Commitment, joy, satisfaction, working in the often vaunted and rarely achieved flow state, and filled with daily excitement to jump out of bed every day to get to work may sound to most of us like the definition of an ideal work life. What if that job is also something one invented, a position that no one could fill but them? Daniel Wheeler is a wonderfully thoughtful, highly sought after “maker of things.” Part sculptor, part artist, part fabricator, and full-time problem solver, he is who people in the know approach to create solutions. This may be a special memorial piece, it may be something as large as a chapel, or as nuanced as a stone cloud — yes, he just made one of those out of marble.
His guiding light has been curiosity and the desire to first understand, and then to create. This is a path he has followed his entire life, a red thread not always obvious even to him, that has been his highway for decades. Others also are working in a wide range of materials and mediums and have a similar facility with craft, but what sets Daniel apart is his deep thoughtfulness and empathy for the projects and people he is working with. Skilled craftsmanship is a wonderful thing to behold but it is his other part, the human sensitivity part, that makes him and his work so impressive. What do I want people to feel, then what could this look like, then how will I invent a way to make it? It is a very special person who can ask and answer all those questions with his level of wisdom.
Daniel, how old are you?
I am 61.
What are your thoughts on craft?
Craft, from my perspective, is a form of love. Craft can be characterized by an abiding attention to the details of the making of a thing, over time. When you give considered attention to anything, when you give your time both daily, in the moment, and over the course of years, you are giving your love energy to it. Whether that is attention to a person, to an activity, or a discipline, anything you give real attention to is a form of loving that thing. I think craft is the result and the expression of extreme attention and, therefore, a form of loving.
What do I think about craft in relation to art? That’s another question. There are times when a high degree of craft can get in the way of expression, but I enjoy the challenge of combining the two. I believe in learning how to do things well: to know that I can match an ability to make something to an idea that I want to express. I’m wary of fetishizing overly finished things. I appreciate those who do, but it’s something I try to avoid in my own work.
“I think craft is the result and the expression of extreme attention and, therefore, a form of loving”
I know that you work with funerary objects. So, what’s that process like?
It’s sculpture, but these are things with a specific purpose, made in the context of grief. I have created grave monuments, I have made urns for ashes, both for display and for interment. Generally, the commissions I get are from people who’ve lost somebody too early; they need to recognize the unusual and the extraordinary in a person who died outside the “normal” run of things. There are two things I love about doing this work. One is there’s no room for games. There’s no room for intellectual puzzles, or for irony. You’re dealing with somebody who’s in the grip of grief or near it, and you must bring everything you can to the equation, all sincerity, all love, your absolutely best game. You can’t mail something like that in.
And the other thing is, I’ve found that the process of helping somebody design an object for the person they’re mourning, to talk about materials and color and tone, and what that person loved, what they thought about, allows them to reconstruct an image of that person. So, yes, it’s painful, but they’re not just telling me about their loved one; they’re primarily trying to help me design an object that embodies something of that person. You lose somebody, and there’s this huge gap where the person was; the grieving process comprises a reassembly of sorts. When you get to the place where you’ve reassembled them sufficiently in your own mind, the pain recedes, or at least it changes. And what’s cool about this process of designing a thing to memorialize them is it can aid in getting them there, and it does so indirectly but effectively. I mean, who knew that would happen? I had no idea. So I love that.
“You follow your curiosity and it leads you places you didn’t expect”
The work that you do, you’ve done for a long time, basically your whole life. How did that happen?
Well, as seems to be true with most of the essential things in life, it happened accidentally, or at least not intentionally. You think you are doing one thing, and before you know it you are doing another thing. You follow your curiosity and it leads you places you didn’t expect.
I started making stuff when I was a kid because I enjoyed it. I made models, dioramas, treehouses, abstract photos of my Hot Wheels tracks, little sets for puppet shows with actual lighting. I didn’t think I was an artist; that it was Art that I was making. In retrospect it was proto-sculpture, but I didn’t know it then. I did it because I was interested. You follow your interest, and you find yourself at a certain place, and then something else opens and you find yourself in that place. In fact, I kept trying to stop making things, perhaps do something useful in life, but that never took. I guess I’ve just redefined what I consider useful.
What is it that you love about the work that you do?
I love so many different parts about it. But I think more than anything, I love the mental puzzle of it. I’m dealing with ideas, of course, but I’m also dealing with the practical aspects of sculpture: weight, tension, fabrication material, volumes, all the things that are necessary to make sculpture work. So, I’ll get an idea and I’ll think, “Okay, well, here’s this idea, how do I get there?” I have to work backward from the idea through the materials and processes. How can I get myself into the place where that thing can happen? Eventually, it becomes a dialog between the making and the ideas contained in the thing. That dialog gives rise to new ideas, and so forth. I often say any wisdom I have is in my hands; that’s where all the good stuff comes from.
