On a whitewashed table in a cosy studio lay wood pieces in different sizes – large and small, some painted and others in their raw state. Helen O’Leary deftly places and joins these wood pieces to form a unique painting – of wood, paint and thread – that illustrates the story of how she survived growing up on an Irish farm.
“I wanted a painting that would defy the structures that were traditionally given to it,” O’Leary explains, adding that as a history painter through memoir, she enjoys the idea of “knitting” with wood.
“I speak with this language that is so physically hard to bend and I make it fluid.” With that, O’Leary slots a wooden piece in her intricate yet evocative painting.
O’Leary is the recipient of the 2018-19 American Academy in Rome fellowship – a prestigious award given to exceptional American scholars, writers, artists and designers to live and work in Rome.
The home base for this luminary? The School of Visual Arts (SoVA) at The Pennsylvania State University.
O’Leary is Professor of Art at SoVA, where in 2020, she supported her faculty’s move to extend funding of second-year Master of Fine Arts candidates — who were struggling without access to an intellectual community, large studio, woodshops, scanners, darkrooms, welding and casting equipment, kilns and wheels, when the university closed — for another year. This allowed many students to continue working on their projects, a lifeline that has become a national model for other graduate visual arts programmes grappling with how to best serve their students.
Such thoughtfulness explains why Ceramics at Penn State is rated #6 among America’s best graduate schools in US News and World Report 2020-21 rankings. Audrey An, a ceramics graduate student, feels that is where the SoVA shines the most – through their commitment to and in support of its students.
“When I was searching for MFA programmes, my list included a large number of schools with faculty members who similarly engage in my research interests, facilities that would assist my projects, a personal private studio and a generous amount of funding. This additional year with funding speaks to how I made one of the greatest decisions when I chose to study here,” An enthuses.
Home of celebrated faculty members
At SoVA, there is no shortage of awards and industry links. Faculty members are practising artists with deep connections to art communities in New York City, Philadelphia, Washington DC and other large urban venues.
Besides O’Leary – who has been honoured by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and with residencies from Yaddo, among others — celebrated faculty members include Professor of Art Bonnie Collura (2021 International Sculpture Centre Outstanding Educator Award). On the Graphic Design side, Associate Professor Ryan Russell won the 58th American Graphic Design Award, Graphic Design USA and Honourable Mention at the 2020 Ecuador Biennial. Assistant Professor of Graphic Design Huiwon Lim won the next work environment competition in the Collaboration Spaces category in 2020 and was a finalist in the Engagement and Culture category in 2021.
Resources and facilities are as top-of-the-range as SoVA’s faculty members. There are 15 buildings that include gallery/exhibition spaces, special subject libraries and specialised studios. Ceramic students can go to the SoVA Ceramics Studio, to make and finish their work with state-of-the-art equipment and kilns.
The SoVA Makerspace – another facility located within the Visual Arts Building that incorporates the latest technology such as the CNC router, laser cutter and 3D printing at large scale — lets students print concrete and clay, as well as a wide range of traditional media. On top of these, two portable iPad-based scanners, a stationary Microsoft Kinect-based 3D scanner and 15 computer workstations with 3D modelling, graphic design, and video editing software are available for student use as well.
MFA students can take advantage of the many world-class resources there. Source: The Pennsylvania State University
When excellent faculty, resources and facilities are put together, it is little wonder these students thrive at the SoVA. Boldly and creatively, they are shaping awareness and changing the way of how the world is seen, experienced and understood. For example, Blake Thresher’s thesis work entitled “White After Dark” brought to light the forgotten and obscured history of sundown towns.
Studying at the SoVA means you become part of Penn State too, a major cultural centre between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. If you have a BA or BFA in Visual Arts and Design, aged 22 to 36 years old, have sufficient English proficiency and relevant work experience in the field and/or exhibit record, the SoVA warmly invites you to take a look at their MFA in Art.
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