Leader of the Pack

One-on-one with the founder of the Owls to Athens collective


Joseph Skorupa is a man with great talent and also great vision. Supporting himself entirely through his art, Skorupa is heavily involved with helping grow the arts community here in Providence. “My main priorities are to provide opportunities for emerging artists so that they won’t have to move elsewhere to make a living and to establish a tight knit arts community in the city,” he says with a modest smile, his hands shoved in his pockets. “We need a pack of wolves around here.”

Easily, he’s leading the pack: Skorupa is the founder of Owls to Athens, an arts collective and forum for street and contemporary artists. “It’s a design collaborative I founded with my friend Michael Spillane where artists from any media can share ideas and help each other grow,” he says. In May, Owls to Athens held a “pop-up gallery” group art exhibition titled Spring Night Riot at E&O Tap, sponsored by Drift Design Studios. Works by many local artists were hung up on one wall of the bar, while a DJ spun tunes and friends grilled food out back.

The name Owls to Athens comes from an old expression used to denote a useless action – carrying owls to Athens. “It’s a bit of a reminder to not take yourself too seriously,” Skorupa explains. “Obviously, I’m extremely passionate about what I do, but still you can’t take yourself too seriously – especially in the art world.” I glance at his collection of work strewn about the studio; indeed his passion is obvious. My eyes land on a piece featuring not only his signature typography and gilded hand embellishment, but also an owl and a wolf. “[The owl and the wolf] represent the two aspects of me that are strongest,” he says. “Mostly, though, I’m sitting back and observing, just taking things in.”

Somehow, I doubt that statement is entirely true: the self-proclaimed insomniac works for 18 hours each day, on average. Last summer, Skorupa completed two huge commissioned murals – one at The McDermott Aquatic Complex in Warwick and the other on a building at 355 Main Street in Pawtucket, as part of the HousEART grant project, which was designed to bring vacant homes and buildings back to life. “[The Pawtucket building] was a couple hundred feet long and took a few weeks. I had a high school student help me, though, as part of the grant’s parameters.”

Currently, Skorupa keeps himself busy by turning out one-of-a-kind works for group art exhibitions (most recently, LA Woman at the Groundfloor Gallery in Los Angeles), planning more Owls to Athens shows (including a New Orleans- style arts festival that will take place in Olneyville in the near future) and traveling around the country in attempt to establish connections between Providence and other cities. “As an artist, you should be able to live here and travel to other cities to show work, and vice versa. I’ve talked with people from LA, Chicago and Philly. It’s so feasible – it just takes time.”

And making a living he is. In terms of media, Skorupa works in “absolutely everything,” saying he’ll tackle anything and any project. “I’m really flexible on price: I just want to get my stuff out there so people can enjoy my work. Whatever you have to share, you should share. If you do well, you should take care of your friends and your customers.” As a trained landscape architect and designer, he employs the same mentality. “It doesn’t take a lot of money to create a beautiful outdoor space. I like to work with homeowners and renters on a sliding scale of what they can pay.” Skorupa enjoys using found objects, such as those leftover from construction sites, in his urban gardens. “If you want to pay me to install it, cool – if you don’t have the money for that, then just help me with the install,” he says. “Everything is completely portable.”

Skorupa then points out one of his favorite pieces: Never Sleep Never Die. “If you want to succeed, you have to give everything. As an artist, suffering is part of what you sign up for. If you want your work to live forever,” he says, “you’re going to have to lose some sleep. Sacrifice is necessary. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.”