Panama finale: Dozens of Sacramento artists scrambling in wake of code enforcement studio closure

Owner of a 103-year-old Panama Pottery building says occupants weren’t in danger of a Ghost Ship-style tragedy

Artist Dave Davis is the manager of Panama Pottery Studio on 24th Street.

Artist Dave Davis is the manager of Panama Pottery Studio on 24th Street.

photo by Scott Thomas Anderson

Looking back, Miguel Paz says he should have known it was too good to be true. Still, the South Sacramento-based ceramic artist couldn’t resist the cheap rent and ample work space his Panama Pottery studio afforded him.

“[The landlord] painted a wonderful picture [and said] this is going to be great for ceramics,” Paz said. “It didn’t turn out that way at all.”

Paz, along with more than two dozen artists, is now scrambling to find a new place to make art after the city’s housing and code enforcement division deemed the 103-year-old building unsafe for occupation. According to the list of infractions, Panama Pottery, located on the outskirts of Hollywood Park, has myriad violations including inadequate exits, unpermitted construction and modification, and unsafe and unapproved electrical equipment. The city’s case also noted a complaint that the space was possibly being used as living quarters.

All tenants were ordered to vacate the premises by July 24.

Owner Dave DeCamilla disputes that any artists were living in his building, but acknowledges he didn’t go through the right channels when making changes to the sprawling factory space he bought in 2006. Over the years, the two-story warehouse has been divided into numerous work studios, some of them enclosed with doors and some with an air conditioning and heating option. Now, in addition to working with the city to bring the electrical and plumbing up to code, DeCamilla says he has also hired an architect to make structural changes to the building.

“It’s not a ’Ghost Ship,’ but it was dangerous,” DeCamilla said, referring to the Oakland warehouse that operated as an illegal artist live-work space that also hosted concerts; 36 people died in a fire there in December. “I didn’t ask permission because I didn’t think I would get it.”

Paz wishes DeCamilla had. From the start, he said the space seemed “incredibly unstable” and questioned changes the owner made. Paz, who rented a space when the building first opened to artists in 2006, says DeCamilla had good ideas when it came to studio modifications, but never followed through to ensure safety and long-term viability.

“Eleven years is a long time to go without getting permits,” he said.

Waylon Horner, another displaced artist, says the eviction has put him on the search for another affordable studio—but he’s not sure how easy it will be to match Panama’s price or vibe. Horner, who was paying $350 for his space, started renting there two years ago. He never felt unsafe, exactly, although a 2016 burglary did leave him “paranoid” and hesitant to work at the studio after dark.

“What we were doing was basically illegal,” Horner said of the unpermitted modifications. “[But] I felt like Dave had the best of intentions. He wanted art to happen so he created something beautiful.”

The artist said the timing “couldn’t be worse.” As he prepares for Wide Open Walls, (see “Art in the streets,” page 13), Horner has been forced to turn to friends to store his materials and works, which include bright, large-scale, mind-bending illustrations.

“Arts are becoming so important in Sacramento … [and] artists need space to create,” he said.

Melissa Uroff rented space at Panama for years until the 2016 burglary left her in the hole with thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment stolen. Still, even though the building’s security measures and insurance options—there were none—left a lot to be desired, she still misses its gritty spirit.

“It’s a little magical,” Uroff said. “It has a heartbeat. A lot of studios there are clean and quiet—I need a little punk rock and grime in my life.”

For his part, DeCamilla says he intends to make it a cheap place for artists once more—and he hopes the city will look to find common ground.

“If we want to foster the arts, then there has to be nuance and flexibility so that these kinds of artistic enterprises can flourish,” DeCamilla said.

But, he adds, if Panama Pottery does reopen there is a good chance artists will return to more expensive, albeit safer, studio spaces. “We may have to raise the rents,” he allowed. “It depends—nothing is going to pay for itself.”

For Uroff, however, this could all just be a sign that it’s time for something new to take hold.

“Maybe it’s the end of an era,” Uroff said. “Panama came for a brief moment, [but] now its artists might have to break apart, and each place that they go to next will be rad.”