Epic Trailer Rebuild- Part 1: Offer, Research, Rethink

By Rickie Barnett

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Part 1: Offer, Research, Rethink

Historic Photo 1964ish

Historic Photo 1964ish

            It was late in the summer of 2015 when I got the call from Deb, offering me a position at Ceramistas Seattle. At the time I was working sun up to sun down preparing for my exit show after a year long residency at Taos Clay Studio in Taos, NM. I knew that finding a place to live in Seattle would be tricky and frustrating. Trying to set up a life in one part of the country, while living in another part, will forever be a headache. I wanted a place that was close to the studio, allowed my dog, and most importantly, was cheap! I started putting my feelers out on social media and combing craigslist. But, just as I predicted, my search for the perfect place was to no avail. I had been spoiled in Taos when Brandi, the owner of Taos Clay, let me build a small cabin on the back side of the property, where I could live rent free. Trying to justify spending 600 to 900 bucks a month for a place to sleep just didn’t settle well with me. I tried to keep my head up and remind myself that most importantly, I had found a studio and a place to work for the next year. And it was in the Northwest, perfect! Whatever it took to make this move happen, I would see to it. 

1963 Aloha Trailer pre-rebuild

1963 Aloha Trailer pre-rebuild

            One day in the Taos Clay studio while scan online living places in the great Seattle area, a friend jokingly said, “ Wouldn’t it be nice if you just found another place you could build a cabin on again?”. I replied that would be ideal but perhaps a bit of a stretch that I could pull that off again. Well, the next morning I received an email from Deb with an offer that made my heart race faster that a derby purebred. She had a 1963, Aloha Camper that she had picked up for next to nothing at an estate sale and was curious to know if I would be interested in remodeling it, in exchange for being able to live in it, rent free, for the year that I was in Seattle. I spun around in my chair that didn’t spin around very well and let out a holler similar to that of drunken cowboy about to get into a saloon brawl. I replied that although I had zero experience rebuilding trailers, I was very interested in taking on this challenge.

            Deb sent some photos of the inside of the trailer so that I could see the damage. It didn’t look so bad but it was hard to tell from the photos and I knew that since she got the thing for next to nothing that it probably had some pretty nasty stuff going on in the walls. I talked with Taos local and renaissance man, Rene Robles about the project and his response was not all that comforting. Although, he was supportive of my ability to do the project he was very realistic with me about the difficulties of taking on a project like this on my own. Deb had asked that the project be done in a months time and Rene believed that to be almost impossible to determine since we actually had no idea how bad the damage was. He said that if the floor was rotten I would have to basically rebuild the whole thing. I was starting to sink under the weight of it but I still had a solo show to get ready for so I placed the remodel task on the back burner and finished my show.

            After my exit show came down I packed all my belongings into my Volvo wagon and drove back to California to spend a couple weeks with my family, before arriving at Ceramistas. I spent the better part of those two weeks researching trailer remodels, reading and watching every video I could find online. Rene told me to plan for the worst so that I was prepared for whatever came up. I was going to do my best to be prepared but as I read and re-read, watched and re-watched, I felt the weight of the task ahead more and more.  Everything I found said that these remodels and rebuilds took months and months and even years to complete. It was daunting but I had more info and knowledge than I had before and I still had know Idea what I was walking into.

            It was an early Wednesday morning, September 30th, when I hugged my family goodbye, got in my car with my pup, and made the 12 hour drive to Seattle. I pulled up to Ceramistas around 2:30 in the afternoon, where I was welcomed by two friendly dogs, two cats, two assistants, two artists to assist, and one dooming trailer tucked in the corner of the property, behind the studio. Deb showed me where I’d be sleeping and let me unpack some of my things before giving me a tour of the studio. It was exciting to be in this beautiful new place but all I could think about was that little blue and white Aloha baby just waiting for me. Deb made a nice dinner from the garden and we had a fire with beers and conversation but I still could not get that damn trailer off my mind, not even for a moment. 

