words by Jessica Hill, photos by Ilenia Pezzaniti
Don Drumm heads to his studios every morning around 9 am dressed in his usual outfit — blue jeans smudged with grease and paint, a button-up jean shirt with the sleeves rolled up, black suspenders and black velcro shoes. A clear nylon washer sticks out from his shirt to keep a button in place. Several different pens poke out of his right shirt pocket, and keys dangle from his jeans and clink as he walks up the gravel path.
His workshop is across the street from his galleries on Crouse Street in Akron. The Don Drumm Studios and Gallery stand out with the pastel pinks and purples of the eight houses.
He pushes open a gate with a “Beware of Dog” sign and walks to the door of his office, a pink house with purple trim. A long coffee stain zigzags down the gravel driveway next to the house as a result of a recent experiment, when he emptied an old pot and wanted to see how long the coffee trail could last. After turning the radio to NPR’s “All Things Considered,” he sits down in his workshop to work on his current project — small metallic sculptures inspired by ziggurats, ancient stone structures from Mesopotamia.
Along the walls of the workshop, wooden cubbies contain different little pieces and gadgets in a crammed yet organized way. Different sized tweezers hang on a stand. Boxes full of supplies sit against the shelves and a giant workbench with handmade clocks on top marks the middle of the room, leaving only a narrow path to walk through. Sam, Drumm’s sweet but protective golden lab, lies on his dog bed as Drumm works.
He works through the morning. Every day for lunch, he drives to Front Porch Cafe, a small community diner. He chats and jokes with everybody and orders the daily special. Today it’s fish. Don talks about the new knife holder he made for the restaurant. The cook brings out his meal and asks if he can send something back for Lisa, his wife. Don decides on a salad, and the cook knows not to put onions in it, as Lisa doesn’t like onions.
With the salad in tow, Don heads back to his projects. He has been working on smaller pieces since the installation of his newest sculpture in front of LeBron James’ new I Promise School a few weeks ago. He calls the giant piece the Tree of Life, a rust-colored monument standing at 15 feet tall with what some might view as branches jutting from the top.
The piece for LeBron is not Drumm’s only mark in Akron. His wife, Lisa, jokes that he has “doodled all over Akron.” His work is sprinkled throughout Akron and Northeast Ohio, so much so that one can create a scavenger hunt around the city, going from building to building in search of Drumm’s monuments. One would also have to stop at thousands of Akronites’ homes, where his trademark silver suns hang from people’s kitchen walls.
Those famous aluminum suns, with the curving rays and peaceful faces, have been a part of Don’s career since the beginning. When he first switched his major to art, someone had once said that circles are hard to work with and manipulate.
“That intrigued me to a certain point where I started to draw suns inside a circle,” Don remembers. “The sun is in every culture of mankind. Because in some societies, it is a spiritual or a godlike thing, and in other cultures, it’s a fun thing. But it’s what keeps us alive. Without the sun, we wouldn’t be here.”
Starting to Sculpt
His choice to switch to art while at Hiram College happened after his dyslexia caused him to struggle with a calculus course and he stumbled upon an art class on the third floor of the building. He thought they were having a great time and asked the teacher if he could join. With some persuasion, he enrolled in his first art class.
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From then on, arts consumed his life. He took an art history class and a printmaking course before transferring to Kent State University, where he started over as a junior and earned his B.F.A and M.A. in fine arts. With his mother having gone to business school and his father’s formal education ending in eighth grade, Don wasn’t questioned for switching majors.
“Now, if I had college parents or something, I probably would have been hounded to death,” Don imagines. “It pays once in a while to have creative parents who didn’t go to college.”
His father, Walter, worked as a mechanic and had once owned the GMC truck agency in Warren, Ohio. It had been with his father’s welding equipment that Don learned how to work with metal. He was a creative guy, Don says. Helen, his mother, worked as a secretary for Walter and would paint and do ceramics, making dolls.
When Don lived in Warren in the 1930s and 1940s, it was an up-and-coming steel city. The Drumms lived on the east side in an “old junky” wood house next to his father’s car repair garage before moving to a nicer house, and Don attended Warren G. Harding High School.
After years of selling trucks, Walter Drumm gave up his garage and bought a farm in Southington, Ohio, moving the family to the countryside. Don finished his senior year with a class of 18 students. Farm life was a drastic change, “wild,” as Don recalls, But his time spent with animals at the farm and in the countryside would inspire his environmental art.
