Dana Sikkila and the Work of Art

For the art student who may think it’s a short and painless route from the classroom to an exhibition at an art gallery, Dana Sikkila is a colorful reminder that doing it right means doing it as a job.

“Anyone who’s sustaining in any way off their talents creatively—writers, musicians, visual artists—it’s constant working and motivation,” Sikkila said. “And when you’re in school, your teachers are doing that for you. I’m trying to help by saying, ‘It’s not going to be like this for very long, so let’s start thinking about this now.’”

As an adjunct professor in both the art and education departments, Sikkila is in an ideal position to preach the necessary hustle: It’s how she lives her life.

Artist Dana Sikkila working on a linoleum print
The artist at work, work, work.

On the surface, it all looks win-win. Sikkila’s become an ambassador of art for southern Minnesota, known around the state’s arts circles as a gallery director, a regional and state arts board member and panelist, a fierce artist and a 2015 YWCA Young Woman of Distinction. This summer, she embarked on her fifth and final statewide bike tour interviewing artists and filming those interviews for a documentary.

But with every step she takes, she’ll tell you that she is constantly striving to stay just enough ahead to remain immersed in art as a living. Sharing her strategies and know-how is a big part of what she provides students.

It’s her role as director of The 410 Project that allows her to give art students at the University a unique perspective on life in the artistic trenches.

“We have college students who help with volunteer hours, so it’s teaching them leadership and professionalism—being on time, talking to someone who comes in,” Sikkila said. “We have a lot of illustrators and graphic design students who help us with posters, brochures and things like that, so they have to work with a client. We have students going into arts education who help us with our classes.”

In addition to hands-on gallery work, Sikkila also helps students in the vital, left-brained areas such as writing resumes, cover letters and applications for exhibitions.

She attended college reluctantly, urged by her mom to give it a go. At her high school in Litchfield, she said, she’d been an unremarkable student who felt more at home with building materials than books. In 2004, she enrolled at Minnesota State Mankato planning to major in theater, thinking she’d do well in set construction. After two years, however, her focus switched to art. In the Art Department, she discovered her love of printmaking and found herself impressed and inspired by a faculty that, today, includes her.

While a student, she volunteered at The 410. She graduated with a Bachelors of Fine Arts, later obtaining her Master’s of Fine Arts and a nonprofit leadership certificate from Minnesota State Mankato. During that time, the directorship of the 410 opened and she took it. In doing so, she’s built a tight connection between the community and the University’s energetic art scene.

This year, she took her fifth and final bicycle tour of the state – Project Bike — in which she interviewed artists on their work, process, etc. A documentary film on her final tour this summer is in the works.

For the past six years, Sikkila has been teaching art and arts administration classes, and in 2018 branched into the education department, where she taught art practices, principles and theories for K-12 elementary teachers.

Throughout it all, she’s providing not only great advice and skills, but great experiences for students.

“You can be a grown adult and be an artist and sustain yourself. You just need to know how to do that and the practices to do that,” she said. “It’s been my job for the students who are really looking for that to give them those tools and give them some mentoring.

“Someone did that for me when I was younger,” she said. “It’s like giving it back.”

This story originally appeared in Maverick Nation, our electronic magazine for and about young alumni. To have Maverick Nation delivered to your inbox, sign up here.