Graduation is a celebration—we celebrate our students as we learn from them. Helen Maser, a SoVA graduate with a B.F.A. (Drawing/Painting), a B.F.A.(Sculpture), and a Minor in Art History, was invited to give the 2017 College of Arts and Architecture commencement address. We are immensely proud of Helen, as we are of all of our remarkable graduates. We are very pleased to share Helen’s powerful address below (you can watch Helen's address at this link - at the 24 minute mark). Graeme Sullivan
Reverberation in Mark Making. Helen Maser
Hello, thank you all so much for being here today. What a grand feeling it is to know that we are concluding and beginning a new epic part of our lives. I would like to thank Dean Barbara Korner, Scott Wing and especially professor Bonnie Collura—you have been my strongest advocate and advisor over the last year. Undoubtedly, the best educator I have ever had. And thank you to the parents here today who have faith and are celebrating in the creativity of their children.
There are these unspoken constructs of what you should paint about as a woman. I felt that I couldn’t be too explicit, too feminine, or too personal in order to be taken seriously. The paintings were supposed to be pleasant and a little ambiguous. I didn’t think I could paint about my lived experiences because that would be a combination of everything that would make people uncomfortable.
Until recently, I avoided talking about myself in my work. Reaching toward friends or other women in my life for inspiration. Avoiding myself because I only recently saw paint as the tool which would help me dismantle certain memories. Even though paint is an additive product, I used it as a way to disassemble and critically analyze aspects of my past. Vulnerability becomes as necessary to the paint as it does to the person applying it.
Ever since I was a child I always knew what my name meant. My parents had this tiny trifold plaque that sat on our bookshelf with each of our names and their meanings listed. Helen means light. I think we all have little fixations like that. Attracted to what makes us an individual and gives us autonomy at an age where we are unaware of who we are. But my awareness of what my name meant made me hyper-sensitive to the word—Light. I became drawn to fantastical lighting settings in my bedroom. Blue, red, and yellow lights that turned it into a fluorescent pinkish and blue haven. And then I started painting in a similar way. Always drawn to and aware of the light. As I painted people—I became aware of the light and aura of the person. Attracted to the same fluorescents apparent in their personalities.
A fluorescent personality like that is in my close friend and comrade Michael Grasso. Michael, a Sculpture BFA, was the first person in my life to take the time out of his day to listen and encourage me to paint about my own experiences. In an extremely vulnerable moment—Michael only provided feedback that was so thoughtful and excessive in care, consideration, and lack of judgment. He created a situation in which I felt accepted and valued while being vulnerable. This was the catalyst for the entirety of my work now. The actions we choose to engage in with one another do have the potential to echo past the walls of what seems like one simple conversation with a friend.
The marks and gestures we make echo past our immediate present. His moment of deeply caring and listening has reverberated more than he knows. From our conversation—came the painting Baby Helen. It is a painting I did over a year ago now—it’s of me as a little girl—probably 2 ½ years old—sitting in a copper chair. The image itself is reminiscent of 90’s era flash photography. My gaze is directly on the viewer with piercing focus. I have a bright pink cast on my foot and my dress is stark white. It has hands depicted grasping my body.
I had been painting for years but Professor Helen O’Leary told me that this was my first painting. Why was this my “first” painting? I was depicting the vulnerability of childhood, specifically what it is like growing up as a woman who had experienced a certain level of trauma. Of all the schools I could have chosen to go to—I came to one famous for a very particular scandal—Pedophilia disguised in philanthropy’s robes and after my talk with Michael, it enabled me to paint about it.
I recently had this painting in an exhibition at the HUB which I titled “He Called Me Sexy Baby but My Name is Helen.” About a week after my show ended, I got this email from a woman who was just visiting Penn State and happened to see my painting. She explained her whole life to me how much my painting had helped her. A woman I have never met connected with me through my painting on such a deep level that she felt she could share things with me that most of her friends and family don’t know.
I remember so clearly the day I read that email. How I sobbed for everyone in that story and for myself and the fact that I know my painting has helped at least one person. As cheesy as it is. I think this is what we must all do. Take our vulnerabilities and make them public. Michael’s willingness to listen, respond, and encourage helped me make vulnerable paintings that “lightened” this woman’s soul.
Vulnerability is the first step towards healing ourselves and as a community in this political climate. I had a friend tell me that the best speeches are when the speaker reveals they are really human. I think we can look at any artistic practice in the same light. If they don’t reveal our humanity, they can’t connect us to others.
This woman could have just glanced at my painting, but instead she chose to have a meaningful interaction. Our rush to finish and get done what we need to get done without consideration for others isn’t conducive to creating meaningful connections. To engage with art fully, one needs to embrace that they may become vulnerable to uncomfortable subject matter. We are all paint, getting pushed around by others and pushing ourselves into form. What if we were to respond to one another with pause and consideration the way artwork compels us to? What if we were to look beyond surface reads and have empathy for the marks of each of our unique history, and hopeful future. Can we become as compassionate as paint?
This is proof that our vulnerability must leave the comfort of the studio and interact with others or else it has little value or purpose. Abandon all fear or hesitation and take these risks or else you will see little reward.
The most valuable resources here have been my peers. A completely solo practice may have the vulnerability we seek but it lacks the connection that makes vulnerability valuable. It was this community of people that allowed me to critically evaluate my own personal history in a way that can be shared with others. The help from my closest friends and allies, here in this crowd, enabled me to access my most difficult history and use it as a tool for positive change through a creative practice.
In my last few words I’d like to mention that you work with what your environment throws at you because everything is material for making. If opportunity doesn’t seem to fall your way very often—look harder. A smile from another is an opportunity for dialogue. Seeing another person in distress is an opportunity to actively connect. Create an inclusive community that fosters generosity for all. Generosity is not only a benevolent trait, it can be used as a strategic mark that cuts through difference and division. Let it echo from you and into others around you.
The more you give to others, the more resonant your mark will become. The moments when talent and expertise line up with ambition, hard-work, vulnerability, and generosity are what will sustain us. What painting has taught me is that we are all a collection of embodied marks. Our lives are our paintings. Build them with great color, vulnerability, and ever present generosity. Thank you.
Helen Maser. “He Called Me Sexy Baby but My Name is Helen.” Onlooker: Michael Grasso