Walking in to the Erie Art Museum is always an exercise in unifying contrast.
Tucked away in one of the oldest-looking parts of the city, the new entrance to the old museum at 10 E. Fifth St. is imposing and modern, yet integrated and throwback. Its light-brownish bricks blend seamlessly with buildings on blocks close by, and the blue collar, blue metallic adornment perched upon it – when viewed from afar – evokes the idea of a giant metal sleeve sliding high into the Erie air, revealing a futuristic 1960s-era strip-mall storefront bedecked with glass and metal below.
It is both contemporary, and ancient.
This entrance, this museum – they both have an eye on Erie’s proud past but haven’t lost sight of her bright future. And one talented local artist with a knack for business melded with a love of local lore found a way to give future generations of Erieites a visual representation of both space and time that’s as simple as black and white.
“HIGHERglyphics: The Annex Stairwell Project” simultaneously highlights Erie’s proud past – from DNA to today, and beyond – while also pondering her bright future through a QR-code infused daydream that covers more than 1,200 square feet. And while everyone’s aware of the museum’s prestigious upcoming event – the 90th Annual Spring Show – HIGHERglyphics is not technically part of that exhibit; it’s actually part of the building
“This stuff happens in more of an intuitive sense,” says Todd Scalise, who is contemplating the grey sky on an early April Erie day. Rain – soaking at times –intermittently drenches pedestrians under umbrellas, the sterile, orderly sheen of the Erie Art Museum windows separating him and them. It’s warm-ish for the season – 44 degrees – but the stinging rain and gusty winds reduce walking to a most unpleasant pleasure.
“I make a lot of work, and through that work the style emerges, and I wait for that.” Scalise is seated at one of the tables near the museum café, looking out on East Fifth Street, and thinking aloud more than speaking. He’s a contemplative guy, but not overly detached from reality. When he speaks, he strikes a nice balance between the what is, and the what could be.
Scalise grew up in Erie, graduating from Mercyhurst High School 1991. He earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art in 1995 and his Master of Fine Arts at Boston University 1997, also in painting. After more travelling and studying, Todd found himself working in New Mexico in 2007.
“I was making very colorful, abstract paintings,” says Scalise, of his Sante Fe days. “I decided that painting was what I wanted to do with my life. I had taught as a professor [at Robert Morris and Duquesne in Pittsburgh, and then at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales] and I was moonlighting as a painter, and I thought, ‘I need to reverse this.’”
With his waking mind focused on attaining the satisfaction of creative freedom, his subconscious mind was instead subjected to immersion in the distinctive art produced by the native peoples of the American Southwest – basketry and bowls, paintings and pottery, weavings and wearables with a primitive-yet-sophisticated style and simple color palette. This style had a profound effect on him, an effect that didn’t really crystallize until he returned from Europe to Erie in 2010 and started experimenting with a different style that was modern yet ancient – refined yet raw, black and white. That style would become known as HIGHERglyphics.
“It’s not much different from southwestern graphic systems, which are basically carbon on white,” Scalise says, gesturing to a display case of southwestern art 20 feet from his fingertips. “It’s really basic – it’s binary. It’s black on white.”
Binary. Black on white. It either is, or is not. There’s no shading, and, unlike the sky he’s gone back to looking at, there is no grey. This ancient, efficient mode of conveying thoughts and ideas is also, incidentally, the premise upon which a personal computer operates. But thousands of years ago, American Indians of the American Southwest found an abundance of natural materials that could efficiently create strong, sturdy blacks and wispy, watery whites, so they used them abundantly.
“I use Sharpie markers. It’s the most simple, and the most efficient, the most available, and it really helps me clear out all the ‘arty-ness’ of my art,” says Scalise, waving one of his trusty markers through the air like a magic wand. “It got rid of all the painterly elements and refined it to the most basic elemental things that need to happen – which are imagery and meaning,”
Imagery and meaning are all well and good, but the usual stereotype of an artist of any kind, from painters to musicians to writers, usually includes certain pejoratives meant to depict a book-smart, street-stupid vagabond attempting to serve two masters as both a creative professional and a sales executive. Todd Scalise’s work reveals physical talent, but his Stairway Annex Project – from the materials to the labor to the marketing – didn’t exactly pay for itself.
Luckily, he’s one of the more business-minded artists of any genre one might encounter.
“I get that because my parents are entrepreneurs. I’m a the classic example of ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.’ I’m just sort of a cranberry or something,” he says, smiling wryly; his dad, mother, brother and sister work at the family business – Scalise Financial Services – which is about as far from art as one can get. Or is it?
