Awakening the Artist Within

The only thing more certain than coffee to get a creative mind out of bed in the morning is a great idea. Writers are known to scribble down the first thoughts of the day before getting out of bed; painters to pick up a paintbrush before a toothbrush.

The Lackawanna County Arts and Culture Department will host its third annual Wake Up with the Arts Breakfast at the Electric City Trolley Museum in Scranton on Friday, Sept. 16 at 8:30 a.m. in hopes of similarly rousing area residents. In addition to breakfast by Stirna’s and live entertainment by the Red Shoes Dance Company, attendees will be treated with an inspirational presentation by artist Noah Scalin, author of 365: A Daily Creativity Journal which evolved out of his award winning Skull-A-Day project. His new book Unstuck: 52 Ways to Get (and Keep) Your Creativity Flowing at Home, at Work & in Your Studio (Voyageur Press) will be published in November.

Based in Richmond, Va., Scalin is the founder of Another Limited Rebellion (www.alrdesign.com), a socially conscious design and consulting firm and a former art director for independent movie studio Troma Entertainment. The artist’s work has been exhibited at The Mutter Museum in Philadelphia and the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago.

Scalin was just a regular creative bloke like the rest of us, before the blog documenting a personal challenge he set for himself became an Internet sensation. It began June 4, 2007, when he posted the image of an orange paper skull with the note, "I’m making a skull image every day for a year." He carved skulls out of surprisingly simple and immediate sources like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a wine cork, a pile of leaves in the woods, or a tea bag. While traveling, he fashioned a skull out of a hotel bed sheet. He hacked up a Sir Mix-A-Lot cassette tape and photographed tattooed naked models arranged friends in a skull formation. He found skulls out in the world, like one stenciled by a graffiti artist on a newspaper box. He designed a series of subtle, skull-inspired wallpaper patterns.

We spoke to Scalin via telephone late last week.

ec/dc: What is socially conscious design?

NS: When I got out of school and decided I wanted to be a graphic designer and artist, I discovered there was a disconnect between people’s ethics and how you were supposed to make a living. It bothered me because I really didn’t want to just hang up my beliefs on a coat rack when I walked into my job. …(Socially conscious design) basically means that I’m working from my personal ethical perspective rather than purely from the perspective of making money. Some people use the term triple bottom line, meaning the concern is not just about making money, although that is certainly part of it, but with people and the planet as well. There is more than just a single bottom line.

You can see that philosophy in the skulls – you use a lot of found things people wouldn’t normally think to create with. Their inclination might be to spend a lot of money on art supplies.

There is so much around us. Especially in this country, we are surrounded with so much stuff and I think we do take it for granted. Doing a daily project is an opportunity to be reawakened to your environment. Trying to live everyday as fully as possible was an important part of it for me. And I came out of it with a greater awareness and appreciation for what I had.

Why should people make things?

I have a mantra for myself, which is that I should make more than I consume. There are certainly wonderful things out there and you should support people who make things – I appreciate people who consume the things I make – but there is a level of satisfaction when you make something that is not found elsewhere. …There is this wonderful elation of starting something and seeing it completed and having something tactile to show for what you’ve done with your time. You don’t have anything after watching a TV program. To read a book is wonderful, but to make a book and then share it feels incredible.

Your new book is titled Unstuck. Is it important to know what gums us in the first place?

People like to think things out – to solve it by thinking, which has its benefits. But there is no replacement for just doing. You can plan, plan, plan, and want things to be perfect but, you can spend all your time planning and never get anywhere. The experience of doing is often surprising and it’s often amazing how quickly you get results and how quickly you resolve things that you think are much harder. So the book is largely about just taking action. And as you take that action, you will discover the answers because you will be making steps forward.

Because you already know them, like Dorothy.

Exactly. Just click your heels and you can go home anytime. People talk about climbing a mountain but if you just start walking up the mountain, eventually you will climb it. In taking that first step forward, you are on a path now, and maybe that path will go unexpected places but you wouldn’t ever get to those places if you didn’t start.

Or they’re afraid of making a commitment they can’t get out of?

I talk about this idea of "preciousness." There is this fear people have about being perfect, about getting things right. Our work places encourage that. – people don’t try things because there is no room for failure. And I don’t think abut it as "failure" – I think about it as "unexpected results." Of all the things that have come out of my project, none of them were part of the original plan. The plan was just to make these skulls. Making books and giving talks and meeting people – these are all just wonderful, unexpected benefits.

What have you learned from other people who have done 365s?

By now, I’d say I’ve talked to a few hundred people and across the board, when you ask "How has this affected your life?" the first thing they’ll tell is you, "I wake up excited." And that’s a big deal, because most people wake up, on a week day at least, not at all excited. "Oh man, I’ve got to go to work. What a bummer." To wake up excited — you can’t beat that! Knowing you can look forward to your day because you’re going to get to do something fun and creative and have this wonderful thing that you’ve made that you can share with people, and when you share it you get positive feedback?! It’s just this wonderful loop of creative inspiration.

You can see all 365 of Scalin’s original skull-a-day skulls at http://skulladay.blogspot.com. His most recent creations have been made in support of Star Wars Remix – http://starwarsremix.blogspot.com – a project launched by friends Emma Beddows and Scott Walker on Aug. 30, 2011.

Wake Up with the Arts is offered free of charge. All are welcome to attend, but seating is limited. Call 963.6590 x102 to reserve your seat or email artslackawanna@gmail.com.