Robert Ortiz has established himself as one of Chestertown’s most admired entrepreneurs, creating fine furniture that blends Japanese and Shaker traditions into something contemporary and distinctive. His two lines of furniture — named for his children, Daniel and Sofia — combine simple shapes and combinations of different woods.
A furniture maker for 30 years, Ortiz has had his studio in at 207 C S. Cross Street in Chestertown for the past 20 years. In addition to its primary function as a woodworking shop, it occasionally hosts concerts by the Pam Ortiz band, in which he accompanies his wife on percussion, guitar, and vocals. It has also doubled as “Olivander’s Wand Shop” during Chestertown’s Harry Potter Festivals.
Recently, Ortiz has launched onto a new aspect of his craft – passing along his knowledge and methods to others. Here’s what he told the Chestertown Spy about his new project in a recent interview.
“Since 2008 when the financial crisis happened, most people who have small businesses — if they’re not still recovering — are trying to figure out how to move into the future. . I spent about eight years trying to figure out how to survive in the furniture business, because like many small industries it’s completely different than it was prior to 2008.
I think of 30 years of making furniture as two generations.
“The first generation of people I made furniture for, they’re retiring, downsizing, moving into assisted living, in some cases passing on. I asked those folks, what are they doing with their artwork and their furniture, with their silver, china, and most of them tell me they’re taking it to second-hand stores. Their children don’t want it, their grandchildren don’t want it. The generation that’s replacing that older cohort are in a very different place than my parents or my grandparents were. They’re starting families much later; they’re moving through different careers, different jobs every year, so that stability isn’t there. They’re living with a lot more debt.
“So over the years, I’ve been asking myself, what’s the strategy here? Who wants furniture; who needs furniture? And the more I listened to people and read articles, I realized that there are two things going on. One thing is, that the generation that is just about starting to retire or recently retired they no longer want to buy art or craft: they want to make it. The other interesting thing is that their children and grandchildren are not buying hand-crafted furniture. So about a year and a half ago I came up with this idea that I call the Chestertown vacation workshops.
“Basically, it’s this: come and spend a week with me. It’s one on one, it’s not a group thing. Immerse yourself in the making of a beautiful object that’s useful. I’ve been making this line of furniture now for 20 years, and so my comfort with it, my ability to pass along what I’ve learned in those 20 years, is part of what the workshop’s about.
“I try to be real clear; this is not about starting a woodworking school. If you’re coming to one of my workshops, it’s about come, spend a week, we’ll go from soup to nuts. Picking out the wood, making the pieces, designing them, putting them together, and at the end of the week you get to take it home.”
Who are the workshops aimed at? Ortiz said, “I’ve had people with a little bit of woodworking experience, people with no woodworking experience. I’ve had men and women who spent their career behind a desk, who finally want to get out from behind that desk and make something. I’ve had several women who weren’t allowed to take shop in high school who finally said, you know, I’m going to make myself something.”
The Spy asked, “What kinds of skills are they going to need for the workshop?”
Ortiz said, “To a certain extent, when you come here, I don’t care if you’ve been a CEO, I don’t care if you’ve been a lowly worker – everybody is a private here, except for myself. The most important thing is for people to be willing and able to concentrate and to follow directions. The one skill that is really helpful is that you’re a problem solver. If you’re a good problem solver, it goes quickly. If not, we have to spend a little more time making sure that when it’s time to make a cut or put something together, that you’re able to do it right.
“Somebody who doesn’t have a lot of experience, or who has no experience, may wind up saying to themselves, well, gee, how am I going to take that workshop? Well, what I tell people is, you know all those people who are climbing up Mount Everest with a guide? Most of those people – they’re not mountain climbers. They’re people who pay a lot of money to have somebody shepherd them up the mountain, hopefully they make it, hopefully they come back down the mountain and have a wonderful experience to talk about. Well, in my case, I’m shepherding you through the process of making a piece of furniture. My job actually ends up being to make all the test pieces to give the student the confidence that they’ll be able to make the cut.”
Ortiz takes a good bit of pride in the quality of work his students are able to produce. He said, “Back in October I had an alumni weekend. I invited everyone who had taken a workshop to come and bring their piece of furniture and have it out on the floor. It was during the studio tour that happens in Kent County, because I wanted other people to see what participants had made, and the quality of what people were able to achieve. On my website, I have lots of photos of things that people have made, and you’d be pretty amazed. And I had a CEO last week who told me his doctor told him he needed to find something to do as a hobby. So he hadn’t taken wood shop since high school. I was pretty amazed. He didn’t answer his phone once during the course of the week. So I think the most important thing is to leave your daily routine behind you and be able to immerse yourself in the craft and in all the nuances and all the focus that it takes in order to make something with your hands and make it beautiful.
“The process – most of these pieces take about five days. And in those five days, my hope is that people are willing to come into my world, see how I spend my day. And my day involves focusing on the work that I’m doing, focusing on the details, and trying to get my students, the folks who are taking my workshops, to focus on those details just as much as myself, so that at the end of the week they take home this piece that’s as good as, or nearly as good as, something that I’ve made.
