An arts education led to unique careers for two PSOA alums recognized on “40 Under 40” list

Nathan Zimmerman makes knives that chefs adore, both highly functional and works of art. He runs his own business, ZimKnives, out of a shop on the west side of Milwaukee and also sells online. | Photo courtesy of Nathan Zimmerman for UWM Report

Two Peck School of the Arts alumni were chosen for the Milwaukee Business Journal’s annual “40 Under 40” awards, which honors Milwaukee’s brightest young leaders and professionals. Both leveraged their arts education to pursue unique careers.

Nathan Zimmerman (BA 2013, Theatre Studies)

Nathan Zimmerman is the founder and owner of ZimKnives, a business that focuses on making prestige precision knives, swords and other metal tools and implements.

His knives were recently the focus of an entire episode of Wisconsin Foodie. Host Luke Zahm traveled from Zimmerman’s shop/forge on North Avenue to Zahm’s farm in the Viroqua area to do some cooking and show the knives in action. “That was a fun experience,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman started as a mechanical engineering student at UWM, intending to follow in the footsteps of his father, Daniel, a computer and electrical engineer. However, he found that he preferred a major where he could do more hands-on work. “All that theory and math didn’t fit my style of learning.”

Nathan Zimmerman works on a knife. (Photo courtesy of Nathan Zimmerman)

That’s what led him to UWM’s theatre studies program, where he learned the backstage skills needed to support a production.

“My education was a well-rounded experience. It helped me learn the craft and the financial side of being an artist.”

When he was looking for a job during his first year, he saw an ad for a knife sharpener. That fit with his interests in cooking and crafting. “My mom (Carol Ann) is Italian, and I grew up eating delicious food all the time. So, I grew up in her kitchen and my dad’s shop.”

He’d already started collecting knives, and soon found himself making some for camping with simple tools he borrowed from his dad. When friends began to ask him to make knives, he started to expand his tools as he earned money.

“I got the idea I could make a business out of that, and here we are.”

Now he operates out of a former auto repair building that he is remodeling into a shop and store.

Chefs like Yia Vang, a Minneapolis-based Hmong chef who competed on “Iron Chef,” have ordered his knives. They’re also in the Milwaukee kitchen of award-winning restaurants like Birch and Sanford.

Zimmerman himself enjoys cooking. “Having good knives just really makes you want to cook.”

In addition to making knives, he also does some carpentry, making gaming tables for Warhammer and Dungeons & Dragons for friends who run a gaming store. When he needs a break from the 2,000-degree forge, he often heads upstairs to play some games.

He’s also still active in theater and is a member of the Stagehands Union.

“I learned a lot at UWM – playwriting, stage management, carpentry, scenery and lighting design, jewelry and metal working. I give credit to the professors and teachers who taught me some really valuable skills.”

Meagan Johnson (BFA 2009, Art Education)

Meagan Johnson is the founder and executive director of Milwaukee Diaper Mission. As a young mother, Johnson’s own environmental awareness had led to her using and promoting cloth diapers for her two boys. In researching the issues, she discovered one in three (it’s now one in two) families struggled to afford diapers of any kind. Milwaukee, unlike other cities, didn’t have a diaper bank to fill this need. So, in 2020 Johnson founded Milwaukee Diaper Mission, initially based in her garage.

Meagan Johnson

It’s now grown to an organization that’s distributed more 1.5 million diapers and has a budget of $776,000, three employees and hundreds of volunteers. Early on, Milwaukee Diaper Mission expanded to add period supplies, another expensive and essential item for families. The items are distributed through a network of community organizations, including the UWM Food Pantry. The effort is funded by donations of supplies and money to buy products wholesale, and a hardworking board of directors guides the efforts. Milwaukee Bucks basketball player Giannis Antetokounmpo is a prominent supporter, and his fiancé Mariah Riddlesprigger serves on the board.

Although her degree from UWM doesn’t exactly align with what she’s doing now, Johnson said the skills she learned studying to be an art teacher are valuable. “I think my teaching degree taught me to step up and lead.” At UWM, she also worked as a B.O.S.S. (Be On the Safe Side) driver and supervisor, giving her experience in organizing her time and supervising people, Johnson added.

“Four years ago, I didn’t know I’d be doing this, but it brings joy to so many lives. I’m so grateful to be able to do it.”

Read about other UWM alumni who made the list in the full story on by UWM Report.