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A splash of paint, barbed wire, a knife to the skull

'Spirit Skulls' craft is a welcome relief from St. Helens man's everyday struggles with bipolar disorder and drug addiction
by: Stover E. Harger III SURROUNDED BY SKULLS — Dan Halstead stands in front of a wall showcasing some of his Spirit Skull designs. His St. Helens home is filled with the decorated buffalo skulls and some in-progress pieces.

When he's not performing court-mandated community service, avoiding the everyday perils that come with his bipolar disorder or attending drug abuse treatment classes, Dan Halstead decorates skulls.

Buffalo skulls to be exact. His St. Helens home is filled with dozens of them. Some wrapped in barbed wire, one covered with the ashes of his mother, another with a large knife plunged squarely in the center of its head.

Halstead - with a considerable rap sheet, an honorable discharge from the U.S. Navy in the early 90s after his bipolar diagnosis, his pride of being '1/8 Cherokee' - works regularly to craft these outsider art pieces.

And in his two years making Spirit Skulls, he hasn't sold a single one. He'd like to, especially considering the tens of thousands he's spent on making them, but commerce isn't entirely the point. The act of creating them makes his sometimes-tough life a bit better.

If you've been to the county courthouse recently you've probably seen three of his Spirit Skulls, staring down from the staircase.

A bicycle spring here, a 12-year Narcotics Anonymous coin there, Halstead, 48, decorates his skulls with personal items like the medallions marking milestones in his sobriety, as well as discarded materials he discovers on hikes.

He's on a journey of self-improvement after years of drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness and fallout from a few crime convictions.

For years his life was on the wrong track. In 1998, he was arrested for driving under the influence. In 2000 he assaulted a man. After that conviction, he spent two years in the state mental hospital.

In 2007 he ran a Deer Island man off the road. Halstead said his bipolar condition sent him on a manic swing that day, causing him to heavily focus on the smoking vehicle in front of him. He obsessed and obsessed until he gave into the overwhelming impulse to smash his car into the vehicle ahead.

He spent 19 more days in the Oregon State Hospital after that, being released too early he believes. In the eyes of the law, Halstead said he is 'substantially dangerous.'

Halstead is learning to live with being bipolar, a condition which sometimes sends him on manic fits if he does not pay attention to his sleep schedule. He is enrolled in numerous support groups and said he has been sober since July 3, 1999.

'It's been a hard lesson for me to learn about this,' he said.

A common refrain among addicts, Halstead said he lives 'one day at a time.' But when he forgets to take care of his health, those days are sometimes full of manic highs and crushing lows.

Part of his path to self-improvement is indulging the artistic side that lives inside him. As he moves his hand above one of his Spirit Skulls, Halstead said his creations are more than art, however.

'I feel a connection with these skulls,' he said. 'And I feel I am honoring these skulls by decorating them.'

Like others in his same situation with the law, Halstead's days are regimented. He has to do hours of community service a week, attend moral recognition therapy and be back home at night for his 10 p.m. curfew. To travel, he has to get a pass from the court.

Much of the rest of his time is spent with his skulls. He buys many of the ready-to-be-decorated bones online from a source in New Mexico.

As he increases his online presence (www.spiritskulls.com) Halstead hopes to start selling his art so one day he can make back the considerable money he has invested. But so far, at around $300 a pop, no one has bitten.

And it might not happen. Halstead jokes that, like other artists throughout history, his pieces will only be sold when he is dead.

'That will be my luck,' he laughs.