“I mentioned earlier that older people are giving their furniture, their silver, their china to second-hand and thrift stores. The kids don’t want the furniture that their grandparents or parents bought. What he said took me by surprise and it opened up a door that I just wasn’t thinking was there. He told me he brought home the first piece of furniture that he made from the workshop, and in the course of a couple of weeks, his three sons came to visit. And each of them said to him, “I want that when you die.” So it became clear to him, ‘Well, OK, I need to make three pieces of furniture, one for each.’
“But what’s interesting to me is, now we’re talking about a heirloom that’s going to stay in the family, hopefully for several generations.”
Ortiz knows what that means. Among all the fine pieces in his shop, he showed the table his computer sits on. “That’s a table that my father made when we lived in a little apartment in Greenwich Village when I was a kid. My father had no workshop – he was a factory worker, he was a metal worker. But that was a formica and metal table that he made. It’s always something that I’ve kept close by. And I guess to a certain extent the workshops are just a continuation of that. So – that’s what the workshops are about. The workshops are about legacy; the workshops are about coming and having fun; the workshops are about something, take it home, get to say every day, ‘I made that.’
The other thing that folks should know, I’m also willing to entertain other people’s designs. It sometimes costs a little more because I’ve got to figure out how we’re going to make them within the time frame.”
For more information about the workshops, and about Ortiz’s furniture, visit his website.
Furniture from the Daniel and Sophia furniture lines, made by Bob Ortiz in his Chestertown Studio:
Editor’s Note: While there is a good chance a higher proportion of Kent County residents are in New York City this month as a result of the Big Apple’s theatrical debut of Chestertown playwright Robert Earl Price’s (and Pam Ortiz score) musical “Red Devil Moon.” countless number of devoted local fans were not able to make the trip north to join the fun.
That is where Bob Ortiz comes to the rescue. Over the next week, Bob will be sending photos and other facts about Red Devil Moon’s big moment in the New York spotlight.
Dateline: New York City – August 19, 2016
Today, Saturday, will be our last performance at the NYC Fringe Festival. I have no doubts about our performance, we know our “stuff” and it gets even better, more expressive with every performance. I do have my doubts (and suspect that my fellow performers do also) about the the equipment in the theatre…here’s hoping all of it works today.
We had the day off yesterday and with Pam returning to Maryland to attend our daughter Sofia’s show at the Mainstay, I took the afternoon to visit places that I had not been to in 50 years when I left New York. I was greeted with several surprises. There were aromas of weeds that I encountered in two small parks that seemed to transport me back in time. I saw iron gates and brick walls that I immediately recognized. I felt as if these and other images were tucked away in some file drawer in my head and somehow I was pulling them out and reviewing them like old flash cards.
I visited the first place where I lived with my mother, father and brother (Tito), at 5 Jane Street. It looks exactly as it did back then. The building was a converted horse stable. Two doors up, at 9 Jane Street, lived Lillie Mae Highland. She was a retired musician who wrote for MGM in the 1930’s. She lived alone and had no children. When I was 5 she asked my mother if she could teach me piano. She taught me piano. My mother and father, on occasion, cleaned her apartment. She opened a door into a world that I would never have imagined and that I believe placed me on a very different path than the one I would have walked had she not invited me to learn with her.
I finally decided to visit my old grammar school. I had avoided visiting that place ever since I left New York City when I entered a Catholic Teaching Order at the age of 14. I promised myself when I left New York that I would never come back. Memories of that place were, at best, painful. It was a pretty rough place. I was a small kid, a year ahead of myself and if I remember correctly the bottom three kids in the pecking order were myself and the only two african american kids in our class. But I went back yesterday with the hope that perhaps those who teach these children are able to these new children a respect, understanding and empathy for those who are different. Seems as if fifty years later we are still struggling to learn that.
This has been one of the themes of our developing musical “Red Devil Moon” and having spent yesterday looking back, I glad to know that I got to work with such a wonderful, talented and hard working group of musicians, singers and friends to keep this and other lessons on people’s minds. In the end, I think this is one of the most important role of all artists, to hold up a mirror to our society and to ask questions.
Thanks to the Chestertown Spy for allowing me to write this blog and thank you to Kent County and Chestertown and all who helped us get here.
Dateline: New York City – August 18, 2016
It’s been a memorable 24 hours…Ford Schumann’s newest grandson, Ilex arrived at about 5 AM today. Brooke and the baby are doing just fine. The Riverarts tour bus arrived in the lower west side at about 2 PM and by the time we saw friends at the theatre they all seems content having found good places to eat in the neighborhood.
We had a nearly full house and an enthusiastic and appreciative audience despite the fact that once again the theatre equipment keeps finding new, “creative” and different ways to break down. I am hoping we can avoid the for our last show tomorrow, Saturday at 2:30. Thankfully the audience was able to hear it well enough. Thanks to all of you who came.
