Spring 2017 Cover Story: Abstracts of Memories

Photo by Vanessa Feng
Photo by Vanessa Feng

“Abstracted moments are the most playful and wispy in my paintings. That’s when I am dancing around the canvas and going with a gut intuition and feeling.” — Helen Maser

Helen Maser runs her hand over the copper leaf detailing on her self-portrait titled “Home Depot.” The massive 64 inches by 118 inches painting features a beautiful blonde in a white bodysuit holding a pipe to her chest. Set in the pipe aisle of Home Depot, she is surrounded by rows of plumbing and bright yellow streaks of light.

When I talk about my story, I do it through my paintings and then I don’t actually have to provide words to go along with it.

If you are lucky enough to be familiar with Helen and her artwork, you know the depth of emotions from her past experiences that she is able to convey through her pieces. Her kindness and charismatic demeanor are perfectly juxtaposed with her wisdom and empathy for others, which she’s possessed from a young age.

In May, Helen is graduating with a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts from the drawing and painting program, a BFA in sculpture and a minor in art history from the School of Visual Arts.

Helen spends upwards of 15 hours a day on campus working on her paintings and maintaining her former position as the president of the School of Visual Arts Student Council, which she created a year ago. If she isn’t on campus, she is working at the Woskob Family Gallery downtown, further exercising her love of the arts.

At a school known for its nationally ranked sports teams, cutting-edge science programs and a record-breaking alumni network, one may be unfamiliar with the stellar artists learning and teaching over in the Visual Arts Building.

Helen says the program isn’t lesser known for lack of talent, “There are so many talented people here. A lot of visiting artists go, ‘these undergraduates look like MFAs,’ and just nobody knows about it.”

For Helen, the decision to pick an art school came down to three options but Penn State soared above the rest after, like most of us, she toured the campus.

“I was able to go through the Visual Arts Building,” she says. “You walk in and it’s eclectic, but beautiful and colored. I just fell in love with it.”

It’s in Her Blood

Helen’s love of art is not just coming to fruition now that she is at Penn State. Having been born into a lineage of artists, the passion of fine arts is ingrained in her genetic makeup. Both her grandfather and her Aunt Julie on her mother’s side were talented artists.

“I was always a really artsy kid,” she says, mentioning how she used to make toy dolls out of beads.

Her first interaction with the illusion of art came at the age of three while she was sitting in front of the piano bench in the living room of her North Huntington, Pennsylvania home. She was staring up at a hand-drawn image of a tree alone on a hill. It was a black and white ink drawing done by her Aunt Julie and Helen wanted nothing more than to hold the picture and look at it closely.

“I would always ask my mom to take it down and she would tell me ‘no’ relentlessly because it was in a glass frame,” says Helen. But one day her mom decided to let her see it up close and Helen pressed her nose to the glass.

“I noticed that the branches and the leaves and the wood were all just lines and squiggles,” she says. “It was my first realization that you could create art in a masterful manner.”

Helen could recognize her aunt’s tree anywhere. In one of her art history classes, she learned about connoisseurship and identifying forgeries. They wanted the students to think about something they could identify anywhere and that tree is what she talked about.

I drew her tree a lot. I drew from her tree. I would copy it over and over again. I feel like that was how I learned from her.

Her grandfather, who was another artistic influence in her life, passed away after struggling with Alzheimer’s when Helen was four years old.

“I don’t think he ever remembered me,” she says. “Which is interesting talking about how all my work relates to memory.”

However, it is her Aunt Julie whom she wishes could see her accomplishments today. “If there were anyone in my family that I would have wanted to share everything I am doing with, it would have been her,” she says.

Her aunt passed away on August 4, 2012 at the age of 51 due to acute myeloid leukemia.

Every Christmas Eve, Helen’s family would celebrate together in her aunt’s living room. When she came home from hospice right before she died, they were gathered back in that living room but with her aunt in a hospital bed. “Yet again she brought us together but not the way we would have ever wanted it to be,” she says.

“She was definitely the reason—she was my first introduction to art,” says Helen.

Making Memories the Subject

The self-portrait, “Home Depot,” was painted from a photograph she posed for in the pipe aisle of Home Depot. Helen uses memories as her subjects, whether they are more straightforward reinterpretations or elaborated abstractions.

When she was four years old, she was with her parents in an aisle similar to the one from the painting. “The pipe aisle is just phallic in nature and it was right then and there that I remember having the sudden urge to explain to my mom and dad what had happened to me,” she says.

From the heartbreakingly young age from two to three, someone close to the family had been molesting Helen.

“I couldn’t quite articulate to my mom what I wanted to say because at that age you don’t really have the language for describing anything sexual in nature,” Helen says. Her mother asked her to draw it. “So I drew on, I think it was, the back of a receipt and she instantly knew.” Then, Helen says, she just protected her.

I refer to the pipes in my paintings as catalysts for memory exploration. Because it was in that instance that I felt the need to speak out.

After that day in the pipe aisle, her mother would take her away every other weekend when he would come to their house.

“She took me to her best friend Paula’s house,” she says. “Just that protection of being surrounded by two really strong, loving women, who also love and value other women, was such a safe place for me.”

I think that is so strange that I drew it for her and that became my escape from what had been happening to me. Now I use painting as my way to articulate everything I feel and what is going on in the world.

And for her father? “I don’t even think he knows what happened to me when I was younger,” says Helen. She says that the reason it is so hard for her to talk to her dad about what happened was because it was someone close to their family that had been abusing her.

“I tried to say it to him before, but I just don’t know how to begin,” she says.

