Dan Mitchell has worked at Rowland Hall as the ceramics teacher for 12 years. In his time here, he’s become known for his easy-going, relaxed, and supportive nature. As sophomore Nate Kanter remarks, he’ll miss “how approachable Dan is and his [willingness] to share his extensive knowledge of the craft.” “He’s good at teaching in a clear and effective way,” Nate adds. As sad as Dan’s leave from Rowland Hall may be, his artistic journey won’t stop here. Working alongside his brother, he’ll customize vans for a living. His job will involve tricking-out vans with cabinets, small stovetops, sinks, drawers, and other furnishings that’ll transform them into mini-motorhomes for people to take on road trips. It’s a unique job at a time when the van-lifestyle is growing in popularity.
In the wake of the pandemic, people’s lifestyles have changed, often out of financial concerns and out of necessity. In a time when conventional travel methods like flying aren’t feasible, road trips have become a popular choice for those seeking relaxation without the impending threat of COVID-19. According to a Travel Trend study from Outdoorsy, “Ninety-one percent of survey respondents say they are planning to take a road trip in 2022, with 83% of travelers adding they would be either somewhat likely or very likely to vacation via RV or campervan.
For more than just travel, some have embraced life on the road for its simplicity and the prospect of adventure. They’ve ditched their houses, stainless steel sinks, and porcelain-clad bathrooms for a rugged, minimalist lifestyle. Compared to the price of living in a house, this life is considerably more economical, with a third of conversions costing roughly $5000 according to Move, a moving company. The Sprinters themselves cost roughly $40,000. Despite all the modifications that can be made on your van, this life isn’t always glamorous. Those facing joblessness have lost their homes and turned to living in vans out of necessity. Nonetheless, on the heels of the pandemic, “van-life,” retrofitting Mercedes Sprinter vans into small homes, has risen in popularity across social platforms like Instagram. A quick search on the app and you’ll see that over 7 million posts under the hashtag #van life pop up. According to Move, that’s a 312% percent increase over the past three years. Hence, people have seen the trend as an opportunity to jump into van life from the business end. Among them is Dan Mitchell whom I’ve interviewed to find more about vans’ rise in popularity and his future looking forward.
When asked what about customizing vans appealed to him, Dan said that “it fit with a lot of….the things that [he] liked.” In his free time, Dan enjoys working on his own cars and house. Much like ceramics, he remarks that building vans gives him “great joy and satisfaction in having a physical, tangible object [he] built.” He adds that “I’ve always been good with mechanical things and figuring out how things work together, so this job made sense as something I could do.” Dan gestures to the machinery behind him, “As a ceramics teacher I have to know how certain things work like the kiln and how to maintain a working studio space.”
On the creative side of making vans, he sees his passion and love for art as translating well into his new job too. He can still apply the artistic abilities he’s honed throughout the years when designing a van’s interior, so Dan views himself as “changing mediums but not really changing professions.” He adds that “I have experience doing carpentry, so I know how to build and install cabinets, which is super useful.” Under his artistic vision, Dan plans to work with his brother who is well-versed on the electrical side of building a campervan. Together, they’ve already got their work cut out for them seeing they’ve got six vans lined up to complete. “[The vans] are for companies who rent them out to people,” Dan says. “Our goal is to build units that people can see and then want to get for themselves.” In the future, he envisions himself and his brother hiring some new apprentices when the business grows, so even after he leaves his job at Rowland Hall, he hopes to continue being a teacher by passing his knowledge onto others. Dan says that he enjoys seeing “students move forwards and achieve great things,” which is one part of his job he will miss. With his passion for sharing his knowledge of the craft, he has become a beloved member of this community.
After asking Dan to reflect on his time at Rowland Hall, he tells me that it was never his intention to become a ceramics teacher. In some ways, the fact that he never saw himself becoming a teacher for 12 years to then work on customizing vans reflects the unpredictable reality of the world, especially post-pandemic. COVID has presented an opportunity for people to find alternative lifestyles, living in vans and on the road. For Dan, while working on vans wasn’t ever one of his passions, it’s something that he realized fit with all his interests. Dan has found that it combines his fascination with motor vehicles and love for art into something new he never figured he would be doing.