Creative Quarantine: Designer & Musician Dan Sullivan

Humbolt Schoolhouse Stool | Navillus Woodworks | © Dan Sullivan

Dan Sullivan talks with Esthetic Lens about how he has been holding up during the pandemic. He gives an inside look at how he has maintained his business and his creative practice over the last several months.

1. How are you holding up?

My wife and I, the artist Edra Soto, have been healthy and very busy. Everything was in free fall there for a while but things have ramped back up to the usual breakneck pace. On weekends we try to take time off to keep our brains from feeling too squashed by work and the relentless pressures of the world. For a while, this included a Friday Night Dance Party/Fish Fry, where we would turn on some cheap disco lights, crank up the music, and dance.

Franklin Dining Chair | Navillus Woodworks | © Dan Sullivan

2. Has Covid-19 had an effect on your work? If so, in what way?

I own a custom fabrication business, Navillus Woodworks, and employ 10 people. I furloughed most of the team as soon as the Illinois lockdown went into place but was able to bring everyone back by June. Since then we’ve stayed busy, pivoting from doing mostly commercial work to residential. A substantial part of Chicago’s building boom of the last 10 years was fueled by its exploding restaurant culture which has taken a huge hit. I am glad my business is established and adaptable and has a very diverse range of clients reaching out for our services.

ARRIVER | © Dan Sullivan

Musically, I have been working to complete the 4th full-length album of my band ARRIVER. We are loosely a Metal band, but employ a wide range of influences and use narrative to structure our albums. One member is my brother, the other two may as well be as I’ve been making music with them for 20 years. At the beginning of lockdown, we started holding “rehearsal” via Zoom, which turned out to be very productive for writing. In August we started getting back together again and learning how to play all the things we wrote. It stinks not playing shows, going to shows, connecting with the Chicago music community at venues. This is a very hard time for the small clubs that are the lifeblood of the hundreds of bands and thousands of musicians who make up the tapestry that is Chicago’s music scene.

Franklin Conference Table | Navillus Woodworks | © Dan Sullivan

3. Is there anything you’ve added to your practice that you’d like to keep after this is over?

I have gotten quite proficient with demoing and collaborating with my band remotely. This is done using the same tools everyone else is relying on these days: zoom, dropbox, Garageband, and so on. Of course, nothing beats the real thing; getting together and bouncing sound off your bandmates bodies at ear-splitting volume. But I am very thankful that my bandmates willingly committed to finding ways to stay connected and productive while we weren’t able to get together. 

Nina Chicago | Navillus Woodworks| © Dan Sullivan

For my business, I have found that virtual meetings can be run efficiently and save time that would otherwise be spent driving around the city. I imagine this will be the way of things going forward.

Navillus Guitar Co | © Dan Sullivan

4. Of the artists you follow, who is handling this particularly well?

The best example is my wife, Edra Soto. Her career has some legitimate momentum and she continues to field requests to lecture, serve on panels and juries, and of course, make art. This includes the larger architectural sculptures that my business generally builds for her as well as her very personal, handmade work that addresses social justice issues. As an artist, she feels a responsibility to address what’s happening in the streets. Just recently she received a prestigious award from the Joan Mitchell Foundation, formalized representation with Luis de Jesus Gallery in Los Angeles, and has two large sculptures in the works on opposite sides of the country. I couldn’t be more impressed and proud.

Dock Box | D6 Collection | © Dan Sullivan

5. Are there any artists, filmmakers, albums, or genres you’ve been drawn to during the crisis? If so, why?

Lately, in an attempt to purge my brain of news and stress at the end of the day, I’ve been watching archival live footage of 20th-century jazz giants on youtube: Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra. Youtube is incredible for this stuff, just amazing, especially for an artist like Miles who was so well captured all over the world and has one of the most fascinating careers ever. 

Legal Table | Navillus Woodworks | © Dan Sullivan

I also watched the utterly astounding Aretha Franklin “Amazing Grace” concert film and cried my eyes out, it is so incredibly moving and cathartic. Watch Prince’s “Sign O’ The Times” concert film for its vibrancy and precision of execution.

Northman Table | Navillus Woodworks| © Dan Sullivan

I also broke down and started paying for Spotify and have been listening to a lot of Flying Lotus, Thundercat, MF Doom as well as classic stuff like Outkast, Deltron, and Tribe Called Quest.

Revival Food Hall | Navillus Woodworks | © Dan Sullivan

Sort of related: I have been doing Big Brothers Big Sisters for 7 years with the same match. He’s a great kid and it’s been a joy to be a part of his life. He’s also a musician, so we’ve been playing drums together on Saturday mornings. Super fun.

© Dan Sullivan

I was raised in Maine and moved to Minnesota to attend college at a liberal arts school which included studying in Japan for a while. After graduating I moved to Chicago in 1997, having experienced its vibrant arts and music culture while visiting my brother. Working at the School of the Art Institute I met my wife, conceptual artist Edra Soto where she was studying for her MFA. My tenure at SAIC was short-lived, and subsequently, I found myself in the trades employed as a trim carpenter/remodeler, art preparator, and shop hand learning how to build cabinets and furniture. All the while I was also playing music, sometimes in 4 bands simultaneously. Throughout the rest of my 20s, I toured and made records. Good times!

Eventually starting my own custom fabrication and general contracting business, I met similarly minded and motivated individuals and with them formed Dock 6 Collective, a collection of 6 independent custom fabrication businesses that share resources, contacts, tools, knowledge, and frequently collaborate on projects. This partnership changed me in many ways and made me take seriously my role as an entrepreneur, designer, and boss. This has led to us buying a large building on Chicago’s west side that houses our businesses, as well as launching our furniture line, the Dock 6 Collection.

Throughout this time I was assisting my wife with some of her art projects, often building and installing her sculptures. This led to several formal collaborations, including our artist project space The Franklin, as well as several commissions and exhibitions. As her career has developed and more opportunities have presented themselves the projects have gotten larger and more elaborate. This has continually challenged the Navillus team in the best way, learning how to adapt our skill sets to accommodate her vision. I am very excited to see what lies ahead for us. It is also very rewarding to connect my experience as a designer and fabricator with my continued engagement with Chicago’s art community.

These are strange, dark, times and I yet am aware of how fortunate I am in many ways. I remain hopeful for the future and 2021 plans include the release of the 4th full-length album by my Art-Metal band ARRIVER, continuing to build my business, Navillus Woodworks, as well as develop Dock 6 Collection, our brand-new furniture venture. I have also been designing and building electric guitars, in another merging of my passions. I strive to be a force for good in my world.