Randy Strong's one ambition in high school was to become a professional football player. What he actually became was a maker of fragile and beautiful glass vessels and glass sculptures. The transition from jock to artist was not made entirely by choice.
In 1962, playing football, Strong broke his neck. He was 15. He spent a year and a half hospitalized in Phoenix, paralyzed from the neck down.
He recovered, but there was no possibility of his becoming a professional football player. The accident is still affecting his health. "It's not painful, but the injury severed all the muscles over the top of my shoulders, so that every time I swing my arms real fast, I dislocate my shoulders."
The year and a half in the hospital gave him time to think.
"But I didn't think. I watched a lot of television, and they kept me on drugs. I didn't think too much because if I looked at my situation, I found it very depressing. I had always been athletic. The only thing I wanted was to be a professional football player. My life was down the tubes."
In 1965, after recovering and having left Judson School in Scottsdale, Ariz., Strong went through three years of emotional withdrawal. "I bummed around a lot. I hitch-hiked back and forth across the United States and ended up in Laguna Beach. I got into trouble with the law and had to leave after having been busted for drugs a number of times."
The drug problem had begun in high school, "where I first heard about smoking dried banana peel." Later, he went to Topanga Canyon for a "love- in" with a friend who was back from Vietnam and was taking harder drugs.
"We got busted at the love-in because he had so many pills that he was taking for his wound. They let us off because he had been to Vietnam."
Strong was in trouble with the law several more times. His attorney would tell the court how Strong's promising football career had been ruined by the fall and how his hospitalization had made him reliant on drugs.
"But I had long hair--these were the 1960s--and I think that the courts had heard enough sob stories. One judge said that if I came back, it was going to be really hard for me next time."
So Strong left Laguna and went north, enrolling in Diablo Valley Jun- ior College in Contra Costa County, about 20 miles from San Francisco. Rather at random, he signed on for a course in ceramics making, along with classes in photography and computers.
"One day, I walked into a classroom and I saw this man sitting there mak- ing a vase, and that was the second time in my life that I fell in love with something. I saw the kids watching him and the beauty of everything that was happening right there." It was in ceramics class that Strong started getting good grades for the first time. One night, he visited the glass-blowing department at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. He was excited by the medium. "I realized that clay was not as immediate a material as glass. With glass, you can start and finish a piece right away; you have to fire clay in biscuit and then glaze. And I was very impatient."
Strong took out student loans, went to the California College of Arts and Crafts and started blowing glass. He had stopped taking drugs "because I wasn't searching any more; I wasn't so distressed. I had found something and was putting everything into it." The former football player was also reassessing his identity.
"Everyone used to call me a jock. I used to feel that they were saying: 'You've got no brains; it's like classifying someone because he's blond. But my mom always said that I was oversensitive." The oversensitive jock was turning into an artist.
After earning a bachelor's degree in art at the California College of Arts and Crafts in 1971, Strong went back to Diablo Valley Junior College, built a glass studio and taught for the summer session. Then, more by luck than by design, he won a scholarship to Osaka University in Japan.
"Osaka is San Francisco's sister city," he says. "It was a total fluke that I got the scholarship. I went into a gallery where a friend of mine was working, and he said: 'Why don't you apply?' I said: 'I would never win.' And he said: 'Well, I've seen some of the entries.' I happened to have three pieces of glass in the car and he suggested that I submit them. So, I sat down and wrote something out--the deadline was that afternoon."
Strong did not win the scholarship; someone else was chosen. But the winner backed out, and Strong received a telephone call one morning and heard that he had won the scholarship. "And I said: 'Oh, forget it.' It was, like, 8 a.m., and I thought that somebody was joking. I hung up. But they called back, and it was true."
In Japan, Strong lived in a Buddhist temple divided into rooms. Every morning, Strong--unlike the other American students--went out early to practice kendo (fighting with staves) with the Japanese Buddhist students.