            The next morning, Thursday, Oct 1st, at 7 am, I woke up, got dressed, ran my hand through my hair, walked down the stairs and met the beast that had been calling my name, head on. It was the last time both the trailer and myself would stand as we where then, for both of our lives where about to change forever.

Part 2: takedown

As Deb and I started taking things apart to assess the damage it became clear that things were in fact, pretty bad. As we so very carefully removed each screw and rivet it felt like we were peeling an onion that kept revealing, after all, each layer was rotten. We spent the next week slowly removing each piece, taking the time to take lots of photos and notes on how it was put together so that when the time came we could have some reference information to refer to. I had gone over it in my mind hundreds of times so it was nice to actually be seeing and doing it for myself. When taking apart anything, with the idea of putting it back together, it is beyond beneficial to make sure you touch every single part. This makes it difficult to utilize offered help. I knew that I could really use the help but I also knew that I needed to have my hands and my mind on every part of it, to better understand it.

            After the first couple of days of taking things apart it became clear that all four walls and the roof needed to be rebuilt. I still had my fingers crossed that the floor was in good shape. I tried to leave each wall in tact and leave it to the side so that when I was rebuilding I could look over at the old wall for reference. This didn’t go so smoothly due to the fact that to move the walls I would have to take them apart in some manner. I removed to two long side walls in two sections each. This would still offer plenty of reference and it made it easier to stack off to the side. The front and back walls were a little trickier to keep in tact as reference because they had curves in them. But I saved them to at least count the boards and take window measurements from. I had three assigned areas for things coming off the trailer. One for things we would be keeping and reusing such as windows, countertops, ice box, stove, etc. One for reference material, and one for stuff that most definitely needed to go to the dump. It is important to keep a clean work space when you are doing a building project. This helps with safety, being able to be more easily movable, and it lets you have a clearer sight of the material and tools you have. Keeping a clean building area on a project that starts with a demolition, in Seattle, In October can be a very, very frustrating thing. The winds were starting to pick up, blowing our nicely stacked piles all over the yard and letting us know that winter was coming. 

              It was also becoming clear that this project was going to be a little bit bigger than Deb had really thought it was going to be. You could see it in her eyes and hear it in her tone. I could tell she was having doubts that I could do this. Keep in mind that we had only just met a couple days before and she didn’t know anything about me really. Maybe she could sense my own doubts even though I was trying my hardest to not show them. What she didn’t know, was that I didn’t have a back up plan. I didn’t have anything to do if this didn’t work. Simply, there was no other option, no choice to quite or let it beat me. I had to figure this out.

            Within 5 days, I was close to having everything taken apart and being able to get a look at the floor. I was in good hopes that it was solid, as it felt ok when I was walking on it. But as I started to remove the 60 year old linoleum it became clear that the floor too, needed to be rebuilt. I could feel my heart cracking a little bit more as I removed each little chunk of linoleum as it flaked and tore off. Once the linoleum was off I could see more clearly what was going on with the floor, it had seen much better days. Almost without even thinking about it I started tearing the floor apart and before I knew it I was standing in front of nothing but a chassis. What was a camp trailer a week before, was now reduced to only the undercarriage. One week down, leaving three weeks to rebuild something back into a livable space. I noticed that once again, like so many times before, I was in a place that only a beautiful, slight arrogance takes you. Face to face with a situation that has reached a point where it would be just as stupid to quit as it would be to keep going. So I sat down with a stack of drawings, notes and a phone full of photos, lit a cigarette and took a deep inhale through my nose as my mouth was too full from bitting off more than I could chew.   

Deborah Schwartzkopf

Rat City Studios is the workspace of Deborah Schwartzkopf, Seattle based studio potter and instructor. Her mission is to engage and build community through clay – one person, one neighborhood, and one experience at a time. In service to this pursuit, she offers studio assistant positions for emerging artists, connects people through social events, instructs classes and workshops, and maintains a lively career in the ceramic arts!