Shop Conversations: Dan O'Brien

Nathan Smith: You have [a metalworking] business, right?

Dan O'Brien: I do – Outlier Metal Arts.

NS: Do you see a divide between your background . . . going from making something for yourself or for aesthetic reasons, to being a business?

DO: So I am relatively new to the art world. I was a business man, and I was a teacher, and all kinds of other things for a long time. So when I started working, doing metalwork, I first imagined I would just do it as a hobby, but then I was between jobs anyway, and with my wife’s encouraging support – and encouragement from other people in the art field as well – I decided to do it full time, and do it as a business. That led to me wanting to figure out what would sell, and what you can make money selling in the metal art field.

I know something of the art world, and I knew that it would be very hard to make it as a fine artist, because I don’t have the training, and I don’t have the life-long experience and connections, and I’m just too old for that. [Laughter] I didn’t feel like starting afresh in that type of field, where it would take a long time to get a foot in the door. And also, I wanted my work to be more accessible and exposed.

I’ve always been a very artistic person, and I’ve always incorporated into my own daily life, so that led naturally to my wanting to create artistic functional objects, and that also is married well with the idea of creating a business. So that was really how I came about creating Outlier Metal Arts, and spending much more time, and getting much more involved with the art center here, and leading to trying to do it as an actual business.

Wrought Iron Wall Sculpture with Orthoceras Fossil

Wrought Iron Wall Sculpture with Orthoceras Fossil

NS: Did you have a history of making things previous to metalworking?

DO: Yeah, I’ve always been mechanically inclined. When I was an undergraduate in writing, I was a computer technician for a while and I did a lot of hardware maintenance and things like that. I toyed around with mechanics and robotics when I was a kid, and even throughout my career as an English teacher – in fields that weren’t mechanically inclined – I’ve always been very interested in and done a lot of car repair, and I’ve owned a home, so I’ve done a lot of home improvements – both repairs and improvement and modifications and things on that end. A lot of that background comes from my family. My dad taught me a lot of home improvement stuff, so I've always been very hands on.

NS: What projects are you working on now? Commission, or otherwise. . . .

DO: I recently completed commission with the owner of Chicago Glass Collective, Leslie Speicher, and that went very well. I was doing aluminum backing for one of her glass sculptures. Now, I am working on fleshing out my inventory for Outlier. I’ve sold pieces, and my inventory is getting low.

Wall Sculpture in Rusted Wrought Iron and Hand-Knitted Merino Wool

Wall Sculpture in Rusted Wrought Iron and Hand-Knitted Merino Wool

NS: How long was the period between when you started metal and when you started thinking and being encouraged to make that your full time gig?

DO: Yeah – it wasn’t long! Actually, I took a class from Matt Runfola up at the Evanston Art Center, and it was probably towards the end of the first 10-week class.

NS: Wow, that’s quick, yeah. . . .

DO: My first project there was making a wrought iron bed frame for my wife. When I was finishing that up, she said: You know, you love doing this, and you’re good at it, and other people seem to think you’re good at it. . . .

NS: And you had just started, too?

DO: Yeah, I had just started. I did actually study sculpture a little in Junior College, when I was first out of high school, and enjoyed it a lot, but I definitely don’t think I would have encouraged myself even at that point to go into it as a job. I enjoyed it, and I did some cool stuff, but I didn’t have the mechanical experience to do the stuff I’m doing now, and just kind of did it all on the side. So, I did have a little experience with sculpture.

NS: What was your favorite commission you have worked on?

DO: The one I did recently for Chicago Glass Collective was definitely the most challenging, but also I learned the most from it – it was aluminum, which I was not familiar with, and it also included creating backing to hold flat glass sculptures, and then the backing had to be set away from the wall, and then the glass had to be set away from the backing by an inch. So I had to figure out a way to suspend her glass sculpture – which was nerve-wracking . . .

