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VCU School of Business artist-in-residence teaches change in perspective

School of Business students are learning to embrace creativity with help from artist Noah Scalin —and piles of donated clothing

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Artist Noah Scalin worked with business students to create a portrait of pioneering businesswoman Maggie Walker entirely out of clothing.
Photos by Julia Rendleman, University Marketing.

Our own eyes do not provide an accurate representation of the world.

“It’s a great thing to discover, right?” asked Noah Scalin, the first-ever artist-in-residence at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business. “That the world isn’t the way we think it is?”

Since the beginning of the academic year, Scalin — whom the School of Business brought in to teach its students, faculty and staff to change the way they think — has conducted creative-thinking seminars, guest-lectured in classes and initiated the 30-day Creative Sprint challenge this month.

But his first schoolwide lesson, in the form of a large-scale pop-up installation, took place last week in Snead Hall. On Monday, passersby noticed a 30-by-10-foot area cordoned off in the atrium. Inside, a couple of student volunteers arranged clothing under Scalin’s direction. Denim and other dark clothing went down first to form an outline of sorts. From the atrium’s east side, it resembled a giant surfboard or maybe a leaf. Scalin and the students painstakingly nudged clothing or folded it over in precise angles that meant nothing to those watching or wandering by.

Noah Scalin Profile: Portraits of Innovation - Maggie Walker

The next day he was at it again. The volunteers changed, but the process remained the same. And so it went each day. By Friday, more and more people slowed down to take note of what was happening.

“I really have no idea [what it is],” said student Rachel Lustig. “I think maybe I need an aerial view, but I don’t know. This is so quintessentially VCU. Even though I don’t know what it is, I know that this is a VCU project.”

Like Lustig, most people had no idea what Scalin was creating. The artist excitedly invited them to take a look through a camera on a tripod, which was set up at the best vantage point. “Literally you’ll have one person after the next going, ‘Wow! Oh you’ve got to see this,’” Scalin said. “And it’s over and over. I love that aspect, it’s really fun.”

What some people thought was a fish or a boat or just an abstract shape morphed into a face as they circled around it. And native Richmonders instantly recognized that face as that of Maggie Walker, an innovative Richmond businesswoman who became the first female African-American bank president in the United States — and the first woman of any color to charter a bank — in the early 1900s. The items of artfully arranged clothing were donated by students, faculty and staff and will be donated to the Goodwill of Central and Coastal Virginia once the installation is dismantled.

Senior Amen Yousif assumed the project was unfinished when Scalin suggested he stand at the bottom of the portrait and look through the camera.

“Before [that] I had no idea, none at all,” he said. “It was just a bunch of clothes on the ground. No idea. It’s really neat. … I’m glad we were able to walk this way because, from the other side, we had no idea what it was. And now we get a clear picture of what it is.”

The portrait can only be fully recognized from one spot in the atrium, physically illuminating the powerful impact perspective has on us.

It’s great when you can do things like this, where people are literally changing their perspective.

“It’s great when you can do things like this, where people are literally changing their perspective,” Scalin said. “Just think about how that would change. How you would then see opportunities around you all the time. … What are you missing in your life when you’re walking out in the world? ‘Is there something hidden here that I’m not seeing?’ And certainly in the workplace that [mindset]’s really necessary.”

Even Marisabel Vitug, a marketing student who volunteered to help Scalin with the portrait, had no idea what it was until she started working with him.

“I saw it from a different perspective, just walking by,” she said. “It’s all about perspective. I wondered what it was going to be. ... It makes you think about things differently. Everything’s all about perspective and there’s different perspectives to everything. … I hope everyone enjoys it and sees it for what it is.”

The artist-in-residence program that brought Scalin here is part of the School of Business’ EPIC strategic plan that allows students, faculty and staff to think about work in a different way.

“We are picking up momentum,” said Laural Adams, Ph.D., a professor of organizational communication and intercultural communication, about the plan and Scalin’s place in it. “It’s snowballing. This has been a journey in itself … but it is slowly gaining momentum and traction and more and more people seem to really be doing cool stuff, really creative stuff.”

Noah Scalin shows his daughter his latest work in the atrium of Snead Hall.
Noah Scalin shows his daughter his latest work in the atrium of Snead Hall.

Innovation is key and the business world demands it, Scalin said. Innovation comes from creativity and creativity, like any other skill, comes from practice. Like a piano player who practices every day, someone who practices creativity in small increments each day will build it up over time.

“It started off as a simple concept, but it’s powerful,” said School of Business Dean Ed Grier. “It relates to what we want to do here with the power of creativity. This is exactly it, for people to think differently. We want people to expand their horizon, look for opportunities, and this is the way we’re doing it.”

“What I’m seeing there is a literal change of perspective. … How delighted people were to come upon this thing and go, ‘What is this?’” Scalin said. “That little moment, every time, is so wonderfully gratifying. You want to change people’s perspectives. You know that little lightbulb’s gone off in their head and they look at the world differently.”

 

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