An artist I have admiring for years is Dana Sikkila! So, I am thrilled she agreed to participate in this interview series. I first read about her Project Bike initiative and her printmaking while I was finishing the Hinge Arts Residency with Springboard for the Arts - Fergus Falls in 2017. She is an alumni of Hinge Arts too! I knew right away that she was someone amazing and I continue to be impressed by her passion and dedication to the arts!
A Litchfield, MN native, Dana received her Master of Arts in Printmaking as well as her Non Profit Leadership Certificate from Minnesota State University, Mankato. At just 33 years old, Sikkila has been named as one of the most well-known creative leaders of Southern Minnesota, developing and executing numerous grassroots cultural project and programs throughout the state. Still based in Mankato, she concentrates on her studio practice as well as being Executive Director of the 410 Project Community Art Space, as well as holding studio art and education adjunct professor positions at Minnesota State University, Mankato. You can find Sikkila's name leading and directing independent projects such as Project Bike and M.A.C. Public Access Program. Since 2014 Sikkila has served as a board member for the Prairie Lakes Regional Arts Council, Minnesota Citizen's for the Arts, as well as a Grant Review Panelist, and Artistic Evaluator for the Minnesota State Arts Board.
First known as a visual artist, Sikkila's practice combines printmaking, sculpture, and site specific installations with an impressive sense of scale and playfulness that push new ideas of contemporary art. Her work has been viewed and discussed all over the state in places such as the Minnesota Museum of American Art Project Space, Macy's Department Store, Hennipen Theatre Trust, University of Minnesota, Minnesota Children's Museum, and Ridgewater Colleges in Hutchinson and Willmar Minnesota.
Over the past seven years of being Director of the 410 Project she's introduced numerous art programs and special events for both children and adults to help strike creativity, positive self esteem, and art awareness in all of Southern Minnesota. Besides these duties Sikkila has received numerous awards including 2017 Women's Center and President's Commission on the Status of Women's “ Women's Courage and Vision Award”, Mankato Free Press 2016 “Outstanding Woman in Business”, 2015-2016 Art Educators of Minnesota "Distinguished Service Outside the Field" Recognition, 2015 Mankato's YWCA Young Woman of Distinction, and featured artist on PBS's Off 90 in 2017, and Post Cards, Pioneer's PBS Art TV Program in 2016.
So, yes, I said she's amazing. And she is. Enjoy getting to know Dana! After you are done reading about all of her awesomeness, please head over to Project Bike's Gofundme campaign right here! Please help support her work!
Jes: Dana, I love your DIY approach, your community-focused nature, and your leadership style. One of my goals with this interview series is to show how making a career as an artist is multifaceted. Can you talk more about where you are from and the many hats you wear as an artist?
Dana: I grew up in a very small farm town in west central Minnesota. As a young person listening to punk rock music, dyeing my hair blue, and just all around not fitting into the general system, I struggled as a teenager. Many people ask me if I grew up drawing or painting, or if I grew up in a creative household, but neither is the case. When I was young I wasn’t exposed to art or creativity outside a few art classes in high school. All I knew at that time was that I learned best by working with my hands. I took a lot of woodworking and automotive classes to stay afloat with my grades, and put myself in classrooms where I was the only female, which helped me grow a layer of tough skin.
Finally graduating high school by the skin of my teeth I had no desire to attend college. But with a hard push from my mother I ended up applying to Minnesota State University, Mankato. At first I was rejected, due to the poor nature of my high school grades. With reality staring me in the face I persisted, re-applied and was finally accepted. At that time I did not think attending MNSU would change my life, but it was the first open door I walked through that allowed me to truly be who I am; it showed me that there were creative people out there living and working. After that my grades and outlook on life completely excelled, placing me on the dean’s list my first semester.
Now, 15 years later, I wear many hats when it comes to being a creative professional. We often ask ourselves who we want to be. For me, that’s always been a very collaged thing. I am different things to different people at different times, which is difficult. I feel sometimes that my brain and hands are in a storm of focusing on my own visual work and studio practice, leading organizations and projects such as the 410 Project, and Project Bike, using my passions to teach, along with always being an advocate for importance of art and culture in our state and education system. Everything is intertwined in some way, I truly never feel like I am “done” working for the day. What I do in my life is not just a job, it’s a lifestyle that I am constantly learning to survive in, becoming accustomed to some days not being able to buy food or new shoes, waiting for my next paycheck to come in the mail.
This rings similarly to a quote I recently read from you in your Springboard Creative Exchange feature where you said, “My career in the arts is a constant daily progression from one thing to another, and every day I have to balance these things with my practice as well.” I connect to what you are saying. As an arts administrator I find myself teaching an artist statement workshop one day to curating an art show the following day to writing a grant application the next day. I am often also doing similar things on my own as an artist. Is that what you mean when you say that you daily progression is one thing to another? What are your strategies in finding a balance between a career in the arts and a career as an artist?
Everyday for me is a different type of work day. I switch between teaching, administration, studio time, board meetings, gallery work, and it never really slows down, but if it did I might sink. Some people look at my lifestyle and that of other artists and see our lives as unhealthy and unpredictable. It’s not something to dive straight into, you need to teach yourself how to sustain this way. I look at it now and really don’t know how else to live, this lifestyle has been completely wired into my body and brain.
Strategies for me in making it all happen are being completely organized, working outside the normal work hours, knowing the line of my artistic integrity, and not being afraid to “cold call” for an opportunity. If I see an opportunity with which my skills and knowledge would aline with, I have no problem emailing or calling to inquire about it. Many jobs I’ve received have come from myself starting the conversation, bringing something new to the table.
