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State of the Arts: Inside Don Drumm's Studio

Artist Don Drumm has been a fixture of the Northeast Ohio art scene for nearly 50 years. On this week’s State of the Arts WKSU’s Mark Arehart takes us behind the scenes at the sculptor’s Akron studios.

At 83, Don Drumm still works almost every day at his Crouse Street studios near downtown.

Drumm shows me a large and noisy polishing machine that his team is using to put the finishing touches on a metal bowl he designed.

"These machines have thousands of ball bearings and they beat against the piece and they polish the aluminum," Drumm said over the din of the machine shop.

The chain from Drumm’s initial ideas to these finished products is in and of itself a work of art.

Individual pieces are made from molds Drumm designs, often scribbled on the backs of diner napkins and paper placemats. He then builds a prototype and sends it to foundries around Ohio to be cast in aluminum or pewter. After that, Drumm’s company can order copies of that same design over and over again.

An Akron Icon

Drumm is known for his iconic metal suns and faces which can be seen across Akron on office walls, the sides of buildings and even nestled on front porches.

Drumm's private studio is across the street from the machine shop and gallery. The door is guarded by an elderly yellow lab named Sam, who greets us warmly before settling in on a well-worn doggie bed. 

Rows and rows of cubbies line the walls of the cluttered room, all numbered with odds and ends accumulated over Drumm's lengthy career.

"My grandfather was a blacksmith and a carpenter. And my father was an ace mechanic and welder. I’m like the third generation metal handler. My stuff is called art, they're (called) functional pieces."

Drumm grew up in Warren and Southington, Ohio and originally planned to be a veterinarian or a doctor. But he said undiagnosed dyslexia and a brutal calculus course nudged him towards art classes.

In the late 1950s he worked as a graduate assistant at Kent State, and then moved to an Akron design firm for a few years before apprenticing at a local foundry. That’s where he started to cast the aluminum artwork he’s known for.

"Fortunately I married somebody who was a teacher so we had some income," he said with a smile. "We could eat beans and spaghetti. We survived."

Drumm said his wife, Lisa, is the reason the operation is still thriving after all these years. She handles the business side of things.

Drumm's 'Tree of Life' stands tall in front of the newly-opened I Promise School in Akron.
Drumm's 'Tree of Life' stands tall in front of the newly-opened I Promise School in Akron.

What He's Working On

These days he’s busy making sculptures out of discarded radio and computer parts that are then cast in aluminum or pewter. He holds up a grooved prototype. It's shaped like a small tower and about the size of a roll of paper towels. 

"These are very detailed. I like taking apart old electronic parts and motor parts and reorganizing them so you don’t know what they are."

Drumm has also been working on large installation sculptures like a series of eight-foot tall penguins for Youngstown State University.

"And then the other piece, which is one of the most exciting pieces I’ve done, is for LeBron James’ new school."

That towering rust-colored sculpture is one of the first things people see in front of the newly-opened I Promise School.

The sculpture, called "Tree of Life" is much taller than a basketball hoop. Like many of Drumm’s installations, it’s really up to viewers to decide what they see.

"The things that I really love, that I call my museum pieces, are nonobjective. They’re artwork that has no subject matter."

When I ask him where he finds his inspiration, Drumm said he’s not entirely sure, but he always has a project in front of him. Even in his 80s he won’t let his creative mind rest.

"And I found that I need to because I am frightened that if a long period of time goes on where I don’t create, I may lose it. That sounds stupid, but I have that fear. And so I always feel that I need to be working and doing something."

Mark Arehart joined the award-winning WKSU news team as its arts/culture reporter in 2017. Before coming to Northeast Ohio, Arehart hosted Morning Edition and covered the arts scene for Delaware Public Media. He previously worked for KNKX in Seattle, Kansas Public Radio, and KYUK in Bethel, Alaska.