When I met Dan Atkinson in his studio on Vliet Street, I was fully expecting to discuss his work making planters out of cream city brick. And, while we certainly talked about that, the things that inform Dan’s world and his work turned out to be much more wide-ranging and multi-faceted.
He has gone from Watertown to North Carolina to Iraq and Afghanistan, all over Wisconsin and ultimately to Milwaukee. Maybe his first great work is the life he has carved out – and the experiences he has had that make him thankful for where he is today.
“Right after 9/11, in December, I went to Afghanistan – it’s all like a blur now,” he told me, standing next to his workbench. To his right a selection of planters made out of different kinds of brick are carefully laid out, beautifully made and expertly crafted.
Considering his life, working with bricks, and drilling or carving into them offers a nice metaphor. “There’s always the tension that it could fall apart,” Dan tells me.
Ah, the life of being an artist.
Dan spent five years in the service as a military police officer, working law enforcement on the base, and going out with the infantry during convoys. To call those situations tense is a ridiculous understatement. Yet during his life in the military he never stopped being an artist. “I like helping people and being the good guy so that’s what I wanted to do. I did artwork and murals on the platoon walls and created tattoo designs for my buddies. I never stopped.”
Dan’s a printmaker first, ironically, using his brick carvings as stamps and making striking and detailed prints. Bricks that were once parts of walls and chimneys are imperfect creatures of industry; their subtle hints of wear and tear and history embedded make them a fascinating tool of the trade for an artist.
Dan’s work with bricks began in a place as unlikely as the military – in cemeteries. “For ten years I have etched headstones. I go to monument companies around the state and etch artwork – deer, tractors, portraits, whatever,” Dan told me. Maybe that’s something else that makes Dan’s work so rich and full of life. Between being in the military and etching headstones, he has been surrounded by death.
Hey, there’s something inspiring about the macabre.
His ability to etch sophisticated pictures into headstones got noticed by a friend, who asked if Dan could etch the names of a couple who were getting married into a cream city brick. A pretty cool idea that now has turned into Dan’s daily life.
Now, after a successful Kickstarter campaign to get better equipment and shedding himself of the intensely regimented military life, Dan is now doing his passion full time. He can’t make the planters fast enough.
“I don’t take it for granted at all that I can do what I do,” Dan told me. “It’s a result of the army – I don’t want a boss – but art has it’s own stresses, uncertainty of income and doubting yourself as an artist.”
While Dan may have the trademark doubt every artists has, he seems to be on a confident path forward. He has found a home at Dandy, a new development on Vliet Street where he can stretch out and create without worrying that his loud equipment is bothering anyone. And he recently received the endorsement of his friend and curator of all things retro and cool Mike Alt, who posted Dan’s work on Instagram.
Dan is taking advantage of every minute. “I’m trying to make more unique things – I love the planters, the combination of nature and industry combined but want to do more unique things –carvings more on a bigger scale – I probably have too many ideas.”