By John Sammon
Yoshio Taylor will tell you and he’s told his students that to be a sculpture artist takes a special resolve all its own.
“I used to tell my students, ‘yeah it’s great to have artworks all over the place but art is a commitment,’” Taylor said. “You have to have a passion, you have to persevere, you have to sacrifice. Even if you have talent someone might pass you up in your career unless you push it. You have to have determination.
I was known as a workaholic and I still am,” Taylor added. “My family thinks I’m crazy. Maybe I am.”
Taylor’s commitment led him to become an internationally recognized master of the art of sculpture. His works can be seen on display at locations around Northern California, in some venues appreciated by hundreds of people daily as they pass by.
One is a three-story high mural of hand-made terra cotta tiles (32 feet high by 18 feet) depicting a relaxing waterfall scene at the University of California (UC) Davis Medical Center main lobby.
“It’s a large piece that took me two years to complete, and that was while I was teaching (art),” Taylor said. “A hospital can be a frantic place, and I wanted to give the people who visit (patients, family, doctors) a feeling of calm.”
Another artwork is located in the Plaza Escuela Center in Walnut Creek (Locust Street). Two figures, a male and a female (in front of the Cheesecake Factory) tower above pedestals. Completed in 2002 and made out of bronze with terra cotta bases, the figures represent learning with books in their hands. The site is the former location of Walnut Creek’s first school.
At the feet are depicted native plants that have disappeared from the area as well as endangered wildlife, and species including frogs, foxes and birds. Grape leaves celebrate the history of Walnut Creek’s agricultural industry.
Taylor said he loves doing his art at the age of 73.
“As long as my body allows me and my mind is still there I’ll do it until the end,” he said. “It’s a passion you have.”
But it took grit to get there.
Taylor was born on the tiny island of Tarama in the Okinawa chain in 1948 just a few years after World War II and the scene of one of the most ferocious battles of the conflict.
“My mother married an American and when I was six years old we moved to Osaka (Japan),” Taylor said. ‘We came to America when I was 16 (1965) and I didn’t speak a word of English. I didn’t speak to my father except in Japanese.”
Taylor said having completed ninth grade schooling in Japan he was reluctant to attend high school in this country.
“I thought I was through with school,” he said. “I didn’t want to go to school but my dad forced me. I carried two dictionaries with me (Japanese and English). I took classes that didn’t require me to speak too much, like art and architecture. I liked landscape painting and figurative portraits.”
After graduation from Hiram Johnson High School (Sacramento) Taylor attended Sacramento City College where he got an AA Degree in Art. He said it took him six years to feel comfortable communicating in English. He had developed a sense of humor.
“I saw the culture here (America) was that you should be able to joke and I was kind of a class clown in school,” Taylor said.
He got a job washing dishes at a Sacramento restaurant and learned the art of cooking Japanese cuisine, at the Rickshaw Restaurant on 10th Street and the Fuji Restaurant.
“The chef wanted to go home and have a drink and so he showed me how to prepare dishes, for example sushi, or oyakodon (rice bowl dish with chicken, egg, scallions and sweet soup over the rice).”
Taylor got married and said he took his role as a breadwinner seriously.
“I had two jobs and decided to go back to college (Sacramento State today California State University Sacramento),” he said. “I took classes in photography and commercial art. I thought, I can’t just be an artist (painter). I thought I would become a graphic or commercial artist.”
His career took a turn in 1976 when he decided to enroll in a ceramics class.
“I was fascinated by ceramics, I said I bet I can do that, but it was really a challenge,” Taylor said. “I thought, I’m not that good. But I love challenges in life.”
A big break was his meeting with Ruth Rippon, a legendary ceramics master whose career spanned seven decades as a teacher and who played a major role in lifting ceramics into the realm of fine art. Her works appeared at the Crocker Art Museum (Sacramento) and she was responsible for putting Sacramento at the world’s center of clay art.
“She was a stern and hard teacher and she became my mentor,” Taylor said. “She was teaching pottery. My style was influenced by her. She encouraged me to teach.”
Taylor got a Master’s Degree from Sacramento State in ceramics and began teaching at that institution and also at nearby Consumes River College.
Another key acquaintance was a chance meeting at a graduate seminar in Montana with Peter Voulkos, an abstract expressionist in ceramics sculpture.
“We hit it off well, he (Voulkos) liked my sense of humor,” Taylor said. “He was known for his working with large 50-pound plates of clay. He was a big name (in art) and I would visit his studio. He asked me to apply for a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) at the University of California (UC) Berkeley in sculpture. They didn’t have a (MFA) degree in ceramics, but under the sculpture category you could work in different media.
It wasn’t easy to get in,” Taylor noted. “Out of 200 applicants they would accept 12.”
Taylor was one of the few chosen and even after a year in the MFA program a panel of reviewers determined if you should be allowed to continue, if your work was worthy. Taylor succeeded. He graduated in 1982.
Unlike Voulkos and his expressionistic work in which the author portrays their inner feelings (sometimes hard for the viewer to know what it is), Taylor produces “figurative ceramics,” renderings clearly understood.
Clay figures once molded are placed in a kiln (oven) and fired twice, at temperatures from 1,800 to 2,300 degrees. Glaze is applied and care must be taken there isn’t too much moisture in the clay, which during heating can cause the piece to fracture or explode.
Taylor has exhibited his work in group and solo art shows and the works have sold being displayed in art galleries in Sacramento and San Francisco, for example the Dorothy Weiss Gallery (256 Sutter St. San Francisco).
Stylistically, Taylor said he does art pieces that combine a cross between Western and Japanese cultural imagery.
“My figures are an extension of myself,” he said. “If I’m all keyed up or stressed out I explain it that way, or it can be more relaxed. I’m reaching for a goal, to succeed in life.”
One piece was that of a circus clown. Taylor said he was impressed with Marcel Marceau the famous French mime artist.
“I was fascinated by his (Marceau’s) figurative gestures,” Taylor said. “I have also been influenced by Kabuki Theater (traditional stylized theater) in Japan and Bunraku Japanese (puppet) Theater.”
Taylor had a book on his art published in April by John Natsoulas, owner of the John Natsoulas Center for the Arts in Davis at 521 1st St.
In 1985 Taylor created a ceramic mural in honor of the 120,000 mostly Japanese Americans who were imprisoned in concentration camps during World War II because of their race. The work is located in the Sacramento Administration Building at 700 H. St. (taxes are paid here).
Currently Taylor is working on an artwork to commemorate the contributions made by Chinese immigrants in the tiny community of Isleton in the Sacramento River Delta. The piece will become a part of a fountain to be installed in the new Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Memorial Park.
“Chinese immigrants after they helped build the Transcontinental Railroad were used to improve the Sacramento River wetlands,” Taylor said. “The river would flood and they (Chinese) built the dykes to control it. The result was the area became some of the richest farmland in the Delta.”
The Chinese were expelled from the area and Japanese immigrants came in and helped to improve the region’s agriculture. Then the Japanese were removed during World War II and Portuguese and Filipino immigrants moved there.
Taylor agreed the memorial to the contributions of Asian immigrants in the new park will be of special significance given the recent spate of anti-Asian violence directed at anyone who looks Asian during the Trump Administration.
Taylor retired from teaching in 2019 and is today a full-time artist.
He agreed that one of the joys of his art is creating works that will be around for long after their creation.
“It means something,” he said, “and I feel blessed I’m able to do this.”