In the Penn State School of Visual Arts (SoVA), the Wood and Metal Shop isn’t just a room filled with tools and equipment. “The Shop,” as it is fondly known, is also a classroom in and of itself, serving as the core of activity for a variety of classes and individual projects, ranging from beginner to graduate level. It embodies the sense of community that is Penn State SoVA. In The Shop students hone their skills—and learn safety practices—from shop supervisor, faculty instructor, and SoVA M.F.A. alumnus Matt Olson, as well as shop technician and master woodworker Mark Risso.
In spring 2014, Olson was working on a series of wooden bats for his own collection when he and Risso decided to establish an award, recognizing students who excel in their work at The Shop through their leadership, dedication, and desire for learning new processes. An ode to Major League Baseball’s Silver Slugger Award, they would call it “The Littler Slugger” award, and it would take the form of a small wooden bat.
As former students themselves, Olson and Risso know first-hand the integral role The Shop plays in a student’s learning process. “We also thought a little friendly competition amongst the students wouldn’t hurt either … possibly even give bragging rights to those selected for the coveted award,” said Olson. “Although there isn’t a monetary component to the award, there certainly is a sense of accomplishment, pride, and even a little unpredicted emotion that occurs when it is received.”
That emotion probably wells up, in part, because the award presentation is a total surprise. Olson and Risso typically enlist the help of a previous recipient to call the winner to The Shop, where they are surprised with a wooden bat in a unique holding device designed just for them. Olson creates the bat, while Risso takes care of the holding device. Although the bat dimensions remain the same, the holder is custom-made and often embodies attributes of the individual being awarded. For example, a walnut and cherry stretcher was created for fall 2015 recipient Maura Clark, a B.F.A. candidate with a concentration in Painting and Drawing.
Olson said part of the fun is surprising the winners, who often think they are “in trouble” when called unexpectedly to The Shop. “For me, it is at this moment that I know the true validity of the award is experienced by the student,” he noted.
Jackie Lawlor was the fall 2016 recipient. “She was the student that stood out amongst all of the many hard-working students in SoVA,” said Olson. “Over the course of the last few months, Jackie has pushed herself to learn new skills both inside and outside the shop, and through this motivation, her artwork has taken new directions."
In keeping with the “unique holder” tradition, the holding device for Lawlor’s Little Slugger award mimics the aesthetic and wheel-mounting used in her artwork.
SoVA’s first Little Slugger award recipient was Christina Dietz in spring 2014. Other recipients of the coveted award include: Chia Yen Gan, fall 2014; Antonella Crescimbeni, spring 2015; Maura Clark, fall 2015; and Julia Connelly, spring 2016.