You might know him as the Little Free Library guy.
But, these days, Dan Kirchen is trying out a new title.
'Artist, yeah,' Kirchen said.
A graphic artist turned part-time valet turned library builder, Kirchen's new designation is artist.
It's a word he struggles even to say, despite his nearly 40 years of experience, and his ownership of Car Sick Art, a home-based business that honors his love of cars — Kirchen has owned 38 since 1980 — and includes everything from fine art and photo-realistic illustrations to automotive-inspired collector cards and Airstream-style birdhouses.
And, of course, Little Free Libraries.
'Really, I was an artist before the Little Free Libraries experience, but I didn't say it out loud,' Kirchen said. 'I just can't put myself in that category.'
For years, Kirchen drew in notebooks, distractions from whatever schoolwork he hoped to escape.
He did his first professional work in 1978, using a Radiograph pen, spray paint and a razor blade to create photo-like images on glass.
He went on to earn his degree in graphic and commercial arts and, eventually, landed at Xerox, where he spent seven years designing boxes.
'We were six artists in a room, listening to music while we worked. Those jobs are few and far between, and they all sort of ended because businesses were struggling, especially after 9/11,' Kirchen said. 'When the trains stopped, so did our production. They cut half the staff in all the departments. It changed everything.'
For Kirchen, it meant retreating from life as a working artist to one creating computer files for copy machines.
Since then, parking cars has paid the bills, a part-time pursuit that has allowed him to support his family while giving him the freedom to make 60-plus upcycled birdhouses, among other art.
It wasn't until 2012, when he first learned about Little Free Libraries, that Kirchen began to think he might actually be able to make a living making art.
'We built 14 free libraries as a fund raiser,' Kirchen explained.
Pretty soon, people were asking for the Little Free Library guy and Kirchen, who had no real wood-working experience — 'I took wood shop in high school,' he said — had made and installed 29 little free libraries in the metro area.
The experience inspired Kirchen to connect with the Milwaukee Artist Resource Network, a non-profit for artists throughout the Milwaukee area, which led him to see about showing in a few galleries, which led to him actually showing in a few galleries, like Bloom in Milwaukee and The Arts Mill in Grafton.
'I'm still terrified. I get jealous moments when I think about the guy who punches a clock and slacks throughout the day. And I think, 'That sounds so good.' But that's not what I do.'
He does art.
And, at 54, Kirchen said, he's finally embracing what he's always been.
'I'm breaking out of who I am,' he said, 'allowing that to happen.'
JUST THE FACTS
BUSINESS: Car Sick Art
PHONE: (414) 774-9412
TYPE OF BUSINESS: artist
PEARLS OF WISDOM: 'I don't think I'm going to end up Andy Warhol but I've realized that as long as I believe in what I've done it doesn't matter what other people think.'