She wonders if he knew what happened to her as a child, would he think differently on some of his political stances? Having voted for Donald Trump, Helen has a hard time understanding how he can support her artistic and activist endeavors, but then vote for a man that stood for the opposite of everything that she fought for. It felt like a personal strike against her and the people closest to her.

“I do love my dad. He supports everything I do, but it’s this constant conflict within myself. How can you love me so much, but not feel the love for humanity the way I do, and that empathy?” says Helen.

Creating Her Own Therapy

After that chapter of her life ended, she repressed the memory for years. It wasn’t until she was 12 years old at a sleepover with friends that the memory came back to her.

“I remember just laying down in my bed a certain way, facing this one wall,” says Helen. All of a sudden, all the things that had happened to her when she was younger came back to her. “I was so young and I didn’t know how to tell them because it was such a repressed memory.”

I had repressed it until I started painting about it.

She began blocking it out as much as she could. At school, it would randomly pop into her thoughts. “You never know what could be a trigger,” she says.

Every time Helen gets a sexual assault alert on her phone it’s the first thing she thinks about. She says that this is probably the case for everyone who is a victim of sexual assault.

“I used to cry about it every time I would talk about it,” she says. Now, painting has become her therapy and the more she paints about it, the less she cries.

Her paintings not only help her work through her personal history, but they allow her to make social critiques as well.

Coming to Penn State after the Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, and with what happened to her as a child, encouraged her to explore deeper into the nature of those events. Now she says her art of that same subject feels like a rebellion.

Her Painting Process

She often bases her pieces off of old photographs or photos of recreations from her childhood. “I do have very vivid memories from my young, young childhood,” she says.

Helen’s recent collection titled, “He Called Me Sexy Baby, But My Name is Helen,” was recently on display in the HUB-Robeson Art Alley. The collection featured eight pieces, including “Home Depot.” The collection deals with the topic of her assault.

One piece in particular is a re-imagination of a photograph of herself at the age of three. The painting is titled, “Baby Helen,” and is another massive work measuring 96 inches by 60 inches. Her main supplies are house paints, oil paints, acrylics, inks, airbrush, spray paint and gold, copper and silver leaves.

“When I work large like that, I feel like I dance around the canvas and it’s so fun,” says Helen. “Every stroke is big and playful, and it’s just so enjoyable to work that way.”

“Baby Helen” was the first in the collection, but her professor Helen O’Leary says that it was her first real painting. She completed the piece a year ago and while she had been painting for years, she agreed that this self-portrait was special and helped guide her to where she is today.

“It accessed something. It’s not just portraiture. It wasn’t just a painting that had the masterful exactitude I used to strive for,” Helen says. “It held so much personal history and baggage.”

Getting to a place where she was brave enough to express this part of her on a canvas was only possible with the help of her dear friend, and our Fall 2016 cover star, Michael Grasso.

Michael was the first person Helen talked to about pursuing this kind of work and creating the piece “Baby Helen.” “Our conversations and his interest and enthusiasm for what he saw it could be was so motivating and it was such a relief,” she says.

Helen says that the more she works on any given piece, the more she pulls away from the photo she is working off of and relies on her memory.

My moments of abstraction turn into a release from those memories,” she says. “It feels like a sort of transcendence.

One professor in the visual arts program that has helped Helen grow into the artist she is today is Bonnie Collura. During every conversation that she has with Collura, Helen says that she can feel herself learning and growing. “She cares so much about her students. She is unlike any educator that I’ve had,” says Helen.

When asked how long a painting of hers typically takes, she recalled the wise words of Professor Brian Alfred who said each piece of art took your entire life to create. Some paintings were executed in only four days, while others took an entire semester, however all of them stemmed from a lifetime of experiences.

“I am depicting my life, but also I am depicting my reinterpretation of my history,” she says. ”I am going back through and really analyzing everything and trying to understand why things happened the way they did.”

A Lesson in Empathy

Meeting Helen, with her kind and bubbly personality, you would never think that she experienced such an intense personal history.

“People look at me and think that I’m just a cute, blonde girl, and they don’t see any depth,” says Helen. “But my kindness is a result of struggle and learning how to deal with everything I’ve been through and that doesn’t make me naïve or ignorant.”

She attributes her overflowing empathy to her mother, Roberta.

“I think growing up around that constant awareness of other people’s lives and just being empathetic towards everyone—we can all learn that from Roberta,” she says.

There is one memory from when she was small enough to fit in the basket seat of the grocery store carts that she thinks epitomizes the lessons she has learned from her mother. “We were in line and she would always be like, ‘You never know what kind of day someone is having,’ and she would have me say something nice to the person in front of us,” she says.

Helen knows that people’s actions are often a result of what has happened to them and for that reason she strives to treat everyone with love and kindness.

I really try to go through life knowing that people don’t always tell you what has happened to them.

Off to Berlin!

It’s no surprise to anyone close to her that she has already landed a prestigious six-month-long internship position at the Takt Artist Residency in Berlin, Germany after graduation.

While she will take photos for the residency’s social media pages and work on her own art, she is most excited about working with artists from all over the world.

Her job is to meet artists at the train station when they arrive for their residency and show them around, then help them with anything they need.

“I don’t even know who I will be meeting yet, but I just know there will be at least one relationship or friendship developed that will be life changing,” says Helen. “I know I’m going to learn so much.”
Helen paints through memories but she also paints in a way that can relate to everyone who views her work. Her rich and vivid images are filled with a depth that leave you introspecting on your own history and on the society we live in. I know that Helen will continue to inspire others through her work and through personal interactions, no matter where she journeys to next.

You can find this story and many more in our Spring 2017 edition of Valley Magazine. It will be distributed on campus Monday through Thursday (4/10-4/13).