Hearing Sam Schonzeit talk about the dog sculptures he’s been making in his spare time — their faces clipped from an old breeders’ yearbook for Cavalier King Charles Spaniels he found at a thrift store — you can’t help but wonder if he catches the irony of it all. “These dogs look so nervous,” says the Marfa, Texas–based 37-year-old, a trained architect whose current day job is teaching at a local elementary school. “They’re pretending to be something else, and they’re sort of embarrassed that they’ve found themselves in this position. But that’s very human, which is why people like them — because everyone can relate to the feeling that you’re not where you’re supposed to be.” Ask Schonzeit if he ever considered pursuing a career as a conceptual artist, and sure enough, you get almost the same expression.
Schonzeit’s an introverted art-maker, constantly producing work but almost never showing it in public. Growing up in New York’s Soho, he was discouraged by his father, the successful photorealist painter Ben Schonzeit, from pursuing art — not for lack of talent but because of the financial challenges it posed. And so he went to school at Cornell, majored in religion, then “spent my 20s in confusion,” he admits. He had started doing set design and prop styling for fashion shows and shoots, and had even landed a solo show at a gallery in Williamsburg, filling it with 160 different toy cell phones in a fake store called “Cellular Sam’s Digital Paradise.” But the show opened on September 6, 2001, and five days later both it and his styling career ground to a halt. “The city was such a mess, and no one had anything to do. My aunt worked for Toys ‘R’ Us and she got me a job, so there I was turning 30 and working as a greeter in Animal Alley. It was depressing.”
Schonzeit decided to pursue a longtime interest in architecture and headed off to grad school in Texas, after which he worked for the firm Dick Clark. But he was less interested in his job than in a side project he’d started called “Would you like to receive a daily picture of me at work?” Every morning, he took a photo of himself at his desk, and eventually he had more than 200 subscribers; he kept it up for nearly a year, until he was fired. “Which was good, because it allowed me to start making art daily,” he says. Now that he lives in Marfa — and teaches first- and sixth-graders through a program that installs artists in the local elementary school Donald Judd’s children once attended — he spends a good deal of his time on projects like the dogs, which is based on an earlier series of cut-outs from World Cars 1976. “There’s something so expressive and melancholic about the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel,” he says of the new iteration. “And it’s also such a hysterical and pretentious name.”
We persuaded Schonzeit to share the spaniels, previously published only on his Facebook page, with Sight Unseen. They’ve never left his home, but he hopes that will soon change. “My New Year’s resolution was to find a gallery,” he says. “It’s only recently that I’ve even thought I could be an artist, or that I am an artist, and that maybe I could be a successful artist. For now these are all mine, but here comes success.”