How would you describe the work that you do?
Well, first, I’d just say it’s anything three-dimensional. It’s physical. There are a lot of different processes involved; many different materials, and different ways of using those materials. Varied in scale from hand-held things to architectural spaces. But the connecting thread is a way of thinking about sculpture, and that has to do with how we address those objects physically. Either we pick up a thing, or we sit on a thing, or we walk into a thing, but there’s always some relationship between our bodies and those things. We measure up against them and they, us. It could be something you might use, like a silver caviar dish the shape of a sturgeon, which I made recently for a client. It could be a sculpture made to propose marriage. It could be a large kinetic set on which a dance company performs. I designed and built a chapel at one point and built all the things inside it. In that case, it was the creation of a space where things happen and where the objects within serve that purpose. Sometimes it’s just a cool object to look at.
How did you learn to do all these different processes?
Well, it’s mostly self-taught. What may have been dilettantish at first eventually became a container for my rather catholic (small c) interest in the world. If I feel like I want to work in a material and I don’t know how to do it, then the first question is: Can I do it without hurting myself? And then: Will the process of learning how to work with that material take me to a place where a specialist in that material would not go? Might I do something they would never think of doing? Sometimes it’s a bad idea. But sometimes it stretches the material in a way that’s really, really interesting. And then, the more I work with it, as I learn from my mistakes, fun things can happen.
And you’ve been married a long time?
I have; 32 years. Yep. 32 good years. She’s very, very funny, and she’s an incredibly decent person. In fact, there are very few humans that are as inherently decent as she. She’s an artist herself, a musician, and an actor. So she understands what compels me to do what I do. Even though we do such different things and we’re such incredibly different people, we speak the same language and therefore understand the other at the root of it.
And you have kids?
I do; two. Daughters, 27 and 22. One of them is a social worker, and the other one is just starting a career as an actor.
Nice. Do you listen to music when you work?
All the time.
“Making things is how I make sense of the world, how I process all that life is, and how I express my love of and fascination with it”
What do you listen to?
I listen to everything. From classical to jazz to R&B and hip hop and all the different hybrids therein, rock and roll, Americana, you name it.
I want some specificity here. What did you listen to today?
It’s a very good question. I listened to Kae Tempest who’s a spoken word artist from London. I listened to an incredible live CD of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers from 1999 at the Fillmore West. I still buy CDs because I have the stereo system in my shop that I had from high school, huge speakers, and I can crank it. I also buy CDs still because I believe in the artist getting as much money as I can give them. I mean, I do stream music, too. But if I like the record online I will get the CD. What else did I listen to? Bruce Springsteen’s new record, where he covers a bunch of R&B classics. The National, I Am Easy to Find. And what’s the other one? Oh, Voodoo by D’Angelo, great record, just a classic, great record. So, that was this morning, and right before we got on the phone, I was listening to Coltrane, so kind of all over the place.
What are the three non-negotiables in your life?
Non-negotiables? Well, I would say that there are different kinds of non-negotiables. There are non-negotiables about what I will not accept. And then there are the non-negotiables about the things that I want in my life. Let’s talk about the ones on the positive side. One has to be work. I must do these things that I do. I can’t really live without doing them. Making things is how I make sense of the world, how I process all that life is, and how I express my love of and fascination with it. Two, I also really believe in — celebrating is the wrong word — reveling in the life we’re given. And that means all parts of it, the essential life of sound, music, the natural and built worlds, the crazy wonderful things that people and animals do. The wind, the sky, you name it; all the beautiful and fun things in life. But even the worst things have their stark beauty. I cannot accept not swimming in all that stuff. This I would not negotiate. If there was a reason for not being able to enjoy those things, I probably would say, “Yeah, I’m done then.”
Let’s see, the last positive non-negotiable… It’s a good question. I think it’s non-negotiable to attempt to be kind to other people if possible. I would rather love people than hate them or even dislike them, really. I mean, some people are just dislikable, but I would rather lead with love and then pay attention. So, I think that’s a non-negotiable. I don’t believe in violence and being an asshole. Paying attention is love.
Main image by: Alexandra DeFurio
The ideas expressed here are solely the opinions of the author and are not researched or verified by AGEIST LLC, or anyone associated with AGEIST LLC. This material should not be construed as medical advice or recommendation, it is for informational use only. We encourage all readers to discuss with your qualified practitioners the relevance of the application of any of these ideas to your life. The recommendations contained herein are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. You should always consult your physician or other qualified health provider before starting any new treatment or stopping any treatment that has been prescribed for you by your physician or other qualified health provider. Please call your doctor or 911 immediately if you think you may have a medical or psychiatric emergency.
We will never sell or give your email to others. Get special info on Diet, Exercise, Sleep and Longevity.