From pennies to stickers to donated clothing, Richmond artist and activist Noah Scalin uses the most unexpected materials to highlight important figures in today’s political world.
“I want to shine a light on activists, historical figures, women, people of color,” Scalin said. “The people that we should be paying attention to.”
Scalin has created portraits of people he believes deserve recognition – including Ruby Bridges, Maggie Walker, and Martin Luther King. Some of his most popular pieces are made from stickers, where he uses colors and shapes strategically to create faces and scenes.
“These stickers, for me, are my stand-in for American culture,” he said. “Here’s this noise, here [are] these messages, here’s this constant barrage: what signal can we find in this noise and what should we be focusing on?”
Scalin has also created pieces from sequins, black pepper, buttons, and donated shoes.
Scalin’s work focuses on incorporating positive political imagery in a society with ever increasing contentious, defeatist politics. After the 2016 presidential election, Scalin said he wanted to create images that inspire and give people something to look towards. Since President Trump took office in 2016, hate crimes have risen across the nation. With a president whose campaign was rooted in xenophobia and racism–calling Mexicans rapists and proclaiming “Islam hates us” –Scalin’s artwork fights against an administration which has implemented a Muslim ban and condoned the separation of immigrant families at the border.
“We can show the people we dislike and the people that are trying to tear people apart, but they’re narcissists and it won’t affect them. I’d rather not show their faces, speak their names or even talk about them,” Scalin said. “I want to diminish them by saying you’re irrelevant. We know what’s important and that’s why we’re going to win.”
One of Scalin’s current works-in-progress features Ieshia Evans, who became an icon of the Black Lives Matter movement after her arrest by police officers was captured in a momentous photograph called “Taking a Stand in Baton Rouge.”
Seeing a strong, powerful activist in Evans, Scalin said he had wanted to create artwork based on this photograph for some time.
“I want [my artwork] to spend more time looking at something else,” he said. “That something else should be the people who are marginalized, the people who have amazing things to say but have been ignored, the people who have been crushed by the system we have developed. The least I can do with my work is say, ‘look over here instead.’”
The least I can do with my work is say, ‘look over here instead.’
One of Scalin’s most recent installations was a mural for the 2018 Green Gate Festival – where he painted a portrait of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. A queer, black singer/songwriter of the mid-20th century, Tharpe had been hailed the “godmother of rock & roll,” yet receives little acknowledgement today for being a driving force in the birth of rock & roll. Tharpe lived in Richmond for ten years, but Scalin said most of the city’s residents have no idea who she is. He used his mural for the festival as a chance to highlight her story.
“We are overwhelmed with pictures of white men, and we don’t need anymore,” Scalin said. “So even though I have white skin and happen to be a cis-gendered male, I know that I have privilege and I try to use that privilege as much as I can to point the light somewhere else.”
Growing up the son of two artists, Scalin said he always knew he was meant to be an artist, too. As an author, activist, and dedicated member of his performance arts band, League of Space Pirates, Scalin has juggled it all. But it wasn’t until his “Skull-a-Day” project in 2007, in which he made a different skull-themed art piece every day for an entire year, that art really became his focus.
After “Skull-a-Day,” Scalin found the creative energy to start making portraits out of very unconventional materials–everything from CDs to feathers–to make permanent pieces and temporary installations, depending on the materials. Scalin wants his artwork to be as accessible as the items he uses to make them.
“When you use everyday materials (in art), there’s a way in because of familiarity. That gives you a chance to reach people,” Scalin said. “But I use familiar materials in an unfamiliar way. So if you can take the familiar world and change it, then people have to think differently about everything in their world, potentially.”
Scalin said in addition to highlighting positive imagery, he uses unconventional materials to get people to see the world through a different lens.
“It’s a way to get people to stop thinking about the thing they consume as fixed,” Scalin said. “I want people to see that the world is malleable, that they’re able to change things. And once they do, that means they’re no longer just consumers, now they’re participants. That’s a really big, important shift. We are trained and encouraged to be passive but we have to teach people how to be active.”
Scalin’s unconventional materials have crossed borders as well, as some of his pieces have ended up in Bali and Indonesia. Despite never traveling there, Scalin collaborated with an organization called Micro Galleries, which transforms unused spaces around the world into pop-up, street art installations. The installations and free and accessible to the community, and typically get set up in areas that don’t have much access to artwork otherwise.
Through collaborating with Micro Galleries, Scalin received a few pictures of neighborhood children who interacted with the pop-up galleries frequently, and decided to make their portraits. With the help of Micro Galleries organizers, hi-res photographs of the finished portraits were posted up in the children’s hometowns of Denpasar, Bali and Jakarta, Indonesia.
Through his work with Micro Galleries, Scalin saw families and children interact with his artwork from thousands of miles away. His interwoven activism and artistry transcends physical borders, creating cross-cultural connections.
“It’s so cool because here I am, over there. So even though I can’t go [to Denpasar or Jakarta], I can still be a part of that [community], in a way,” Scalin said. “It becomes this amazing connection and collaboration across borders using these materials.”
Photos provided by Noah Scalin.