By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Dan May developed a reputation at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
If you’re looking for an easy A, don’t take his classes.
The professor of visual communication and design likes to challenge his students. He wants them to be fully aware of the expectations they’ll face in the professional world.
“This is not easy. This is something you have to work hard at. You have to dedicate your time and effort and understand certain principles in order to succeed,” May said. “That’s what my teaching philosophy has always been.”
The 69-year-old speaks from experience. When students graduate from UNK, he doesn’t want them to follow the same winding road he took.
An Illinois native, May studied art at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. But, “I didn’t know what I could do with art,” he said. “No one really explained the process of how you made a living doing this.”
That discouraged him, so he changed his major to political science, then pre-law, then engineering before leaving college without a degree.
Over the next 17 years, he bounced from job to job – steel worker, construction laborer, truck driver, custodian, autoworker – and was laid off multiple times.
“For a long time everybody in my family would joke that if anyone hired me they were destined to shut down,” said May, who was working on the assembly line at a Chrysler plant in St. Louis when he decided to make a life change.
With that plant scheduled to close, May accepted a buyout and shifted his focus back to art. He completed his bachelor’s degree at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, then moved to New York City, where he was “essentially homeless” for more than a year.
People in the Big Apple liked his work, he said, but they also thought it was “kind of crazy.”
“Everybody said you should become a commercial artist, but I was part of that counterculture generation that didn’t want to be part of corporate America. By 1990, after starving for a couple years, I realized that maybe being part of that culture wasn’t such a bad thing,” he said with a smirk.
May moved to Chicago and worked as a production artist for a design studio that created images and merchandise for Disney and big-name performers such as Eric Clapton, Queen and R.E.M.
“I got fired from that job for talking about politics in a way that the president of the company didn’t like,” said May, an outspoken critic of the company’s treatment of immigrants working in the print shop, which he described as “morally corrupt.”
“It’s not the only time I used my political viewpoints to get myself in trouble,” May added with a chuckle. He also refused to design a holiday package for the Gap clothing retailer because they couldn’t guarantee the China-based factory where it would be printed paid its employees a fair wage.
“Some of the things that I’m most proud of are the things I didn’t do,” he said. “That’s something I tell my students. You may be asked to compromise your own principles and there’s going to be a time when you have to ask yourself, ‘Do I really want to do this?’”
Eventually, May settled in San Francisco, where he started his own design studio, Good Gravy Design. His clients included Miramax Films, Yoko Ono, Cream and ZZ Top. He received his Master of Fine Arts degree from the Academy of Art University in 2005 and began looking into teaching as a way to help students prepare for the realities of life as an artist.
“I thought to myself, ‘Somebody needs to tell these people what this business really is and what you have to do to succeed,’” he explained.
May worked with underprivileged kids through a St. Louis after-school program and taught in a juvenile detention facility before landing his first job in higher education. Current UNK art professor Doug Waterfield was a department chair at Southern Arkansas University when May joined the faculty there in 2007. Six years later, with May now serving in the department chair role, Waterfield contacted him again to see if he’d be willing to move to Nebraska.
At UNK, May emphasized areas like sustainable design – choosing materials and processes that are less impactful on the environment – and encouraged students to focus on mobile, web and other emerging technologies. Now, with the release of artificial intelligence software, he believes it’s more important than ever for students to develop and showcase their creative abilities.
As an educator, he loves seeing UNK graduates make their mark on the industry. In recent years, his former students have landed jobs in Los Angeles, New York, Omaha, Seattle and other major cities.
“When I see students succeed, that’s a huge reward,” he said.
May plans to retire at the end of this semester, giving him more time to paint, travel, play guitar and enjoy life with his wife Carol and their four children and five grandchildren. He still does some freelance design work, and he wrote a children’s book years ago that’s worth revisiting. More recently, his book “Art Wired: The Science Behind Art” was published in 2021. It covers the evolution of art, its importance to human survival and the psychological triggers that make art appealing – things like contrast, craftsmanship and novelty.
“It’s been a fun journey,” May said. “There are things that I have done that I never expected to do.”
Karnival of Kalamities
May describes his own work as “chaotic and satirical,” a reflection of his “angry old man personality.”
“Whenever something stirs my emotions and I can’t get it out of my head, I start creating,” he said. “It’s sort of a release for me. Kind of like yelling at children on your lawn.”
Work from this “grizzled old professor” is on display through April 6 at the Walker Art Gallery inside UNK’s Fine Arts Building. The show – “Karnival of Kalamities” – features illustrations, merchandise, posters, prints, paintings and videos created by May over the past 34 years, including items he designed for the music and movie industries and pieces that have been exhibited internationally.
Walker Art Gallery is open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays. Admission is free.