AKRON, Ohio - If Akron artist Don Drumm had enjoyed calculus, the world might never have been graced with his fanciful and iconic cast aluminum suns or towering steel sculptures.
In the 1950s, enrolled in pre-med at Hiram College, Drumm abruptly changed his major to sculpture, launching a career that has positioned his signature art in cities across America for nearly 60 years.
Today, the busy 83-year-old artist moves agilely through the rooms of his cramped and cluttered workshop, which covers the full first floor of a house on Crouse Street. His aging Golden Lab, Sam, watches over the shops while two unnamed rats sleep in a cage.
Design elements are everywhere. A board of perfectly matted leaves is near a bag of squirrel-chewed walnut shells. Nearby are a series of large coated and epoxied leaves that will be cast to become pieces of larger works. Tall, elegant bird sculptures with moveable wings sit along a wall. Several tall intricate totems have just returned from a foundry in North Carolina, which has taken over the casting work Drumm once performed in his shop.
Cubbies along two walls are filled with square aluminum plates bearing rhinoceros to swirling pattern designs, which will be worked into sculptures. Entire walls are covered with tools hung from spokes.
The years have sharpened Drumm's ability to juggle multiple projects. The artist has pieces in the works for everything from jewelry to 15-foot-tall sculptures soon to be installed outdoors.
The shop is one of the eight buildings and four lots that make up Don Drumm Studios in East Akron. It's easy to identify which buildings make up the Drumm enclave -- their muted jewel-tone exteriors are decorated with Drumm's iconic designs. A Don Drumm totem greets visitors at the courtyard entrance to the main gallery.
Drumm's wife, Lisa, an artist and educator he met in 1958 while teaching at the Akron Art Institute, manages one private and two public galleries.
The Drumms work seven days a week, often past 8 p.m., he says. It's clear he is as much a businessman as an artist.
"I love it," he said. "I work on Sunday instead of going to church. But you have to in this business."
Setting the course
At Hiram in 1955, Drumm was enrolled in pre-med but hadn't decided yet whether to become a medical doctor or veterinarian. In the spring of 1957, sitting in an intensive calculus class, he abruptly changed his trajectory.
"It was when the birds and bees were out, and everything was in leaf," he said. " I thought I was going to die in that class."
Drumm had noticed an interesting art class, and approached the instructor, asking to be admitted. He was told the class was full. He started to walk away but turned back.
"I said, 'I'm going to have to drop out of school this term,'" he told her. "She said, 'Oh no, we'll find a place for you.'"
Soon after, realizing Drumm's talent, the same instructor encouraged him to find a school with a well-rounded art program. He transferred to Kent State University and in 1958 earned a Master of Fine Arts degree.
Honing his skills
The years following college were busy for Drumm, who moved from employee to self-employed to married.
His only employer was industrial design firm Smith, Scherr & McDermott on Wilbeth Road. Drumm did not apply - he was invited to work there through two Kent State instructors who were married to the company's principals.
When the design firm closed two years later, Drumm was offered work space next door at Thor Mold & Machine Co. for $25 per month rent.
"That seemed like a fortune to me at that time," he said.
But the workspace at Thor set him on a course that would help shape his life and art. Thor was a foundry that rebuilt tire molds out of cast aluminum. There, Drumm learned the art of casting and welding, and began selling his work out of his home.
But choosing aluminum as his primary medium was an anomaly. As a teenager, one of his jobs had been to take the excess metals - brass, bronze, steel and aluminum - from his father's General Motors machining business in Warren, Ohio to the scrap yard.
"I didn't like aluminum", he said. "It was strange. it was light.
But his proximity to the foundry operations changed that.
"It was an entirely different experience," Drumm said. "It was lighter than bronze or steel - three times lighter. I did pieces to hang on the wall without tearing the walls down."
In the first 12 years of sculpting, Drumm, a left-handed dyslexic, carved the designs by hand into sand castings, which he excelled at because the designs had to be inverted.
By the time Thor closed five years later, Drumm had been asked to be Artist in Residence at Bowling Green State University, where he served for six years.
The residency offered Drumm enough money to buy a garage and lot on Crouse Street, which he rehabbed himself and opened his first studio to the public in 1971.
"It had about eight junk cars in front we had to have towed away," he said.
Creating the art
Drumm now has exterior installations around the country, sculpted using all-weathering steel, commissioned by public and private companies, universities and private patrons.
In Akron, his early work stands at Cascade Plaza downtown, while five sculptures at the John S. Knight Center commemorate the Gay Olympics held in Northeast Ohio in 2014. Countless works are visible at Akron hospitals, schools, libraries, places of worship and other public gathering places.
Recently in Akron, a private developer of University Edge, student housing near the University of Akron, commissioned Drumm's work for an enclosed courtyard. The same developer commissioned a totem comprising five penguins stacked atop one another, which will soon be installed at Youngstown State University.
Unlike many of his smaller pieces available at the gallery, Drumm's exterior work is mostly nonobjective, which he refers to as "one step past abstract."
"They're not to represent anything, but the shape and the color and the spaces between," he said.
He has lost track of some large sculptures, such as pieces at a Baltimore school, which he was told would be moved. He does not know where they were moved, or whether the art still stands.
For Drumm, no project is more or less important than any other.
"It's fun, it's exciting," he said. "But you come back to the studio and you've given birth to this child that's no longer yours. It belongs to somebody else, you have no control over it."
However an early project Drumm created at Kent State stands out.
In 1968, he was asked to work with a group of public school industrial design teachers taking a summer course at Kent to boost the teachers' creativity. Drumm worked with the group on a series of exterior sculptures set in cement near Taylor Hall.
On May 4, 1970, one of those pieces was hit by a bullet during the shootings that killed four people. A few days after the tragedy, Drumm was asked to simulate the event using identical materials, to prove which direction the shot was fired.
Although officials asserted the shot was directed toward the Ohio National Guard, Drumm's recreation was able to prove the bullet had been fired at the student demonstrators.
"I asked that the bullet hole never be welded shut," he said.
Visiting Don Drumm Gallery
Don Drumm Studios & Gallery showcases the art of more than 500 American artists.
Among thousands of works, Drumm's signature designs featuring myriad suns are unmistakable.
But the sun didn't evolve necessarily out of a love for the star or for nature. Instead, the iconic designs were born over a period of years, from something he heard in art school. He was told the circle was a difficult design element to work with because it is a "complete statement in itself."
"I played around with that idea and then I started drawing within the circle," he said. "Pretty soon I'm drawing faces. Pretty soon the circle wasn't important, but the sun became important."
By Jennifer Conn