Let It Grow

Let It Grow

Schwartzkopf and Rodriguez kiln yard

Schwartzkopf and Rodriguez crowd-funded their kiln yard, and it has become a place for their community to gather for potlucks, parties, workshops, and events. Photo: Robertsen Ashman

At their home in West Seattle, Deborah Schwartzkopf and George Rodriguez are putting down roots – and cultivating their community.

The 1947 rambler is nestled on a sloping lot. Irises are nosing up from the dirt. Chickens are scratching busily in a generous run. Raised beds, some dressed up with ceramic planters, hold tidy rows of vegetables. The walkout basement has wide picture windows, offering views of fruit trees and a wood-fired pizza oven. A gravel driveway leads down to a studio outbuilding, painted a cheerful yellow and gray, five stout kilns sheltered under a lean-to roof at its side.

It’s hard to imagine that two years ago this place was a blank slate; the grounds were overrun with ivy, the basement and outbuilding were unfinished shells. But George Rodriguez remembers arriving with his partner, Deborah Schwartzkopf, as prospective buyers. “We both looked at each other,” he says. Schwartzkopf chimes in: “We knew.”

The West Seattle property had everything the couple was looking for – in a word, space. Schwartzkopf and Rodriguez, who met in 2009 at Seattle’s Pottery Northwest studio, had been working out of a one-car garage. Try to imagine it. Schwartzkopf makes sensual, purposeful porcelain pottery – and a lot of it. Her work style is an orderly flow, her technique exacting. Rodriguez makes large-scale sculptures, often enthusiastically encrusted with decorative sprigs. His work style is explosive, even messy; bursts of activity follow periods of planning. “It’s great for us to have separate spaces,” Schwartzkopf says, then laughs, clarifying. “I don’t mean that in a catty way.”

At their new home, she works in the 1,200-square-foot basement studio, which includes berths for two or three studio assistants; Rodriguez’s domain is the 700-square-foot outbuilding, with its 12-foot ceilings. To have not only the physical space, but also the mental space to spread out, to experiment, to grow? “It’s such a relief,” she says.  

Schwartzkopf, for her part, was ready to put down roots. For 10 years, she had lived the nomadic life particular to artists, especially those early in their careers. School first brought the Seattle native to Anchorage, Alaska, where she majored in art at the university and worked as a studio assistant for professional potters. She spent a year studying glaze testing and chemistry at San Diego State, then moved cross-country for her MFA at Penn State. From there, it was on to Montana as a resident at the Archie Bray Foundation. There were more residencies, too (Berlin, Massachusetts, Philadelphia, China, Seattle), and teaching posts (Ohio, Boston, and Italy, to name a few).

Rodriguez was less certain about Seattle, initially. He’d come back to Pottery Northwest on the heels of a Bonderman Travel Fellowship, awarded through the University of Washington. Fourteen students receive the extraordinary prize each year. It funds travel for a minimum of eight months, with a few stipulations. You must visit at least six countries, in at least two parts of the world. And you must do it alone.

For Rodriguez, it was a crucible. Before that experience, he had lived in two places: El Paso, Texas, where he grew up and went to college (majoring in ceramics with a minor in painting), and Seattle, where he moved for graduate school. “Initially I was just scared of leaving the country,” he says. He remembers landing in Lima, Peru – the paralyzing unfamiliarity of it all. His first days were filled with frustration and uncertainty, until he realized he had a decision to make: to continue focusing on the hurdles or to embrace the experience. “After that point I didn’t look back.” 

He visited 26 countries, in Asia, South America, and Eastern Europe, spending more than 10 months abroad. “I still think about it,” he says. “And because of that [experience], I wasn’t sure if I wanted to live in Seattle.” He had completed six months of a two-year residency at Pottery Northwest before he left, however, so the opportunity brought him back to the city.

“Now I’m the ball and chain in Seattle,” Schwartzkopf says. She’s joking, of course; Rodriguez is her equal partner in their work-life-art project. But for her, especially, bouncing around more wasn’t an option. “I like to travel, but I’m tired of taking everything I own with me,” she says. “I want a place where we can stay, and then shoot off in our directions that feed us.”

In creating that place to stay, both of their backgrounds have proven to be an asset. As a potter, Schwartzkopf credits her years on the road with allowing her to live now in one place. There aren’t enough ceramics galleries in the area to support her, she points out, but it doesn’t matter. She has connections all over, and her work, easily shippable, is shown and sold nationwide. She has far-flung opportunities to participate in studio tours and teach, too; in the past, she has traveled to teach as many as 12 workshops in a year. Now she’s bringing that experience (and that cross-country network) to bear at home; last year, she and Rodriguez each hosted their first workshop at their new space.