NS: Sure, yeah. [Laughs]

DO: . . . away from the thing in a way that was feasible, but also be put together, and for that I had to learn a lot about the mechanics of creating brackets that were moveable, and TIG welding aluminum, and a lot of experimentation with finishing. So I learned a lot from that process, and she just installed it last week, and it looks great in the client’s space in their home. That was one of the most satisfying pieces I’ve done. That was probably my favorite.

Wrought Iron Candleholder

Wrought Iron Candleholder

NS: Once you started working with metal . . . I’m guessing, maybe, when you’re out in the world and seeing things constructed, you’re sort of already puzzling out how they work . . .

DO: Um-huh.

NS: Did it change at all when you started working with metal in particular?

DO: Yeah. I learned some things. I knew a fair bit about – just sort of doing mechanical work before – I knew a fair bit about metal and engineering and things like that, not having studied engineering, just kind of learning from a layman’s perspective – building things, you know? But, once I started working in metal, I got some experience with it, I learned a lot more about properties of metal and how it contributes to how something is constructed, and the details of the methods and processes that have to go into creating something. Also the order of operations when you’re building something, what’s feasible with welding versus what’s feasible with mechanical connections, and things like that, how to build things that are hollow that don’t look hollow. So my eye has changed a lot in how I see metal structures, all metal structures, and in particular sculpture, and I have a greater appreciation for what it takes.

NS: When you started as a business . . . could you anticipate commissions you would want in the future from this point? Like if something came your way that would sort of be an idealized project. . . ?

DO: I would love to be able to do architectural sculptural work – ornamental railings and things like that and to do something that’s in a very open space, in a public building or a park, that would be awesome. I would like it to be a significant piece that’s in a place that’s going to be around a long time, you know? Also, I have a dream of working – of building playgrounds.

NS: Oh, wow. That’s very interesting. . . .

DO: I’m a big fan of the City Museum in St. Louis.

City Museum

City Museum

NS: Yeah, yeah! It’s awesome.

DO: Fantastic place. And so I would love to be able to create something along the lines of – my dream would be to work at the City Museum. And to build. . . .

NS: You’d be hacking up new stuff! Rooms people haven’t dreamed up yet?

DO: Yeah! Other than doing that I’d love to be able to create sculptural backyard playground pieces, or for public parks. That would be something I would really be excited about.

NS: Of the limited scope of things I thought about sculpturally, playgrounds certainly aren’t in there.

DO: Yeah, I’d love to see art integrated into children’s lives. I have two kids of my own, and I used to spend a lot of time at playgrounds.

NS: Sure.

DO: I was a stay-at-home dad for six years with my daughter.

NS: So you’re staring at these things anyway. . . .

DO: Yeah, I’m staring at these things all the time, going: This could be so much cooler, you know? And it’s just so limited what they do with them. But it’s a lot better than when we were kids. It’s not just straight slides where you burn your butt on the thing. They are a lot cooler these days, but it would be great to see more done with them.

NS: You helped set stuff up here?

DO: I helped set up everything . . . helping build tables and things like that. And yeah, I’m pretty solidly in metal. I do a lot of shop upgrades, I do a lot of work streamlining things, and upgrading our equipment, and trying to make things easier and safer. We have some tools down there that I think people are unsure really how to use, so we really want to try and make those more accessible, for new students in particular.

NS: If you’re going to recommend one underused tool down there to people, what would it be?

DO: The ironworker!

NS: Okay. Which one is that?

DO: The one that has the two large bars on top.

NS: Yeah, okay.

DO: You can use it both as a punch, and to cut bar stock and flat stock. The great thing about the ironworker is that it does both those things – it does what a drill press does, and it does what a chop saw does for bar stock, cleanly and safely, and quietly.

NS: Yeah, I’m into quiet work!

DO: So, it’s a great way for cutting bar stock. The only problem with ours is that it is very difficult to measure the way it’s set up now, so I’m building a mechanism for it, to be able to easily measure pieces.

NS: Nice.

DO: Yeah, it’s a great tool, once people learn to use it!