George Rodriguez is a Seattle-based ceramic sculptor who creates large-scale pieces and environments that reflect his personal journey and also reference his Mexican-American heritage. George grew up in El Paso, TX, and spent time in his youth in both El Paso and Ciudad Juarez across the border in Mexico, visiting family.
I love the sense of scale that permeates George’s work. I sense monumentality both in the physical size of his pieces, but also in the character of much of his work. I’m reminded of ancient cultures that used large sculptures as architectural elements to reflect the grandeur and power of their civic or religious function.
George sent me some photos of his workspace that highlight the physical size of some pieces.
You can get a sense of how George combines these large-scale pieces to create ceramic “environments” in an article describing George’s 2019 show entitled “Reflect and Gather” in Seattle. (Two images from the show are displayed below).
JW: Have you always worked at large scale? What attracted you to large pieces?
GR: I’ve always enjoyed working large. In undergrad at the University of Texas El Paso, I worked to the limitations of the largest kiln. I would make these 3ft tall figures. This is before I really knew about making things in sections. I enjoyed the engineering of the sculpture and the challenge of making the clay balance. In grad school at the University of Washington, they had a kiln I could stand in. I took that as a challenge and my first sculpture was a large matador boy figure. Since then, I learned a lot about large scale ceramics. I love how physical it is and that it involves my entire body. I love the planning it takes to map a large-scale piece and figure out the steps to make it happen. I love that I need to exercise patience and listen to what the clay needs. I have definitely been rushed and lost my fair share of work.
JW: You have a series called “Urban Guardians” consisting of multiple heads and multiple bodies. Viewers are able to move the heads around, exchanging 1 head for another on a body. Where did you come up with that idea of “interactive” or participatory sculpture?
GR: The series for Urban Guardians came together in 2019 and 2020. The title stemmed from two large sculptures (a rat and a pigeon) that I wanted to display prominent and regal. I was thinking about the way we interact with monuments and how the viewers perceptions are changed by the artists. Rats and Pigeons are often seen as pests, but I wanted to change the narrative to them being resilient and worthy of display.
I was also thinking about the complexity of people and how our taste, emotions, convictions are always changing. This led me to want to give the viewers more power in creating their own small monument. One day I might want to see a skull head on the sphynx, while the next day I want to see a luchador head instead. I also think that when the viewer has the ability to create and make decisions, they will look closer at the many options available and maybe discover something new. Plus who doesn’t want to touch the art in a gallery.
JW: You have another project involving participation of different artists. Will you tell me about that project, El Zodiaco Familiar?
GR: El Zodiaco Familiar has been in the works for about 3 years. This is the fifth series in the reinterpretation of the Chinese Zodiac into a Mexican zodiac. In an homage to its origins in Chinese folklore, I wanted to reimagine the classic zodiac animals as analogous creatures of Mexican origin, and thus bridging cultures and creating new narratives. I always planned for the last series to be a collaboration with other artists that identify as Mexican or Chicanx/e. I wanted to include artists that work outside of the ceramic discipline.
Included in the collaboration are painters, photographers, poets, tattoo artist, animators, potters, political cartoonist, printmakers, jewelers, mixed media and installation artists. Each artist has imbued their collaboratively-imagined sculpture, corresponding to the zodiac animal of their birth year, with personal perspective, folk tradition, and an intimate feeling of celebration.
I was curious how the 13 artists in the collaboration would react to their given animal. While each sculpture is as distinct as its maker, taken together, the twelve pieces vibrate with deep resonances of the familiar. Each collaboration was unique as the artists lived across the US with one artist living in Mexico. There were a lot of conversations, and no two collaborations worked the same. Some artist came to my Seattle studio and worked in person, while others received the work in the post and shipped it back when done. It’s been one of my favorite series to work on because it is about community building and I feel like I gained some good friendships.
JW: You grew up in El Paso, studied at UTEP and frequently visited relatives in Mexico. Are you familiar with the ceramics from Paquime (also called Casas Grandes)? There are some things in your work that remind me of some of the spirit vessels from Paquime.
GR: I am very familiar with Paquime. As an undergrad student, my professor Vince Burke took a handful of students to Paquime for a 4-day trip to work with one of the Quezada brothers. This is when I found out where this beautiful pottery came from. We worked with some low fire clay and learned a few techniques. It was a fun trip of discovery.
I grew up in the southwest in a very Mexican household in El Paso TX and there is some imagery on that pottery that was part of my daily life. I think that some of those symbols and spirits are passed on through family and ancestry. I feel like the art from this region is in my blood.
JW: You’ve said that you work is about you trying to portray yourself, and your self-image is always evolving. Can you point me to some pieces that represent some of those different sides of your heritage and personality?
GR: I like to create self-portraits because they act as time markers. My first sculpture in beginning ceramics was a portrait of me with puzzle pieces. In grad school, I made my portrait into a large ceramic piñata. After the 2016 Presidential election, I created a self-portrait that presented my emotions in “State of the Union”.
Most recently, “Seven Indulgences” is a large urn with my portrait and my sins.
When I’m not being completely literal and adding my face, I lean on my Mexican heritage to represent me and the ideas I want to present. The Quinceañera dress has made an appearance multiple times and represents my family because my mother is a seamstress and would make my sisters dresses. The luchador shows up as a guardian and the cactus as my home.
One of the biggest impacts in my work happened because I had the opportunity to travel the world in 2010 in thanks to a fellowship I received in grad school. This Bonderman Travel Fellowship expanded my world view and allowed me to realize how interconnected we are as humans on a global scale. I was able to make connections of imagery from cultures that were separated by vast distance across oceans. I am not only Mexican and from the US, I am a global member that can share traditions and cultures that are not only the ones I grew up in.
JW: Can you tell me something about your process? You work in such large scale I’ve got to imagine you sketch out ideas about a piece before you start building. How much of your work is planned in advance, and how much spontaneous?
GR: I plan a lot before I start on a sculpture or a series. I usually start with research and conversations with people. My work references historical sculpture, different cultures, and social political issues. I want to make sure that I’m not appropriating and misrepresenting any imagery I might use. After research comes drawings and sketches. I sketch different angles of more complicated sculptures but mostly I use the sketches for scale. I mark out the height and width to reference while building. The slab work is the easy part. I build hollow with interior support structures depending on the sculpture. My spontaneity come with my use of sprig ornamentation. I go in with an idea but that could change to contour the form better or to add different meaning. After bisque firing, glazing is like paint by numbers. I want the colors to add yet another layer of information.