David Drake has always been a jack-of-all-trades. When he was seven, he learned to play the ukulele. In high school, he drew cartoons for the school paper. As a student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, he designed lights and stage managed for the then brand new Fine Arts Theatre. So when it came time to pick a major at the School of the Fine Arts, it made sense to combine all of his interests and talents into one. In 1969, Drake became the first student to graduate from the UWM with a BFA in Inter-Arts.
“I started as an art student and then changed majors – for some reason I was having trouble with my eyes and thought there wasn’t much future for a visually-impaired painter. So I started taking classes in anything I felt like – mythology, theatre, dance,” Drake recalls. “In 1969 when the draft was still in effect it was better to enter the service with a degree than without. I had all these credits and my adviser thought it would be good to create a new degree program, so we created the Inter-Arts major. The whole idea was instead of one area of study, you essentially had one major and a minor in three different art forms.”
While studying, Drake faced a question from friends and family that many artists do: What are you going to do for a day job? He credits having abilities in many art forms so when dance or acting didn’t provide income, music or theatre tech would. “I’ve had a career in many aspects of the arts and haven’t punched a clock at a ‘for the money alone’ job in almost forty years,” he says.
Drake recalls the sixties and seventies as a powerful time to be an artist. “It was an extremely dynamic time,” he says. “The Kennedys and King were shot, Vietnam was going on and the arts were on the edge of what was happening. There was an immense amount of art being made and performed in Milwaukee, and it’s directly attributed to UWM grads.”
That includes Drake, who has spent the past 30 years performing folk music throughout the Midwest on guitar, concertina, dulcimer, banjo and Native American flute. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has called him “the keeper of old folk songs in Wisconsin.” For 25 years, overlapping the folk music concerts, David also co-founded Dance Circus, Wisconsin’s longest running modern dance company, with 1973 UWM graduate Betty Salamun and did the lighting for Ko Thi Dance Company, founded by Ferne Caulker who graduated from UWM in 1969.
“The thing that I was left with after I graduated was the hope that I could change the world for the better and make a difference,” he says. “Art is life and we made a living doing what we learned and did at UWM.”