Rodriguez, in reverse fashion, has robust ties to the local arts community. In part, he has consciously cultivated them: After moving to Seattle, he quickly bonded with his fellow students, many of them also transplants. Yet outside of that small world, he experienced a kind of limbo, no longer of El Paso and not yet part of his new city. Re-rooting felt essential, and community (as well as his place within it) emerged as a core concern of his art. But his network is also a function of pure hustle: After graduation in 2009, Rodriguez was teaching at nearly every arts center in the area, at one point juggling five gigs. (He recently landed an adjunct position at North Seattle Community College, a welcome streamlining of his schedule, although he still teaches once a week at Moshier Community Art Center and Seward Park Clay Studio, where Schwartzkopf is also a longtime instructor.) His representation is also Seattle-based; Foster/White, a high-profile gallery in the city’s Pioneer Square neighborhood, has shown his work for the past
five years.

It’s an essential platform for his work – and not only because shipping large-scale sculpture is a logistical challenge. “I make objects that, hopefully, people can gather around,” Rodriguez explains. His sculptures have a kind of gravitational pull: He draws people in with humor, with scale, and with irresistibly embellished surfaces. His works are both an agent for and extension of his community. He wants them to spark conversations, to connect people to each other, and, in turn, to connect those people to him. (It is not a surprise, then, that in addition to continuing to build national exposure for his work, Rodriguez is also interested in public art – in occupying spaces where an even larger community could connect with what he creates.)

The precise strength of their community, both local and national, was made evident shortly after Schwartzkopf and Rodriguez bought their property. They had space – but to really get working, they needed to build a kiln yard. They decided to raise money through Kickstarter. They set up a campaign with generous incentives –  ceramics, mostly, but also intangible or impermanent rewards, such as lessons and home-cooked meals. Even with such tempting (and reasonably priced) offerings, “we didn’t know how many people would actually support us,” Rodriguez says.

“It really made us nervous to ask for help,” Schwartzkopf echoes. Their goal was $18,000. “It was a vulnerable feeling . . . we really needed the support of our community to succeed.” 

It might seem obvious how this story ends: Support flowed in from around the city and the country. With the money, they were able to fast-track essential tasks – pouring a concrete slab, building a roof, running gas and electric. And yet there is a bit of a twist, an unexpected outcome. As they worked, Schwartzkopf and Rodriguez posted updates on their progress to the Kickstarter website. And they couldn’t have anticipated the momentum, she says – the excitement, the emotion, the exposure. “To have catalyzed the community like that – and then to have everybody see, like, we put the roof on! We put the kiln up!” 

Now the partners, even as they continue to develop their own practices, are intensely focused on growing their local community. They run their collaborative efforts, from holiday tours and kiln openings to workshops and their studio assistant offerings, under the banner of Ceramistas Seattle. Schwartzkopf designed the logo, set up the website, and branded their joint effort. A former student surprised them with an engraved slate sign for their studio entrance.

“It’s the reverse of how I imagined,” Schwartzkopf admits. She once thought that local community, a strong home base, would come first, be the platform for expansion – 
something a little closer to Rodriguez’s experience. Her mentors in Alaska, the potters who taught her the meticulous mechanics of a real-life studio practice, had that. But they were also products of a different model, maybe a different time: “They just hunkered down, figured out some cheap place to live, and had a studio almost immediately,” she says. “That’s what I always wanted, but that’s not what happened.”

Instead, the couple continues carving out their own path. In July, their second group of studio assistants arrived. In exchange for 10 to 15 hours of labor each week, Rodriguez and Schwartzkopf give them studio space, access to tools and equipment, and, most valuable, their support. The idea is to get them to the next step – “whatever that may be,” Schwartzkopf says. This August, the couple is hosting “Build or BUST!” – an invitational gathering of people working in figurative ceramics. They’ve also both recently become more involved in the Washington Clay Arts Association, helping reinvigorate and expand its support for regional ceramists.

Schwartzkopf, in fact, is currently serving as board president – a detail she admits only when pressed. “I don’t feel like that’s a long-term role for me,” she says, with an easy humility. It’s plain to see that she’s a caretaker, a maker, a gardener at heart, interested in organizing things and in tending them, but also in letting them grow on their own. Although her pottery today is an artful conversation with emotions and ideas, abstracted into exquisite color and sophisticated form, it was the functional aspect that first captured her attention. She grew up in a family where cooking was caring: “It was a pretty logical progression to then make a plate to put food on,” she says. Walking around her basement studio, she’s quick to point out the additional wheels she and Rodriguez recently acquired –  now with a total of 10, they have more options for classes and workshops.

“I’m really happy to feel grounded here, to feel like I can dig in and really invest in the place,” she says. “It feels like I can reach out further and extend myself more, because all of the energy I would have put into moving, now I’m putting into this place and into our relationship and our studio.”

“The easiest way to see it –  that I’ve seen it in the two years that we’ve been here – is like the garden; it’s as simple as the garden,” Rodriguez says. “Deb will mention to me: We plant this tree now, and don’t worry. In a year it’s going to look beautiful. It might look a little strange at this point, but over the course of the year it’s going to establish itself; it’s going to take charge.

“And just being here two years, it’s already starting to do that. I can only imagine the longer we stay, the more it’s going to keep growing.”

Julie K. Hanus is American Craft’s senior editor.