pictures and capturing things that way.

Gordon: I don’t capture, I mean I take pictures and stuff but usually it’s not too developed anything directly from. It's more the sketching is where the pieces come from directly.

Alison:Yes. Exactly. So, you've probably spend, do you spend then the majority of your time sketching it out before you go to the table and start working.

Gordon: I like to sketch, usually the sketches come from, yes if I have to do, if I'm thinking about a piece, I'll sketch it. But a lot of times, if I have to go somewhere where I have to do a lot of waiting, I'll take my sketchbook and start sketching there.

Alison:So that's enough to get you motivated them, or do you need to go? Do you ever get in that place called, I can't think of anything and you have to go replenish the well of creativity? Do you, something you go do at that point?

Gordon: Not too often. But usually, if I feel like I'm stuck, I'll do something totally different, like I'll start cleaning or something like that.

Alison:So many artists do that. So many artists do that and as soon as they are stuck, they are like, time to clean the studio.

Gordon: Yes. Because the place looks like a mess. I don’t know if everybody is like that but when you are working on something you don’t want to stop to clean. You just keep going and everything gets left out and you have to put it away. So, I think a lot of the clutter after a while, it kind of surprises you. So, I think it’s good to take a break and do something totally different.

Alison:I love that. I just did it yesterday myself. It was time. Get it all cleaned up, put it all put away, so you have a clean surface to create again. It's very good. Now, what about color pallets? Because I found talking to different people around the world, they are very influenced by where they live for the color pallet, they end up using. It must affect you in Hawaii I would think.

Gordon: Well, I like colors a lot except that's not my focus. When I was doing my, as I said doing some enameling classes my teacher's from Japan and then she tells me to stop using Hawaii colors.

Alison:Oh see. What are Hawaii colors, so I know?

Gordon: It must have been the greens and the

Alison:Bright pink?

Gordon: Yellows and the contrasting with the greens. That would be the reds and blues.

Alison:I love Hawaii colors. They're like a Hawaii shirt.

Gordon: I like complementary colors, but I guess maybe she thought they were too Hawaii or something.

Alison:That's sort of funny though. But don't you find that when you go travel someplace or at least I do then you get attracted to what the colors are in that region and sort of want to be part of it because its different, you know. Like I know that when I went to New Mexico for the first time, everyone wore huge pieces of turquoise. I had to get some and then when I came back east, I looked like a freak wearing it here. You know. So, it sort of I would think Hawaii would have the same thing.

Gordon: I'm one of those people that notices a lot of color, texture, and shape. So, I don’t know, it’s a design that I just look at.

Alison:Right. So, you are big on texturing in your work than in other words?

Gordon: Right now, what I really want to focus on is shape first and then texture and then that's probably why I don’t do too much color and not spending too much time on other color stuff like enameling and however else you can color your stuff.

Alison:Because you want to work on shape right now?

Gordon: Yes, that's what I'm focusing on.

Alison:Is there a time period that you are drawn to historically that you are following that sort of feeling in shape?

Gordon: No, it's not a time period, it's more, I think it’s more adopting nature or getting influence from nature shapes.

Alison:Oh. So, playing more with the organic shapes you are finding.

Gordon: [Makes Sound]

Alison:Like what has your head spinning right now that you are sketching about?

Gordon: It could be anything but, you know that book Nature Forms?

Alison:Yes. Wait. Which on is that?

Gordon: His name is Heckles or something. It's a classic. It's a Dover classic, Dover book what everybody has. Nature forms or something like that.

Alison:It sounds familiar.

Gordon: Yes, it's all line drawing and sketches but they are very complicated and are we having a jet?

Alison:Yes. You're the one who was saying you might have it but I'm having it hear which is nothing, I think it’s a helicopter. Who knows? Maybe they are coming [crosstalk]

Gordon: Oh yes. I live close to an airport, so I'm surprised to.

Alison:I don't. It's funny that I can’t even hear.

Gordon: Anyway, the book has a lot of fascinating shapes. And there are some people, there are some artists, I don’t remember their names. I think one works in resin and one works in polymers. But they do, I think there are called plankton art or something like that. If you do a search, you'll probably find them. But they have really interesting nature forms.

Alison:Well, I'm familiar especially when you get into looking through like a microscope for natural forms, it’s crazy. It’s a whole other world.

Gordon: Yes. If you look at pollen and stuff like that, you get the idea.

