By Lydia Krupinski
In his book, “The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability,” author, economist, and environmentalist James Gustave Speth writes:
“There is growing strength in the worldwide social movement…From huge non-profits to home-based causes, the groups in this movement are emerging as a creative and influential global force.”
Artist and entrepeneur Dolan Geiman is one such force. Using reclaimed materials to create stunning pieces of art, Dolan is one small link in a growing chain of individuals who are at the forefront of sincere sustainability.
Living sustainably requires more than just carrying a reusable bag to the store or recycling your plastics. A truly eco-friendly lifestyle looks beyond the greenwashed marketing of opportunitistic corporations and focuses instead on living simply. Artist and entrepreneur Dolan Geiman understands this firsthand. As the creative force behind his eco-business, Dolan goes beyond the classic rhetoric “reduce, reuse, recycle” to reclaim and reinvent discarded materials into beautiful one-of-a-kind pieces of art. Eco before eco was hip, Dolan finds that his creative and sustainable approach are extensions of his love and admiration for nature and that by using scavenged supplies he is truly reducing his environmental impact.
Q. Tell us a little about yourself.
A. I was born and raised in a little area called Hermitage, Virginia. I was the kid who was a “good drawer” in elementary school, who always was called upon to draw motorcycles and flaming demon heads on notebook covers. I did win a few poster contests in my youth, too, my favorite of which was for PBS and depicted my fascination with the natural world (a cougar in a tree surrounded by woodpeckers, no less). In high school I was suspended for wearing a dress and dying my hair green, but was quickly un-suspended when my father (also a teacher at my school, how embarrassing) stood up for me and put the principal in his place. Those were my salad days. Now I’m living and working in Chicago, on the Southside, and I work full time as a visual artist. It’s the hardest job I have ever had, but I love it.
Q. When did you first discover your artistic inclinations?
A. My mother is an artist, so she was always working with us (my brother, sister, and I) and challenging us to be creative. I think my artistic inclinations were also pointed out by everyone else around me, because I was always called upon to make art for everyone else. As a kid, it was nice to have that identity. Every time a class project came up, guess who was volunteered for the decorating committee? This also got me out of a few college papers. I was the first student in my world religion class to forgo the usual term paper and, instead, replace it with a large kinetic sculpture revealing the trials and tribulations of the life of Jesus. I think I could have just written the paper, but I was trying to make a point about how some artists have a very rare tool, their creativity. To put this aside for convention is a travesty I believe.
Q. What does “sustainability” mean to you? A. Sustainability and survival go hand in hand for me. I need to be able to make art out of anything, so I constantly exercise my art making abilities. I think that’s what being sustainable is all about—finding a way to exist on less, but still enjoying the experiences around you.
Q. What’s your favorite place to seek out art supplies and materials?
A.Any alleyway or scrapyard. I’ll periodically check craigslist for people throwing out materials as well.
Q. What initially drew you to using reclaimed and repurposed materials? A. Well, growing up in a poorer rural area, there were always materials lying around that had such intriguing qualities to them—like a rotting tree stump that had the personality of an old witch doctor or a fresh strawberry that was the purest shade of red I had ever seen. Imagine shrubs with huge thorns, thistles, and pinecones. Everything had its own texture and most if was natural. I always loved how the natural world created its own sort of sculptures when these living and dying pieces of the natural world would collect on the ground.
Once I started seeing pieces of plants and trees as sculptures, it was all over from there. I gathered things up and tied them together. I couldn’t stop exploring and looking for new objects and things. My pawpaw was a farmer, but as my dad tells me, not a very successful one. He did, however, have the most amazing barn, and my brother and I always loved exploring down there. We’d find ropes wrapped around fences that had been there for probably fifty years. He had an old Pontiac in the shed that had broken windows and old turquoise leather. All of these things were stamped in my memory like little Polaroids, and later they started resurfacing and mixing with my creativity.
Once I moved to the city, I began to think about all those things I enjoyed as a kid and how I always explored my surroundings. So I started exploring the out-of-way places and when I found cool objects, like rusted rail yard signs or burned-up door hinges, I would bring them back to the studio and make things out of them. Eventually I began to see more of these objects because I was training my eye to see them.
Q. Where do you find inspiration?
A. If I could just grow a beard and live in the woods, I would be very happy. So I would have to say that Mother Nature keeps me going every day which is a lot to say, living in the city. I take every chance I can get to go out to the woods or at least stick my feet in a river.
Q. What do you love most about Chicago? A. I love the Chicago summer. Or as I like to call it, July. But on a serious note, I am thankful for the many opportunities available here in Chicago. The crowds are great but not overwhelming, and the city doesn’t feel cramped and congested. It’s a great place to be because its reasonably affordable and it’s a nice hub for all of my art activities. Since we travel so much, it’s nice to have a very central location here in the Midwest.
Q. If you could change one thing about the city, what would it be?
A. The cold. Seriously, what the heck is wrong with these people? Who decides that it’s a good idea to have a giant city on a freezing cold lake in the middle of the country? I’d like to slap the settlers and then give them a map to Florida.
Q. Are you part of any Chicago area groups, organizations, and/or crafting communities?
A. I’ve started a little art meeting here at my studio, inviting a few creative individuals over to discuss the state of art and to help keep each other inspired. I think it’s all about making those small steps to connect with your community. I also belong and donate to the National Audubon Society. But that’s kind of a no brainer—Audubon the guy who shirked his social responsibilities to go explore the US and to shoot birds so he could stuff them and then paint them. It’s pretty amazing. I’m a little opposed to the shooting part, but he was a rough scientist. He’s one of my heroes, I think. As a side note, a friend and client, Jen Khatchatrian, recently founded the group Chicago Green Families (http://www.chicagosmartgreenfamilies.com/). It’s a local group created to connect families interested in an environmentally friendly lifestyle. It’s definitely worth checking out.
Q. What is your favorite art space in Chicago? A. It’s more of an organization, but I’m a big fan of Project Onward’s mission and studio director Mark Jackson’s commitment to his artists. Project Onward (http://www.projectonward.org/) supports the creative development of visual artists with developmental, cognitive, and mental disabilities. Artworks are exhibited year-round at the Gallery 37 store. In addition, Mark takes Project Onward artists to major expositions across the globe.
Q. If you could be any vegetable, what would you be and why?
A. I love beets because I think they are so strange and any vegetable that ‘bleeds’ like that has to have some supernatural powers.
If you would like to learn more about Dolan Geiman, his art, and his green business practices, visit http://www.dolangeiman.com
“Map” by Dolan Geiman
“Crab,” “Great Dane,” and “Songbird” by David Ettinger
“Dolan Geiman at Collage Desk,” and “Studio: Entryway Installation” by David Schalliol