It’s been seven years since Richmond artist Noah Scalin launched a project that would bring him international fame. The mission: to draw, paint or sculpt a skull a day. Now, those works are collected in a new book that illustrates how one idea can jump start a career.
Some artists discover their true nature late in life. At 42, Richmond resident Noah Scalin says he’s always known art was his calling. After all, both of his parents were artists.
“They were always making art around me, giving me access to materials, and + kids would come to my house, and I’d say, ‘Let’s go play in the studio,” and they’d say ‘What’s a studio?’ And that was like somebody saying, ‘What’s a dining room?’ or ‘What’s a kitchen?’ It’s the room in your house where you make art.”
Like most artists, he struggled to make ends meet – especially in New York, where rents were high. Then, he came back to Richmond, built his own studio in the backyard and began attracting clients in need of his skills in graphic design. It was profitable work, but at some point Scalin wanted a bigger challenge, something to stimulate his imagination and put his creativity to the test.
“I was walking through this park, and I thought, ‘I need to make a skull every single day for a year,’ which is a really random thought I realize, but I think everybody has weird thoughts all the time. Artists, happily, tend to embrace the weird thoughts rather than reject them, so I decided this would be a great way to show what I’m capable of and have some fun.”
Now that might seem like a morbid idea to you – but it made perfect sense to Noah.
“I grew up around anatomical imagery, so it wasn't frightening. It was interesting. I liked archeology and I liked pirates, so skulls were something I liked.”
And thinking, each day, about mortality is not a bad way to celebrate life.
“In fine art there's this term momento mori -- the reminder of death, and the idea is that you're reminded of death in a positive way -- embracing life. How do you live it fully, stay present and aware, and that's what the project did for me. Everyday I had to be super focused on life, on living life fully and appreciating it, looking for opportunities.”
His timing was great. Skulls were increasingly prevalent in the culture, and he enjoyed painting and sculpting them – using familiar techniques.
"And then, of course, quickly ran out of those, because I thought, 'I'll try to do something different every day and used up every idea I'd ever had and every technique I was ever good at, and so then it was about trying things I'd never done before. I mean one day I just cut into the shoes I was wearing, because there was a hole in the bottom. I bought googley eyes in the craft store. Really, it was about play and experiment. I mean pretty much if you can name it, I probably work in it. Pasta? Did it!”
He shared what he was doing with friends, and within a few weeks, the project had gone viral.
“International blogs and media picked it up, and then I started getting offers to travel and talk about it. One of the things I do now in my career is talk to executives about creativity.”
He even shared his creative gift with Martha Stewart, crafting a peanut butter sandwich in the shape of a skull, and his work has now been shown around the world.
This year a local shop called Chop Suey Books published a volume showing all 365 skulls. Scalin credits Richmond for giving him the time and space to hone his artistic skills and wanted the proceeds kept close to home. Case in point: He’ll join 27 other authors this Sunday from 3-6 at the Hardywood Park Craft Brewery – a place to shop for signed holiday books while sipping gingerbread stout.
You can see all 365 of Scalin's skulls here.