Alison:You keep going it gets very inspirational that way. Well, that's sort of cool. So, you are working on shapes right now. I love that. And you are working in the copper for that shapes?

Gordon: Yes, copper and the bronze.

Alison:Yes, they are all very, very attractive. So, what else do you do for fun? Tell us something in Hawaii that is your passion that you like to do there when you are not working in the studio?

Gordon: I don't have fun.

Alison:I don’t believe that. Do you go to beach often?

Gordon: I don’t go as often as I should and I think I need to go just to get revitalized, but it feels really good to go into the ocean, it’s very refreshing.

Alison:Well make me feel really jealous. What is the average temperature like really that you live in.

Gordon: Average is probably like high 70's to low 80's.

Alison:You're [inaudible]. That's pretty lovely for year-round.

Gordon: Yes. It gets kind of a little bit too hot during the summer though. Yes, but then I guess I shouldn’t complain.

Alison:No don’t. Usually, when someone tells me oh it gets a little chilly at night, it goes down to like 58 I'm like oh shut up. Come on.

Gordon: Yes, it really gets into the 50's once in a while. And we get it because we are all spoiled where climate [inaudible] we start complaining when it gets into the '60s.

Alison:I know. I've heard some of you complain like that. It's time for you to get real and come east for a while even though we are very lucky this year. We had this crazy weather, so we only had snow once. It's all still very weird so I don’t know what's happening.

Gordon: Yes, it is weird. It is weird, weird weather.

Alison:It is. It’s very enjoyable and yet weird.

Gordon: Yes.

Alison:Is all I can say. Well, let's talk briefly because I don’t want to forget to mention your book and it is new, correct? Your metal clay fusion book.

Gordon: Yes. Came out earlier this month.

Alison:That's what I thought. Ok. And it's beautiful. It’s lovely, I love books where I can look through and get inspired plus how-to information. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to get involved with some clays. I'm going to tell you right away what my favorite project already is which is the belt buckle. I’ve been dying to get involved in making some belt buckles.

Gordon: Oh really?

Alison:Yes. Just tell me right up front is it really hard?

Gordon: It's not really hard except you to have to look at your belt buckles because I'm not a belt buckle expert but I thought it was a good project to present and.

Alison:I love it and it's simple. I was looking at your clothes and I thought this to me is something, I think belt buckles are just a little like a canvas for artwork?

Gordon: Yes. And I thought it was a good idea to do even though I'm not a belt buckle person. The hardest part was bending the 10-gauge wires. You can maybe go one gauge less and it would be a little bit easier.

Alison:Well, it inspired me to want to give it a try. I think it’s beautiful. I love it.

Gordon: Yes, sure.

Alison:It’s really lovely.

Gordon: Oh, thank you.

Alison:And did you have fun doing the book or were you under the deadline pressure that everyone is?

Gordon: It was a challenge because yes, I was teaching a lot. For me it was a lot, and you know it’s hard to balance everything to come back and then write so I think a missed a few deadlines.

Alison:it’s hard to balance things even living in Hawaii where it’s all paradise, it’s still hard to balance it all right?

Gordon: Yes. There is always responsibilities.

Alison:Oh darn. That's how it goes sometimes. What can I tell you? Well, I've loved chatting with you, I love your book. I'm going to tell everyone again; the title again is Metal Clay Fusion by Gordon Uyehara. How did I do?

Gordon: Pretty close.

Alison:You say it.

Gordon: Uyehara.

Alison:Uyehara. I love how it sounds. I have to practice it a little bit more. Oh, I just say it like New York and just say it you know. Let's see how would we say it in New York? I Hara. Gordon I Hara. [Laughter]. It's a little different slang to it.

Gordon: You got to have the attitude, right?

Alison:That's right you got to have a little attitude and you just got to do it that way so there you go. Regardless of how you say it, it’s a beautiful book and it’s been lovely chatting with you. Thank you for coming on from paradise island of Hawaii and sharing with us some of your background in metal clay.

Gordon: Thank you for having me. It's a lot of fun.

Episode Notes: 

Laura Stevenson / A Shine To It

The View form Here / Stuart Kestenbaum

Vision & Legacy Celebrating the Architecture of Haystack

Metal Clay Fusion / Gordon Uyehara

Noni Flowers / Nora J. Bellows

Resin by Lisa Palvelka