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The unconventional story of Andrew Preiss: student, sculptor and frisbee champ

This is a story about a Duke student who spent four long years grinding until 4 a.m. in Perkins with four cups of Joe Van Gogh coffee stacked at the edge of his desk. He never skipped a class, he sat through his Econ 101 lecture hall wide-eyed and furiously scribbling — scratch that.

This is really a story about Andrew “Drew” Preiss, a failing Duke student for one year, a nationals level ultimate frisbee competitor for the next nine years, and a sculptor who indeed returned and graduated from Duke after completing his final three years in 1991.

***

Darcy, the 7-year-old Australian Shepherd, came bolting and barking out the studio door, a frisbee smothered in dog drool between her teeth. “Come here good girl,” echoed a voice from inside. She immediately dropped her frisbee and faithfully trotted back to her owner, Drew.

He stood at the center of a giant sea of stuff, of benches draped in colorful cat fabric, of ancient Altoid cans hidden among the hodge-podge of drills and welding materials on the tabletop. It was the ultimate backdrop for an elite game of I Spy.

***

“My path was pretty strange,” he began. “I deferred for a year, so I went to Duke after the year off and did not like it. So I went for one year, and then I quit for 9 years”

***

He took a seat in the break room, arms outstretched behind his tousled, dusty blonde hair, and his feet propped underneath the meal table. The table was home to a half-eaten bag of Cheez-Its next to 100 photo slides of old artwork ready to be digitized next to a large chopping knife next to a copy of the architecture and design magazine Metropolis’s “Year in Review.” He donned his usual plaid shirt, probably one in his rotation of button-downs worn for every occasion and a pair of black jeans lightly splatter painted white from the day’s work.

***

“I never really liked sort of the whole idea of going to school. I didn’t do a lot of work, I spent more time figuring out how not to do work,” he said. “I was sort of clever and funny, and at the same time, I was sort of sneaky and conniving. So it’s surprising to me I guess in retrospect that the teachers liked me as much as they did because I was kind of disruptive and a pain in the butt.”

***

“My path was pretty strange,” he began. “I deferred for a year, so I went to Duke after the year off and did not like it. So I went for one year, and then I quit for 9 years,” he continued with a contented grin behind his paint speckled eyeglass frames, the only form of “protection” he uses while operating 75-pound lead treadle hammers and rotating band saws that spew shards of metal as they cut the long slabs into shapes.

Drew grew up in Durham in the same house where his 97-year-old dad still lives, within the neighborhood that locals call Duke Forest. For 32 years his dad was a sociology professor at Duke, keeping Drew and his two older brothers in Durham for their entire childhoods. He went to schoolwell, half of the time when he wasn’t cutting class at Hillside High, where he was in the minority at a 75 percent African-American public high school.

“I never really liked sort of the whole idea of going to school. I didn’t do a lot of work, I spent more time figuring out how not to do work,” he said. “I was sort of clever and funny, and at the same time, I was sort of sneaky and conniving. So it’s surprising to me I guess in retrospect that the teachers liked me as much as they did because I was kind of disruptive and a pain in the butt.”

By the time the end of senior year rolled around, most of Drew’s friends, the majority upperclassmen, had graduated, and he was itching to catch a break from the school setting. So, he moved out of his family’s house, moved into his own house with a friend, and spent a gap year “just, you know working and chasing girls and doing all the stuff that you do when you’re 18 years old and move out of your parents house,” he said.

During his first year at Duke, he almost flunked out. Still stuck in an anti-school mindset, the incompletes in his gradebook would’ve kicked him out of school if he hadn’t chosen to take time off himself. So he did, for nine years, while he became a serious competitor in ultimate frisbee.

Drew threw his first disk in the neighborhood streets in the 1960’s at the age of six, right when the sport began to began to pick up speed. Since then he’s racked up over 100 frisbee disks, travelled nationally to 7 championships and once internationally and played as a handler, quarterback-type position and a captain of several club teams.

When he left Duke, Drew had a goal to win big. He’d never won a national championship and after years of traveling the United States competing as a semi-professional athlete and performing in freestyle exhibitions, a more choreographed, acrobatic style of the sport, he was ready for the final push.