So, it’s not really about balance for me, sometimes things have to be pushed to the side. It took me a long time to understand that. I kept finding myself down a path of being overworked, no money, and feeling truly confused on my mission as a creative professional. Once I stepped back and allowed myself to define goals, I was able to feel confident in formalizing what type of creative schedule I want and need.
I can totally relate to how your art practice and work approach has shaped into a lifestyle. I can also see how when you have to push some things to the side that it's a from of decision-making to help stay above water! I know I do that too. This leads me to ask you about Project Bike! It's pretty awesome! It looks like a lot of work to pull off. Where did this project start and what keeps you doing it?
So to start, Project Bike is Minnesota’s only woman led bicycle tour with visual artists and their studios setting the destinations. For the past four years I’ve set out on a one of a kind art/bike tour, advocating for the important point that every artist has skills and creative ideas to help grow and sustain our communities. That we all have stories to share and that our art is the way we tell those stories. With my bike, trailer, and film crew, I’ve has biked over 2,500 summer miles connecting with Minnesota artists living in communities ranging from the rural to large cities, learning what motivates my fellow Minnesotans to create art. Project Bike's mission is to showcase that art and artists are truly part of our chemistry as individuals, as communities, and as a state.
Each year along the way my bike tour is documented through film and photography by Minnesota based filmmakers, with the goal to capture the true tales from the trails along with sharing artist's personal and thought provoking stories. These documentaries allow followers of the tour an in-depth and personal view of each artist, bike route, and of the personal struggles of each year's adventure.
At each artist stop I then collected two to four pieces of art, which travelled along with me by bike trailer as I return back to Mankato. Over four years Project Bike has collected and later displayed over 90 works of original art. Each piece, ranging in price from several hundred to a thousand dollars, were wrapped up in layers of bubble wrap, water resistant plastic, cardboard, tape, and tarps, and placed on the trailer behind my bike. This work collected on the tour, ranging from ceramic, drawing, painting, sculpture, glass, and printmaking, travelled along through rain, wind, and severe heat.
The idea of Project Bike started in 2013, one year after I became Executive Director of the 410 Project Community Art Space. At that time I had been out of grad school for a few years and was really trying to define myself in this leadership role. So instead of imitating others, I looked strictly at myself and what my passions were in life; at the time and still to this day they are community growth through art, and biking, so I thought why not put those two together. In 2015, after two years of trying to gather the courage, I set out on the first Project Bike. The first year I biked every mile, filmed every second, and planned every minute all on my own. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I remember getting home and telling myself I would never do that again. But a month later I displayed the 12 works of art I had collected from artists and premiered the 8 minutes long film I had made. By now the project has its own film crew, I have a riding partner, collected over 100 pieces of art, and has grown to have hundreds of followers from all over the country.
Over the years we’ve connect with over 100 artists living throughout the state. Each year the project grows in supporters, miles, and effort. It’s a huge undertaking of which 90% of the work falls in my lap. Project Bike has given me some of the best times but also the worst times, it’s a project that tests every part of my mental, spiritual, and physical strength. Project Bike has completely changed and shaped my life, I don’t know where I would be without its success.
I look forward to visiting the 410 Community Project Art Space one day. What kind of opportunities does the space offer to artists and your local area?
410 Project is a volunteer managed community art space started in 2003 by three Minnesota State University Mankato art majors, who combined their money to rent out a storefront in downtown Mankato to make and show their artwork. Through the years it’s grown to offer one of a kind experimental art and culture programs. Our mission is serving both artists and community members throughout southern Minnesota, offering the opportunity for all people to understand and value the arts through innovative experiences with contemporary art. Through exhibitions, programs, and special projects, the 410 Project presents a welcoming, integrated, and diverse experience that encourages questioning, creativity, and critical thinking.
We are a 100% community funded space that has produced and supported many emerging artists and exhibitions. We developed our very own youth mentorship program, and started and led beginning projects such as our very own Project Bike, on top of many other programs and events. 410 Project is becoming known as an art space that celebrates all forms of art and artists, working and creating with many underserved audiences. I feel lucky everyday for the opportunity to have lead this space for over the last 7 and a half years. Yes, it has a lot of stressors, it can be overwhelming enough to sometimes make rent on your own house, but imagine also holding the financial responsibilities of keeping a gallery open. The reality is that it has its challenges, but the positive outcomes make all the hard work worth it.
What kind of resources have you used to help your art career? Do you have any books, ideas, or approaches that you recommend to others as they are trying to figure out managing a career as an artist?
Truly the one way I’ve learned to manage my career is learning from my own experiences. I’ve taken a lot of risks to figure out who I am. I’ve tried to understand myself through the typical self help/leadership books and taking workshops, but the breakthrough came in high school, when I realized that I learn best by working with my hands. The directions we choose are not always the best, especially in the creative field, it’s a lot of putting myself, my work, and my financial stability on the line. But managing it all is truly defined by you, not a book; I say approach things with a strong creative voice, don’t be afraid to share your ideas with the right people, and work with those who respect and value your talents and time.
Where can we find you online?
People can find more information about my work at my website danasikkila.com, but make sure to reach out through social media! You can find information about my work, Project Bike and 410 Project on Facebook and Instagram…...COME FIND ME!
Thank you for answering my questions, Dana! I am truly inspired by you and your work!
All images courtesy of the artist.
Artists I Admire is a series of interviews with artists I think highly of.