After his time at Kent, he jumped into work with an industrial design firm, Smith, Scherr & McDermott, for two years, and then rented studio space from Thor Mold & Machine Co., where he gained valuable experience with molding. He learned how to work with cast aluminum, a material that he would pioneer as art. After that, Don worked as an artist-in-residence for Bowling Green State University, commissioned to create murals to make the university more appealing.
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He then made his way to teach at the Akron Art Institute in the spring of 1958. It was there that he walked into his friend Mary Ann Sheer’s jewelry making class and saw the woman who would later become his wife. He said to Sheer, “Introduce me to that good-looking girl in the back.”
He did not know at the time that the girl’s life also revolved around art. Her parents were both artists — her father, Joseph Plavcan, was a well-known painter in Erie, PA, who taught in public schools, and her mother was an art teacher. After she graduated from Ohio Wesleyan, she came to Akron to teach art herself.
“She was pretty, intelligent and good in math. Good in everything I’m not,” Don recalled.
After he kept coming over and “bothering her,” as Lisa would say, she finally agreed to a coffee after class. On their first date, Don pretended to know nothing about art and said he was a steel worker. She tried to explain everything she could about art. When he took her home, he handed her a card that said, “Don Drumm: Sculptures, Prints and Drawing.” She learned he taught the art class next to hers.
Lisa and Don married a few years later.
Still ‘doodling over Akron’
While he was a struggling artist, the Drumms lived on Lisa’s salary as an art teacher. In 1960, Don opened his own studio. And in 1971, he bought a property on Crouse Street and established his own gallery, a five-minute drive from the university. Akron was a bigger city than what he was used to, but the couple found Akron had a cultural base that was receptive to art.
“It’s big enough to get lost in, but small enough to have close friends,” Don says.
Since he has established the gallery, Don has been commissioned for countless art projects. Don has even lost track of some pieces, as businesses close or relocate and take his art with them. His work can be found all over the city — at Cascade Plaza, in the University of Akron’s dorms, in the John S. Knight Center, in houses on Merriman Road and now at the I Promise School.
“Akron has been very supportive and receptive of us,” Lisa says. “We have survived in Akron because of the support of the community.”
Don’s sculptures dot the country as well, such as at a temple in Florida, and also around the world, like in Honduras and Brazil. He has won Ohio Designer Crafts’ “Lifetime Achievement Award” and the “Artist and Craftsman Excellence” award from the American Institute of Architecture.
Today, Lisa manages the operation of the gallery and the business and helps oversee a staff of more than 40 people. She works on the “nitty gritty” of the daily operations so that Don has time to create. “We’re a good team,” she says.
Lisa is still amazed by her husband’s incredible creativity.
“We have a hard time keeping up with it. He’s constantly working,” Lisa says. “He’ll take an idea and run with it.”
Although she can be overwhelmed by her husband’s drive, Lisa has kept the business afloat since the beginning.
“Don would be a homeless wannabe artist without Lisa,” one of the Drumms’ employees jokes.
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Today, at 83 years old, Don has not slowed down, working seven days a week and coming up with new projects. While he sits hunkered away in his workshop, Lisa handles the business across the street and customers walk into the gift shop to purchase their very own aluminum sculpture.
“It’s important that I create,” Drumm says. “Whether my art is good or bad is somebody else’s business. I do the best I can with what I have. I like working on monumental things and I like working on small things.”
As he continues to make art, he thinks about what kind of legacy he wants to leave behind, and it’s simple: A sculptor.
“(A sculptor) that tried to make people think a little bit about their visual environment,” Don says. “To appreciate that somebody wanted to make their life a little more interesting.”
His artistic legacy won’t stop with him, though. Two of his three daughters are also artists. His daughter Leandra will take over the business one day. Their granddaughter recently applied for an art course at Firestone High School, and when asked why she wants to be in the class, she replied, “I’m genetically predisposed to being an artist.”
Don has turned the city into a museum of his artwork — as if he helped sculpt Akron himself.
This story is part of The Devil Strip’s Akropreneurs series, which is made possible by the Burton D. Morgan Foundation and the Fund for Our Economic Future.
Jessica Hill is a senior at Ohio University studying journalism, global studies and Spanish.