In 1988, he hopped on a flight to California training with a team of former defending champions as they aimed to win another National Championship. The tournament didn’t exactly bring the shining trophy and world victory Drew had hoped for, but it did bring him back to Duke.

“When [winning] didn’t work I basically said, ‘F**k it I’ve had enough of this,’” Drew said. He had also reached the point where he’d either have to return to school or reapply if he waited any longer. “So that’s kinda what got me back, it was a combination of failing at my sports goal, having my wife be really excited about being back in graduate school and sort of running out of my statute of limitations on my returning student status.”

When Drew finally dragged himself back to school, he had transformed as a student. He’d become a model student, the kind of student who makes the Dean’s List with distinction and has his work published around the campus. After nine years to find some direction, Drew spent his remaining three years delving into his art career. He graduated with 19 classes in drawing, painting, book making, set design, color theory and every sculpture class available.

While he has been making crafts since the ceramic hippopotamus he molded with his tiny fingers as a kid, Drew’s first professional project after graduating was commissioned by the former Mayor Sylvia Kerckhoff – an abstract sculpture for the side of her house.

For 30 years since then, he has operated his own design studio in three different locations, currently operating out of the lower level of a 12,000 square foot building he purchased three years ago. He creates three-dimensional functional art for his clients, art that has more of a purpose beyond hanging on the wall. Over the years he has made abstract and organic sculptures, textured surfaces, handrails, lighting, anything that performs a job.

“The way it looks is not the first thing I think about. It’s gotta solve whatever function it has. That’s pretty primary,” Drew said. “The way it looks is also important, but if it looks good and it doesn’t work, well then it’s failing in my mind. The workmanship of the things that I do, I have a really high standard of sort of fit and finish, so that’s a level of quality that I hold pretty high.”

***

“He’s very passionate about his art,” Holmes said. “He’s definitely putting in his time, his abilities, his craftsmanship. He’s thinking long and hard about it, not just doing it on a whim, and I would say for us he very much listened to everything that we had to say about the pieces.”

***

Drew created large hanging sculptures for the Duke Bryan Center and a number of architectural sculptures for the Sarah P. Duke Gardens. One of his newest is a set of gates for the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden. Drew built the gates with 23 encrypted gardening references in which fruits, vegetables and tools lie scattered throughout the design as an interactive educational tool for teachers to immerse their students before entering beyond the gates.

“What amazes me is how he was able to bring that piece together to not only tie Duke gardens and its gothic roots to the gothic architecture around the university, but he was also able to incorporate elements that speak to the discovery garden itself,” Jason Holmes, a curator at the gardens said.

In Drew’s creative process the client comes first. He spends time getting to know the client’s artistic preferences beginning with studying photos of pieces already in their home to glean their style.

“He’s very passionate about his art,” Holmes said. “He’s definitely putting in his time, his abilities, his craftsmanship. He’s thinking long and hard about it, not just doing it on a whim, and I would say for us he very much listened to everything that we had to say about the pieces.”

On a Friday afternoon at the studio, Drew rocked out to the funk song “Payback” by James Brown as he alternated between a fatter and skinnier pencil to sketch a scale rendering for a handrail in Chapel Hill. For thumbnail sketches, Drew draws the old school way using transfer paper, zipping out a quick version before a more formal sketch.

Earlier in the week, Drew constructed 75 miniature satellite models alongside his assistant Ryan Mrache as gifts for new members of the satellite communications company, Orbital ATK. He transforms the metal by “scraping it, grinding it, putting all these little imperfections in there. So that was all done with heat and chemicals and abrasives. It looks old but that’s brand new stuff that I make look old,” Drew said pointing to one of his model satellites.

Reflecting back on his odd college path from college dropout to the top student, frisbee champion and local artist he has now become, Drew wouldn’t regret any step along the way. “I don’t think theres any shame in taking a break from college,” he said. “You have to feel sort of a burning fire to get really excited about what you want to do with your life. Passion has got to equate in there pretty heavily.”

Writer: Renée Weisz    

Editors: Diana Joseph and Sofia Velasquez Soler

Photos: Renée Weisz

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