Natural light streams into George Rodriguez’ art studio on the third floor of a nondescript industrial building in Ballard. Rectangular white boxes filled with clay are stacked by a table near the back of the room. A more than six-foot-tall clown with a friendly face, purple hair and crimson shoes stands on the side of a staircase. Shelving along the walls holds works in progress.
It’s here that Rodriguez expresses himself, his slender fingers busy manipulating clay. Shaping, smoothing and breathing new life into a malleable mound of earth.
“From this block it’s endless potential. So it really can transform into anything, which I find really appealing,” said Rodriguez. “When I teach it, it’s also one of the most difficult things to explain to students that there’s so much potential in this thing you just have to figure out in yourself what do you want to make.”
The award-winning artist teaches ceramic sculpture at North Seattle College.
Rodriguez has always appreciated visual arts. He’s the first person in his family to attend college and initially explored graphic design at the University of Texas at El Paso. Later he discovered ceramic sculpture and connected with the medium. It gave him an avenue to assert his point of view.
As the youngest of four older sisters, Rodriguez said he was often quiet around his family. His work began with self-portraiture and telling stories. After receiving a BFA at his hometown college, Rodriguez moved to Seattle to complete a MFA at the University of Washington. In addition to the sun shining during his initial visit, going to UW also gave him the opportunity to learn from the late Akio Takamori. Once here the lushness of the Evergreen State influenced his work. He began adding more decorative aspects to his sculptures, which is evident in the works showcased in “Guardian” at Bainbridge Island Museum of Art (BIMA).
“Lion” is one of the first works visitors see. The seated figure rests on a raised platform, mouth open and teeth exposed. But it’s not in a ferocious manner. Rather than a bushy mane, this lion is blanketed with burgundy and yellow flowers layered on top of one another.
Rodriguez is attracted to the universality of flowers. He described them as event-oriented symbols that can move through different cultures. Inside his studio he has a “sprig” board with several different embellishments he often uses in his work. Each style has a name and a corresponding mold. The system takes out the guesswork while working with his assistant.
The newest piece in the show is “An Altar,” a four-tiered structure covered in a flower motif that incorporates humans and animals. Rodriguez said each layer represents what we need to be supported – from earth, wind, fire and water to the crown of people at the top. The altar serves as a gathering spot but not for a specific entity or person.
Nearby is “Dreamer,” “Pride,” and “In Hijab.” He made them last year in response to the rhetoric about dividing and marginalizing certain groups. The nearly four-foot-tall figures all bear a similar shape: an outsized head in comparison to a body that is more indistinct rather than literal.
BIMA Chief Curator Greg Robinson appreciates that Rodriguez’ work draws the viewer in and evokes conversation.
“Any way that people can begin talking more, I think is good,” said Robinson. “It’s kind of delightful on the one hand, it’s colorful, it’s intriguing, people are curious and then they learn that he also has a meaning embedded in it and they spend a lot of time here.”
Rodriguez has many sources of inspiration for his work. They include artifacts from the pyramids of Teotihuacan, a pre-Aztec civilization in central Mexico, his hometown and sights from traveling.
In January 2010 he embarked on journey that would make anyone remotely interested in backpacking across the globe jealous. The Bonderman Travel Fellowship allowed him to travel to 26 countries in 10 months. He wasn’t required to do any research; the trip was about leaving one’s comfort zone and experiencing life in non-westernized countries. Japan, Argentina and Turkey were among the stops on his trip. Rodriguez said it took him several years to fully process the experience because it was nonstop moving and absorbing his surroundings. He came away with a positive view of humanity.
“The majority of people are just amazing. You know my camera got stolen at one point but that can happen anywhere,” said Rodriguez. “People are helpful, friendly. Even if you don’t speak the same language you can communicate.”
In much of his work Rodriguez incorporates animals. At BIMA 20 monkey masks hang on a wall. Each are embellished and appear to have personalities. Rodriguez finds animals are sometimes more approachable than people.
“A lot of those animals are personified so they really are like very emotive people. They’re just presented in this animal lens,” said Rodriguez. “Even if there’s something a little bit more serious about it, if there’s something funny, people are more willing to approach it.”
Rodriguez spends several hours in his studio on most days of the week crafting new works. His sculptures of people’s faces are evolving into more emotive and textural. He’s also working on an idea to create an interactive painting that would put the viewer in control of the composition. The idea matches up with the overall theme in his work, which is centered in fostering community.
“The Guardian show for instance is about having these companion figures and being able to figure out where within the Guardian figure do you fit,” said Rodriguez. “Are you being protected by one of these figures or are you on the outside being threatened by one of these figures? It’s kind of forming these groups.”
“Guardian” is his first solo museum exhibition in the Pacific Northwest, he had a solo exhibition at his alma mater in Texas and he has had several solo shows in Seattle. His work is distinctive and entices the viewer with its intricacy. Rodriguez precisely executes his vision and that will only sharpen with time.
WHAT: “George Rodriguez: Guardian”
WHEN: Runs until June 3.
WHERE: Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, 550 Winslow Way E.
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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