“Andy Warhol said ‘Business is art. That’s a really important comment about American art. The business of it becomes an art form – the synchronicities of lining up people, meeting people, running into opportunity – that also fascinates me, and I learned all those characteristics from making art. In the business world, I can say, ‘This person has a need. How can I fulfill it?’ That’s a creative act.”
Scalise found his need in the staircase at the Erie Art Museum. “They just completed this $11 million addition [in 2011], and that’s the one thing they forgot about,” he says, glancing up at the clean, white ceiling as raindrops punctuate his words. “[Museum Director] John Vanco told me, and I’m paraphrasing here, ‘This stairwell is an atrocity. It looks horrible.’ So there was a need for me to fill, and I said, ‘Well, we’ve got to fill it with art, because it’s a museum,’ so that makes sense.”
Fortunately, Scalise comes from an environment not so different from that of Andy Warhol and Keith Haring, both aggressively entrepreneurial Pennsylvania artists. “There’s something about coming from this area – it’s sort of a working-class aesthetic,” says Scalise. “Having to integrate into business is a working-class aesthetic.”
One of the reasons he’s so interested in business is that he sees art benefitting life and culture beyond just the visual aspects – it becomes the backbone of some economies, like the Chautauqua Institution. “Without art, they have no economy,” he opines. “And here in Erie, on a per-capita basis, I think we have more talent than they do in Chautauqua.”
What has yet to be accomplished in Erie is the establishment of a significant brand, like Chautauqua possesses. “We’re all brands. Sometimes we fail to recognize that if you have a Facebook page, you’re branding yourself. It’s the way to become part of a group, or become an individual in a group. Brand is not just about Coca-Cola or Kellogg’s. It’s really about identity, and what fits better with that than art?”
As an example, he cites Shepard Fairey’s “Obey Giant,” a viral street art project featuring a stylized image of the late Andre the Giant.
“You can live inside your brand and create within the brand. It is fiction; you’re creating your own little world to develop things in,” he says. “My brand happens to look black, white, red, glyphic yet supermodern, digital yet hand-drawn, future, past… That’s the brand that I’ve created. When I say something has been ‘Scalisized,’ that means I’ve taken an ordinary object and done something to it. So this stairwell, this ordinary space – every building has a space like this.”
Standing at the lowest level, Scalise peers up at the immensity of his Scalisized stairwell. It is composed of six distinct yet related panels that depict the story of this thing called “Erie,” spanning six stairway landings and rising three stories.
Interspersed with – and in stark contrast to – the glyphic images of this complex yet simple work are nearly two-hundred QR codes, similar to what you find nowadays in many first-class publications. They allow a smartphone user equipped with a QR reader app to ‘scan’ the code and be directed to a website. Scalise utilizes these codes in innovative – and often amusing – ways, calling observers back to the piece again and again to find the stories hidden in each one.
At the basement level is the first section of this gigantic mural, simply titled “We are Lake Erie.”
“This is kind of the Rosetta stone of the piece,” Scalise says. “It’s the language that makes everything else. I started with the mystical formation of Lake Erie, and I found out through my research that there was a whole ecology here during the Ice Age. A common thread in the work is DNA, and you can see these fish swimming through it, and eventually this whole thing becomes like a giant fish – you can see the eye and the mouth.”
As he moves on to “Raccoon Nation,” on the second landing, he points to one of these eponymous varmints, one of the more important symbols to permeate the piece.
“’Eriez’ means ‘raccoon people,’” Scalise explains, his excitement quickly building. “They roamed in longboats, and they were blown off course – this is their creation myth – and they landed on the peninsula, and they thought they were saved by a raccoon. They felt the peninsula was a raccoon arm. And then you start to see the white settlers, and the introduction of their genetic line into the story, and then you have things like this presidential seal that’s on the back of our dollar bill – that’s actually an Iroquois Nation symbol. So if you can imagine our young nation coming here, migrating from the east, settlers are encountering this area fairly early, encountering the Iroquois and basically taking their symbology and regurgitating it into the new nation state of America.”
On the third landing, Scalise explains “Fleet in the Wilderness,” dominated by an ever-vigilant Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry.
“This symbolizes Perry working on this very top-secret endeavor. And you have ships here and there, but out of these ships come these big hands, evoking a manual, industrial endeavor,” he says, referring to the assembly-line methodology of the Industrial Revolution. “And here again, you have this connection to DNA, you have the raccoon, and an owl, which is something you’ll see up top – it’s symbolic of a connection between earth and heaven.”
The next level – “Erie P()P” – offers a localized and contemporary field of “pop” reference, highlighting Erie’s consumer culture. “We have some of the Governor’s Arts Awards winners, we have [the band] Kansas and ‘crap rock,’” he says, referring to a now-infamous Erie rallying cry. “This is a big part of Erie culture – this layer of pop. This is who we really are. Andy Warhol’s there, John Vahanian, Kris Risto, two of the biggest arts supporters in the region – the Hagens – and Susan Kemenyffy, who’s maybe the most successful artist from this region in terms of commercial success.”