We had a very nice turn out for the talkback. The moderator, a Fringe Festival staff person, did a nice job getting folks engaged in a conversation about the performance, the process, and creation of Red Devil Moon.
Throughout the last week, we have continued to miss Robert Earl Price’s presence. I’m happy to say that he continues to improve, and we are all hopeful that he may be released from the hospital either today or tomorrow.
Dateline: New York City – August 17, 2016
Some of us have tended to stay close to our apartments. Some of us (like Jerome McKenney and Tom Anthony) are up early and walking. They’ve been sighted at the top of the Empire State, Rockefeller Plaza, east side, west side, uptown and downtown.’
The second photo is Ford Schumann at a nearby breakfast place eating a spicy breakfast taco. When I ordered just a plain scrambled egg sandwich, the waiter looked at me and said, “with all these spicy foods and selections, you order a plain egg on a roll…why’d you bother coming here?” Ah! That’s the New York I love!
The RiverArts bus is coming today…we’re looking forward to seeing friends and family…while the past 8 days have been fun, they have also been hard work, challenging and not without their occasional frustrations. It will be nice to see one and all. People at the festival are pretty surprised and envious when we tell them that a bus load of Red Devil Moon fans are coming.
Also, a new critical review can be found here.
Dateline: New York City – August 17, 2016
Yesterday and today we are pretty much on our own as there are no performances on either day for Red Devil Moon. Some of us walked down to the 9/11 Memorial, another group went to some of the Fringe Festival plays, some went to the gym, wandered around lower Manhattan and tried to stay cool. Nevin took his violin and went busking although I have not seen him, so I don’t know where.
Pam and I went over to the west village, where I grew up. We visited a park dedicated to a friend who died in the Vietnam War, and then walked down to the High Line, a converted Railroad elevated line that is now a park and promenade.
Dateline: New York City – August 16, 2016
Yesterday afternoon a group of us went to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum on Orchard Street. The tour lasted about an hour and we transported back in time ti 1887 and 1920 to learn and experience how and where two immigrant families live, worked and struggled in America.
After that we went back to our apartments (we’ve rented three Through air/B&B)
Last night’s performance, our third, was (I think) our strongest performance. This is even though the set up is not the easiest for us, we’ve had problems with the video equipment and the sound equipment is not of the best quality so hearing ourselves (which allows you to regulate how you sing and project to the audience) has been non existent. Still, the audience response has been enthusiastic and wonderful.
…got to go, a group of us is going to walk to the ground zero memorial and then a tour of pastry shops!
Dateline: New York City – August 15, 1016
Newest Cast Member
Man about Town (photo by Karen Somerville)
It’s day five in NYC and our first two performances are behind us. The 13 of us are staying in 3 different apartments on the lower East Side. Trying to get to rehearsals, performances and meals has, at times felt like a cross between herding cats and Abbot and Costello’s, “Whose On First.”
I don’t play golf, but there’s a saying from that sport that I have found helpful these past few weeks…”play it as it lies.” In other words, deal with the situation you have, not the one you hoped for.
That phrase has come to the rescue many times since Thursday. That’s when Robert Earl Price, our playwright, the creator of our project and narrator was stricken by back pain that made walking impossible. By Saturday morning he was in the emergency room at Lennox Hill Hospital. With Robert Earl out of commission we needed to find a narrator.
Michael Wessel makes his living these days as a baker/pastry chef at Evergrain Bakery in Chestertown. He’s also someone who is willing to roll up his sleeves and do whatever needs to be done, so we asked him to come to New York and be our stage manager. On Thursday night Pam and Carol Colgate, our other two producers told him he was now the Red Devil Moon Narrator.
Tomorrow, our finest performances…
Here are the reviews we’ve received so far. We have a 7 pm show tonight. Early this afternoon 12 of us are going to THE LOWER EAST SIDE TENEMENT MUSEUM.
Back by popular demand, Josh Polak, Rabbi Shuvi Maarivi and their musical friends will return to the Robert Ortiz Studios for a 3 PM concert on Sunday, June 22. The concert, will include Shuvi’s daughter, Miriam, who’s just released a new CD. Admission is $10 payable at the door.
The group’s music is an eclectic mix of Jewish, Ladino, Celtic and Reggae. Miriam’s songs-the second half of the program-are all original. The Ortiz Studio is at 207C South Cross Street, Chestertown. Seating is limited but you can call 410-810-1400 to reserve a seat in advance.
You can link to Polak and Maaravi’s music here.
Robert Ortiz Studios and the Chestertown Havurah have partnered to present Baltimore folk musicians Rabbi Shuviel Ma’aravi, Josh Polak, Josh’s daughter, Esther, and a few friends who will fill the air with Ladino, Chasidic, Yiddish and Hebrew tunes when they come to Chestertown on Sunday, February 16.
The 3 pm Sunday concert will be at the Ortiz Studios, 207 C So. Cross Street, Chestertown.
Admission is open to all and is $10.00 at the door. Reservations can be made in advance at 410-810-1400. Please leave your name and the number of seats you would like to reserve.