Mesa Community College Ceramics Student James Schwarz’s “Tree of Life” is his “Circle of Life”
Just 75 miles south of Tucson lies a small military town called Sierra Vista, with a population of about 44,000. Mesa Community College student James Schwarz, who grew up in Sierra Vista, aspired to be an engineer, but a change of heart led to a stint in technical theater. Then the curtains almost closed on his life. Circumstances put his life on hold, Schwarz almost accepted death, and then he rebounded and found his true calling, which is a contrast of mixing arts and science together.
“I was wrong to think that I belonged in either engineering or theatre, but I do belong in a fusion of the sciences and the arts,” Schwarz said.
Grinding away passionately in the world of technical theater at Buena High School, Schwarz pushed himself to the limits until he began to feel ill. Set to graduate in the spring of 2011, the stresses took a toll on Schwarz’s body, which resulted in him having to drop out of school with one credit left. Putting aside finishing school, Schwarz set out to solve the puzzle of what was suddenly wrong with him.
At first, he was diagnosed with triple mononucleosis, but was determined to finish high school. In the summer, Schwarz went to a community college to finish his high school education. But completing it was half the battle because his body still was putting up a fight. On school days, he could only go out for about 90 minutes a day before having to return home and spend the rest of the day in bed. Over time, his heath improved and he could pursue a college degree.
In the spring of 2012, at the age of 19, Schwarz moved from Sierra Vista to attend Arizona State University where he originally majored in digital culture. For the first three semesters, his health held up. And then the same symptoms that he encountered in high school reappeared. With a standing heart rate of 200, Schwarz was diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS).
He fought to keep his scholarships and after a denied medical withdrawal, Schwarz was on the ropes. He once again put school on hold for his health. Back to being bedridden and dealing with hallucinations, Schwarz was again fighting for his life. Feeling hopeless, Schwarz almost threw in the towel, and he came to peace with himself that he was going to die before age 20. He wanted to give up, but his biggest backers, his parents, kept him going.
“I was a prisoner of my own circumstance,” he said. “I almost accepted death and was ok with it.”
Then, after much research, his parents found an intensive outpatient program in Dallas, Texas. This two-week program specialized in patients dealing with POTS and put Schwarz back on track. The program taught him to manage his symptoms, and he received cognitive therapy. This was the turning point for Schwarz.
“I basically got my life back,” he said. “I was a regular person. It was amazing.”
Ready to tackle school, Schwarz returned to school in the spring of 2014 at MCC. This is where Schwarz fell in love with ceramics.
“I love working with my hands,” Schwarz said.
For the next year and a half, Schwarz took one class at a time and things started to click. He ended up getting hired on with the school in the ceramics department and then four months later he was promoted to manager. His passion and dedication for ceramics spread through the school like a brush fire.
“The largest influence on my work has been Rafa Perez,” Schwarz said. “He is the one who inspired me to pursue the beauty of contrast.”
Schwarz works on his craft daily to leave a stamp on the ceramics department here at MCC.
All this led to a special day on February 10, 2017, when Schwarz was part of an unveiling that was 20 years in the making. An unfinished project that sat and collected dust was now brought to life.
“This is a huge feather in my cap,” Schwarz said. “I’m now part of a legacy here at MCC.”
When he was approached by the staff in the Art Department to be part of the Tree of Life dedication, he was honored. This was his first public arts piece, and for Schwarz it meant a lot to be the creative force for this project. To Schwarz, the recognition was a semester’s worth of work validated and proved that he “made it.” To him the Tree of Life, meant the Circle of Life. The statue represents him and his journey to where he is today.
As this chapter is closed and Schwarz graduates in May, he will return to Arizona State University in the fall to pursue his bachelor’s degree. He sums up his return to ASU as “bittersweet.”
His advice moving forward to anyone on the fence is, “Do it! You need reasonable expectations. Build a backup plan. If you get knocked down, it’s going to leave some scarring. You need to realize there’s not a set timeline in life. It’s about self-discovery. Make your own timeline.”