Just above the fourth level the, “Incubation Incubator” was donated by the Erie Community Foundation – the Stairway Annex Project’s biggest donor – and includes key innovators from Erie, like GE, Daniel Dobbins, John Kanzius, and Joe Root, who occupies a place of honor amongst Erie legends. “I put him as the crowning figure amongst the innovators because he was our last real naturalist, a bridge between us and them.”
The final level, “The Return of Quetzalcoatl, Erie Style,” contains the Mesoamerican plumed serpent Quetzalcoatl. “It ends up being this big, circular composition that turns into a garden with all these birds and Pennsylvania flora symbolized. There’s a lot of esoteric information in here, especially the pop mysticism and anxiety of the year 2012, like planet Nibiru hitting earth – that’s all in here, all that crazy stuff is symbolized in this as a time capsule of 2012.”
A time capsule nestled within a time capsule is a fitting and Scalise-like finish to the installation; it reminds observers of the recursion, the recombination, the recycling, and the regurgitation throughout “HIGHERglyphics: The Annex Stairwell Project.”
Projects like these don’t pay for themselves, however. Scalise worked as hard on the business end of it as the creative end of it; two people in particular mentored him through this process as he began to assume the mantle of a working-class artist.
“Donna Douglass from the stARTup Incubator helped me organize this project in a way that the museum would be able to start a donor campaign,” he says. “Donna gave me direction on who to talk to and when to talk to them. I had all of the sales tools built, so we just put our two skill sets together. This became a community-wide project; we had over 15 donors.
“The other side of the story is that I was talking to Susan Breon, [at the time, the interim director of Arts Erie] who said, ‘Todd, I love this idea, but you do realize this is a business, right? You’re actually starting a business right now. This is not a single, stand-alone project.’”
Breon’s revelation prompted Scalise to become a little more business savvy. “From there, I said, ‘Let’s keep going with this,’” he says, excitedly, relating how he got the idea to create merchandise based around the project, which would create residual streams of income for both him and the museum. But before any merchandise could be conceived, he needed to sit down and painstakingly create progenitor from which that merchandise could spawn.
“At the time, John Vanco gave me the invitation to create this mural, but not a lot of the money had been raised, so I was basically helping the museum, Donna, and Susan put together the financials while I drew on good faith,” he says. “I did a nine-foot by 12-foot drawing, which is basically a miniature of what you’ll see here. I did it all in Sharpie markers, because I draw naturally in my sketchbook with Sharpie markers, and I wanted this thing to be as comfortable as possible, especially since it was going to take me several months to make the drawing.”
Scalise’s good faith was rewarded, and after 12 months of business and art laboring side-by-side, the Stairway Annex Project was ready to be hung. But in order to do so, Scalise needed the expertise of two local contractors for this unusual installation, which took another six months.
Prints & More by Holly did the actual printing of Scalise’s piece. “This is definitely the largest print job they’ve ever done. It’s 1,200 square feet; they printed on 52-inch rolls, as long as we needed them. I think the largest expanse is 22 feet tall. So if you could imagine a wallpaper hanger on a ladder with a 22-foot piece of material…” he says, looking off into the distance, probably imagining a wallpaper hanger on a ladder with a 22-foot piece of material.
That lucky man was Jay Vogt. “Jay Vogt is a master wallpaper hanger. He actually hung wallpaper for my family years ago, so I knew about him, and I definitely asked the right guy, because this was a very tricky thing,” Scalise says. “There were a lot of problems.”
Once Scalise and his squad arrived on-site, they discovered it would be much trickier than they initially imagined.
“It was a big technical feat as a designer, because I realized that the architectural drawings were wrong, so I had to go in and measure everything, and then have the printer measure everything, and then have the installer measure everything. And we were all wrong,” he says, laughing the "we’ll all laugh about this one day” laugh.
But hung it was, and will continue to be, presumably, forever – a permanent reminder of the unifying contrasts that make Scalise, his project, the museum, and Erie itself what it was, what it is, and what it shall be: contemporary and ancient, with both a proud past and a bright future.
The Erie Art Museum is located at 411 State St., but is best accessed from the entrance around the corner at 10 E. Fifth St.; hours Tuesday through Saturday are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m. Admission for members is free; otherwise, adults: $7; senior citizens and students: $5. Children under 5 are admitted free of charge. Admission to the museum is free every Wednesday and second Sunday of each month.
To find out more about HIGHERglyphics, visit Facebook.com/Higherglyphics.
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