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Sculptor Dan Droz’s art expresses connection

PITTSBURGH >> Dan Droz’s brand of creativity elevates the everyday to the extraordinary.

He spent the 1970s professionally designing sculptural pepper mills and during the next decade, creating high-end furniture.

In 1979, he started a tradition of finding road signs with words or numbers of the upcoming year, snapping a family photo and creating New Year’s greeting cards — an unusual tradition held so long, it was the subject of a 2016 Wall Street Journal story.

Later, he designed promotional materials.

When he turned 69 in August 2019, he left the work world and put a spin on retirement that few others could. For Droz, the joy of retirement isn’t the lack of work, but — just as others might golf or garden — working at something that elicits joy. He still has 12-hour days, but this time he’s bending metal, mesh and glass as a sculptor.

The New Year’s cards have bragging rights that exceed an appearance in a newspaper: They’re how Droz met his wife.

Cathy Cohen was a producer for “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” when she met Droz at a holiday party in 1980. She rebuffed his dinner invitations several times until she received his signature New Year’s card.

They married a year later and in addition to Droz’s daughter from a previous relationship, had three children together.

Cohen watched her husband try to combine his array of talents over the years — his knowledge of manufacturing and fabrication from years of creating housewares and furniture, marketing and business from private design work, and art and design skills during 17 years on the faculties of Carnegie Mellon University’s fine arts and business schools.

There was also a habit of his that seemed arbitrary: knot tying. Droz has been known to tie straws and wrappers into knots while waiting at restaurants. That’s not uncommon. But in his case, it’s not a mindless fidget. Always seeing potential in the ordinary, he observes the materials as he bends them, interested in the final form.

Droz found a purpose for that quirky curiosity at age 68, when he was still running his design and marketing firm. He believed he “might have 10 good years” left to flex his creative muscles, and he wanted a new adventure that explored a life lesson: Every point of view perceives something distinct.

Growing up in Brookline, near the City of Pittsburgh-Baldwin Township line, Droz and his brother would jump across the invisible border and make jokes about city life versus suburbia.

In college, he worked children’s birthday parties as a professional magician, where the “two realities” of magic tricks impacted his thinking: “There’s one the audience sees and the one the magician understands.”

By the time he was 68, he understood that duality applies as much to the human condition as a magic show.

He thought about his interest in perception vs. reality, his careers and his curiosity about materials and form — how could he combine them?

Droz become a sculptor.

He approached the owner of the now-shuttered Hertrich Gallery, who asked him a most logical question: “Have you ever done any sculpture before?”

Droz had showed the owner a book of photos and was offered a show on the condition that he would produce 30 sculptures of similar caliber. At his first show in November 2018, half the pieces sold — an almost unheard-of feat.

His success as an artist established, he closed his marketing firm and, at 69, formally declared himself a sculptor.

All of Droz’s pieces experiment with multiple realities and, from any vantage point, hint at what might be concealed.

In one piece, the audience peers through a narrow opening, where a mirror is placed to reveal hidden interior components. Giant metal knots imply where strands curve even when obscured. And in a style similar to kirigami, the Japanese art of cut and folded paper, his cut and folded aluminum sheets play with space “between two and three dimensions,” creating multiple planes and conceptually meaningful pockets of negative space.

Droz saves aluminum cans and buys metal pieces that can be cut and folded by hand to work out the design of his sculptures. After he hones a design, he recreates it digitally and shares the plans with his fabricator and painter.

Most of his pieces are hung on a wall, suspended from a ceiling or frame or sit on a pedestal. And most were created for private clients.

But at 71, Droz knows he has “a limited time to make a difference,” so he set his sights on public art, with its capacity to reach a wider audience.

Just as sculpting references all the skills Droz acquired during his more than 50-year career, his public art honors a lifetime of relationships.

For three months this year, Droz’s “Family Portrait,” installed at Pittsburgh International Airport’s Airside Terminal, offered a “figurative representation of a family posing for a picture.”

Just weeks ago, “Remembering Youth,” inspired by formative memories, was installed in Bridgeville, a borough in Allegheny County.

And on May 24, his largest sculpture to date, “The Gathering,” was unveiled in Pittsburgh’s Strip District shopping district, near the entrance of the Three Rivers Heritage Trail. The work was commissioned by the real estate firm Burns Scalo as part of its 265,000-square-foot mixed-use project.

The 12-foot kirigami-inspired piece implies two figures high-fiving each other.

Pamela Austin, Burns Scalo brand ambassador, said the work was the perfect piece to comment on the rekindling of workplace relationships, which were lost during the pandemic, and the social nature of the trailhead.

“We really wanted the theme of the artwork to be about coming together again. So, we chose ‘The Gathering’ with figurative humans hunched together. It’s really more of a symbol,” she said.

It’s symbolic for Droz too, of spending his “retirement” working on the two things he knows will last: sculpture and time with his family.

“We think of an afterlife as going to heaven, but that’s not it. The afterlife is how people remember you,” he said. “If there’s nothing physical, then you are a memory, but that’s the thing about sculpture: It’s an expression of yourself that stays a pretty long time.”

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