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A Conversation with Dan Leonhardt, Sculptor

by Abigail M. Wolfe Dan Leonhardt has a definite attraction to working out artistic ideas in a material-based way. His work expresses many parts of the sculpture spectrum, from very solid and imposing pieces all the way to delicate and graceful expressions. The concepts of stability and balance seem to permeate Dan’s works. We caught up with Dan and asked him a little more about his style, his background, and what he’s planning to do in the future. Sharing the Load Abigail M. Wolfe: Do you have a formal art background? If not, how did you get started with your craft? Dan Leonhardt: I do have a formal art background. I attended Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Illinois and graduated in 1993 with a B.F.A. I enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the fall of ’93 and graduated with an M.F.A in December of 1996. Both of these constitute my first experiences with the fine arts. That is to say, I never took any art classes in high school or really made any art work prior to going to college. AW: Why sculpture as your medium? DL: I found out early in my undergraduate studio work that I am an object maker. I had grown up with my grandfather, who is one of the best carpenters I have ever known. But more than that, he is one of the best problem solvers ever. Of course everyone has a bias toward their own grandpa, but I know that he is superb at solving structural and mechanical problems. Anyway, this was the skill he taught me that I value the most. Sculpture was the natural choice for me. I had been building things with the old man for a long time, and working through my ideas in a material-based way seemed the only way to make art. AW: Is sculpting your only medium? If not, what other types of art do you do? Sharing the LoadDL: Sculpture is really it for me. I do draw extensively for sculpture, planning and refining structure and proportions, but I always think of it as part of the process of making sculpture. AW: What sculptors or other artists have influenced you, besides your grandfather? DL: Chuck Kraus from UWM. He really helped me develop my studio practice and focus. Kevin Strandberg from Illinois Wesleyan University taught me that I could make sculpture and communicate at the same time. I am a big fan of David Smith’s work and career. AW: Why did you decide to teach at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD)? DL: I wanted to take the position at MIAD to hang around creative people again. After I graduated from UWM, I took a job as a welder and had very little contact with other artists. Over the next few years I found myself making fewer and fewer finished sculptures. I really need the exposure to other creative people, it helps me to ground my ideas and gives me motivation to explore. AW: What do you feel are the most prevalent themes in your work? What are you really trying to get across to your audience? DL: I try to comment on a variety of themes. Often it all relates to questions of stability and well being, unbalance and injury, balance and strength. Each component of a sculpture is integral to its theme (a pedestal or plinth would be extraneous). I am interested in the relationship between mental and physical health, and how we define work and play. Some people look at my work and say they look like toys, and others comment on the amount of work it takes to make the sculptures. Sometimes I try to set the materials I use at odds with the ideas in the work, and others use the physical properties of the materials to reinforce the ideas in the work. AW: Your work seems very balanced, symmetrical, and somewhat linear. Do you feel that’s what’s coming across in your sculpture? DL: I agree with that, and I hope that is what people see. I make a drawing starting with some vague notion or idea, showing some type of relationship between forms and abstract concepts like physical balance vs. visual balance, bilateral symmetry not always equaling balance, or simply a huge, stylized heart with an arrow through it and then mounted on a trophy base. . AW: How long have you lived in Milwaukee? DL: This time around, about nine months. Last time, five years, two months and four days. I really was counting. AW: Are you from Milwaukee? If not, why did you move here? DL: I am from the Chicagoland area, not one suburb specifically as we moved quite often when I was attempting to grow up. I moved here the first time to attend UWM for graduate school, and the second time to escape Chicago and work at MIAD. It turns out, despite my earlier feelings, that Milwaukee is superior to Chicago in many ways. Milwaukee has a more relaxed pace, lower population, easier access to scrap metal, lower cost of living, and more of a blue-collar mindset. AW: What type of installation are you planning for Garden Park (next door to the Riverwest Commons bar on Locust St.) for the October 5-6 Riverwest Artwalk? DL: I thought I would show some work from around the time I installed the piece that is already in the park, along with some newer work. I haven’t thought about how many, they start to crowd each other if I put too many in one place at a time. AW: Currently you have a piece at Garden Park — tell us a little bit about how that came to be installed? DL: My memory of that is sort of vague. That went up around the time of my M.F.A show. I believe the person heading up the arts organization there in Riverwest asked me if I would talk to Paula Gelbke about placing a sculpture in the park up the street. I was getting short on storage space and no galleries were answering my letters, so I said yes I’d love it. We talked about some different sculptures and they decided which one they wanted. I recall re-titling the work, it was originally called “Heave-Ho” and then through our conversation changed to “Sharing the Load.” Same idea in my mind, and I agreed to it because I don’t like semantic arguments (I am just a sculptor after all). So, I readied the piece for installation. I welded on the title, figured out how to secure the stones against theft and invited my grandpa up to pour some concrete. We had the hole dug, edgeforms framed up and the slab poured before lunch. I waited around until it set to make sure no one stuck their fingers in my hard work. The guys at the bar next door came out to chat with me and gave me some water. They were great. The next day I rented a portable welder and drove the sculpture out to the park and put it up. I maxed out my pathetic little limit on my credit card doing the whole thing but it was worth it. Even before the ceremony to make it official, where I got to meet the mayor’s wife and have a TV camera pointed at my head. That part of it I could have done without, but it made my mom happy, so I guess it was ok. And that is it. The sculpture has been rusting away merrily for about six years. AW: What are you working on right now? DL: At the present I am moving into my new studio. I will probably only be in it for a year, as the building was recently sold (more than likely to become condos). I have some bronze castings that will become parts for some larger work. I guess that’s what I have right now, a whole bunch of parts and sketches for sculptures. The new work will question function, balance, and potential for bodily harm, unbalance, and stability. And some of it will be funny. AW: What direction do you see your work taking in the future — a more delicate stance? More imposing, solid pieces? DL: I don’t know the future. That is, I am not a good predictor of trends or directions. I hope to finish sculptures based on my recent drawings, which are more solid pieces. I would also like to go back and rework some ideas and drawings that are more open in design. I am torn between the two styles, open and solid. Both can give the results I am looking for. Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 8 – September 2002
Sharing the Load