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Kingdom of the Skull

Renowned local artist Noah Scalin joins skulls with Chop Suey Books.



Back in 2007, designer Noah Scalin hit a creative snag.

Tired from his commercial work, he needed inspiration and simply followed his heart to the land of skulls. The son of local artists, Scalin had grown up surrounded by anatomical imagery. So for one year, he made a different creative skull each day out of everyday objects and shapes — a bell pepper, cotton swabs, popcorn, a soy milk spill, a human bruise. He can spot one just about anywhere.

On day one, he started a blog to chronicle his efforts. By day three, he was receiving international media requests and submissions from fans around the world.

"I'm amazed I'm not burned out by now; I still see them everywhere," Scalin says, pointing out tiny shapes on a digital recorder. "It made me attuned to my world, which is good, because I'm interested in being as present as possible in the moment."

Scalin has published five books inspired by the project and has more than 50,000 Facebook fans for his work. In addition to teaching a design activism course at Virginia Commonwealth University, he travels internationally to give lectures and workshops on the creative process to Fortune 500 companies. He had no idea that making a skull a day would lead him to Martha Stewart's television show — or give him a satisfying career.


Now Scalin wants to give back locally. His new art book, "Skull-A-Day," is being released as the first publication of Chop Suey Books Books, a publishing imprint from his friend, independent bookstore owner Ward Tefft. The hardback book, which costs $25, features all his original work in sequential order — beautiful glossy photos that chronicle every skull he made during that influential year.

"By having a product that is unique to Chop Suey, that means money comes back to Richmond," Scalin says. "You hear more about Richmond and this bookstore."

Scalin says working with Chop Suey has been refreshing from the traditional publishing experience, considering that Tefft foremost is a passionate supporter: "He's more concerned about it being the best book it can be than it making money."

Tefft says he liked the idea of taking work that was available only digitally and putting it in book form, reversing the industry trend of e-books. He's allowing the book to be sold locally at such places as the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Mongrel, BBGB, Need Supply — anywhere but

The pair kept the price low to make the book more accessible, printing 3,000 copies for a first run through a company in China because of the high costs of printing in the United States.

"That was a tough decision," Scalin says, "because I support ethical practices, but limiting access is the trade-off. I don't feel bad about it, because in the end, more people will be touched by this product."

A future edition would be a different book, featuring a slightly different cover, he notes.

Scalin says he never could've imagined how many people his skull work would touch in a seven years. He has vocal fans in Australia, he's talked to librarian groups and incarcerated teens in New York, and he inspired one artist, Gary Lockwood, aka Freehand Prophet, in Los Angeles to start making masks out of collectible sneakers — which soon launched his exploding art career. Scalin even became friends with a group of Marines in Iraq who were inspired to make creative skull art and send him a care package — "not with the skulls of Iraqis," he quickly adds.

Tefft has no future plans for more releases and says he isn't officially starting a full-time press. But he could be interested in more passion projects that help the community and his store on a case-by-case basis. He's spoken with Michael Broth, a local graffiti artist who wrote three volumes while imprisoned, about possible projects.

After the Richmond launch, Tefft and Scalin will head to New York on Oct. 2 for a book signing at Krause Gallery, where Scalin is showing his fine art. They're also scheduling a West Coast tour.

"I'm hoping it will be a model for other small bookstores to consider," Scalin says, "to see how they can work with local artists to highlight their communities."

A book release and signing celebration for Noah Scalin's "Skull-A-Day" will be held at Chop Suey Books on Tuesday, Oct. 7, from 5-7 p.m.

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