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Noah Scalin's latest project: A portrait of Frances Lewis made out of canned food and sundries

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Photos by Julia Rendleman, University Marketing.
Frances Lewis.
Frances Lewis.

Noah Scalin isn’t the first artist to create a portrait of Frances Lewis. That distinction belongs to Andy Warhol, who became friends with the art collector and her husband, Sydney, in the 1960s.

But Scalin is the first to create Lewis’ portrait out of canned food and sundries. Part of his “Portrait of Innovation” series, the work is Scalin’s second large pop-up installation at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business. The piece takes on a different look depending where you stand and can only be fully recognized from a specific spot.

Scalin, the VCU School of Business’ first-ever artist-in-residence, has spent the 2016-17 academic year teaching faculty, staff and students how to hone their creative problem-solving skills by thinking differently. After challenging them to leave their comfort zone, he set an example himself with his latest portrait by experimenting with a new medium. 

“This is the first time I’ve ever done a portrait of a living person,” he said. “It’s also the first time I’ve done a portrait using these materials. This was an incredibly frightening challenge, overwhelming to me.”

Scalin began the weeklong project in the Snead Hall atrium on March 27. Throughout the week, he wondered if he was setting himself up to fail. Working with a new medium is fun, but a little terrifying, he said.

“I have to figure out how the properties of it work,” he said. “How does it react to light? How does the scale aspect of it work? It’s fun, but it’s different, and it’s a little terrifying every time [I use an unfamiliar medium].”

Scalin wanted to do something different to generate participation within the school. Last semester’s project comprised donated clothing that was then given to Goodwill when the project was dismantled. This time, he asked for dry goods that could later be donated to other organizations, in this case RamPantry and Forgotten Soldiers.

“I frankly wasn’t aware that there were enough students at the school struggling for food that they needed an opportunity like RamPantry,” Scalin said. “I was really excited … that we could support it. Nonperishables that aren’t food are going to Forgotten Soldiers. [It’s] an amazing organization to support both soldiers and their families and is something that can, again, give students a different perspective on their world, a reason to support organizations that they may have never even heard about.”

The School of Business held a reception April 4 debuting the portrait and honoring the 94-year-old Lewis, who attended.

Lewis, a Richmond businesswoman and philanthropist, founded Best Products Co., a catalog showroom retail chain, with her late husband. Best Products was a pioneer in bringing arts into business. Starting in the 1970s, the chain designed and built stores with unique architectural styles, pieces of art in and of themselves. A patron of the arts who befriended artists such as Chuck Close and Alex Katz in addition to Warhol, Lewis has contributed numerous gifts to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts over the past five decades.

Ken Kahn, Ph.D., senior associate dean of the School of Business, praised the exhibit for highlighting people who make an impact on the arts as well as business.

“This exhibit is about perspective and shows that business problems need perspective,” he said. “If you just look at it one way, you’ll go, ‘Oh, that’s a fish.’ But the reality is, this is not a fish. If you look at it at different angles, you may be surprised at what you find.” 

This is what happens by having an artist-in-residence at a business school, Scalin said. People ask him all the time why the school brought him on.

“And I say, ‘It’s because they are smart. They get it. They know the future.’ So you’re really lucky those of you that are here as students to be at a school that thinks this forward,” Scalin said.

This was a busy week for Scalin, who, on Monday launched his latest book, “Creative Sprint,” the culmination of his work with the public and businesses around the idea that 30 days of creative practice will yield benefits and help develop a practice of creativity.

“It will help people learn that creativity is something that everyone has, that it can be developed like a muscle and the book really allows people to do it whenever they want,” he said. “We’ve been doing these public [sprints] twice a year. It’s really fun to watch everyone join in but, of course, that doesn’t work with everyone’s schedule. What’s great about the book is it allows you to pick different themes to focus on.

“It gives a challenge to anyone interested in focusing on creativity and learning about the benefits of it to give it a try.”

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