Mike Van Dam, sculptor and sheet metal worker

being a sheet metal worker I’m not into doing things that – pardon the expression – you need to be on mushrooms to figure out. I like to do stuff that people can relate to ...

Mike Van Dam isn’t your typical artist – he doesn’t paint, by his own admission he can’t draw to save his life, in fact, the very term ‘artist’ is something he is still getting used to. A sheet metal worker by trade, Mike has put his welding skills to work to create incredible sculptures from stainless steel chain. This year marks the fourth year since Mike made his debut into the art world at SWELL Sculpture Festival so we sat down and had a chat about metaphorical masks and giant dragons.

Your art tends to be larger than life with dragons, sea creatures and giant chains. What inspires you?
I’m at the stage now where I’m really testing my skills and myself. I get ideas and I wonder if I can make it work. With the dragon, I wanted to make it big just to make a statement. I’m not really interested in making small things.

Where did the idea to create sculptures from chains come from?
Going to SWELL Sculpture Festival and seeing some of the amazing pieces there inspired me to come up with an idea that was different and that worked with my trade background. I’m a sheet metal worker so I figured I’d give it a go. Apparently I’m the only one in the world doing it.

So you never set out with dreams of becoming an artist?
No, definitely not. I see friends that I haven’t seen for five or six years and they get a real surprise when I tell them what I’m doing. I’ve been a skydiving instructor and all sorts of things but I always come back to the welding. It’s going really well – I’m actually selling pieces in a gallery in Mykonos so I’m going international, which is exciting! It all started with SWELL in 2013.

Can you tell us a little about the piece that you will be showing at this year’s SWELL Sculpture Festival?
The piece is called Life is a Masquerade and it’s a series of three masks – the first is a proper Venetian masquerade mask and it represents our everyday persona. The other two are full-face masks, one with a tear drop. Socially we wear these masks and give off the impression that everything is fine but quite often at home it’s a different story. I never set out to make a statement about suicide or domestic violence but that’s just the way it’s happened.

What do you hope to achieve through your art?
People look at art in a different ways. Me being a sheet metal worker I’m not into doing things that – pardon the expression – you need to be on mushrooms to figure out. I like to do stuff that people can relate to, things they can see. I’m hoping to make it a full-time job very soon. I’m very close.

What are some of the challenges of large-scale works like this?
The logistic challenges are definitely the biggest – I make stuff to suit the trailer that I use. My shed isn’t very big and the dragon, for example, is 3 metres high but my door is only 2.7 metres high. Those things always take a bit of navigating. The beauty of the chain is that I don’t have to find a piece of wood or rock big enough to make the piece that I want, I can always add more chain.

Do you have a piece bubbling away in the back of your mind that you would love to create?
I have a number of pieces in the back of my head and I’m already thinking about next year’s SWELL piece. Generally I try not to look that far ahead because each piece takes so long to make so you really can’t decide six months into it that you wish you had done something differently.

How many hours have you invested in Life is a Masquerade?
I’m working on one month per mask. Some days I can’t touch it, I’m just not in the mood as I’m working around family stuff and still working a couple of days a week to keep some cash flow going but other days I will be on it from 3:00 am through to 11:00 pm.

Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring artists?
Just try it – you’ve got nothing to lose! If you enjoy doing something that will come out in your work and other people will see it. This is my fourth year at SWELL and I’m still gob-smacked when people call me an artist. In my head I’m just a welder. I’m still trying to get my head around it.

How important has SWELL been in establishing your new career?
I couldn’t have done it without them. I never would have thought of entering an art show and to be honest there are no other shows around that I would have gone to because I wasn’t an artist. The fact that it is on the beach, it’s free and it’s just a great family day out made all the difference.

Are you starting to see yourself as an artist now?
I guess so. I’m waiting to go on an international flight so I can write down ‘artist’ on the departure card.

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