Visual arts professor’s prolific spring highlighted with two prized fellowships

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Helen O’Leary, professor of art in Penn State’s School of Visual Arts, has been awarded the MacDowell Fellowship and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowship.

The prestigious fellowships round out a prolific stretch for O’Leary, which includes four exhibits internationally and domestically.

O’Leary’s renowned and unmistakable work uses reclaimed wood fragments that are knitted into three-dimensional constructions painted using pigmentation techniques and recipes that date back to the 12th century.

The Irish-born artist gains inspiration from her childhood in County Wexford, Ireland, while exploring her experiences in America. O’Leary has taught at Penn State since 1991 and said that her pedagogy and art are intertwined with one inspiring and informing the other.

“My work is autobiographical, and I pull from the idea of memoir and resistance as a woman, which makes my work deeply founded in feminism,” O’Leary said. “The process of undoing and redoing is part of the language I use in my work. I deconstruct to reconstruct and view the paintings as female armor.”

Her work has been described as reconfigured armatures from found wood that blur the boundaries between object and image and construction and restoration. They refashion studio castoffs into elegiac stoic abstractions bearing echoes of a poignant past.

O’Leary will continue her work this spring during her MacDowell fellowship where artists from 30 states and 14 countries will gather to collaborate and inspire news works.

Later in the summer, she will be a fellow at the New Jersey State Council on the Arts’ Individual Artists Fellowship Program. O’Leary will be a part of the largest cohort of artists since the program began more than 30 years ago.

“The interdisciplinary nature of these fellowships is illuminating and exciting,” O’Leary said. “The residencies get me to think in an expansive way. It feeds me as an artist, as a teacher and it informs how I see the world.”

In addition to the fellowships, O’Leary has work on display in four shows:

  • Reclaiming a Space,” The Irish Arts Center in New York City, Jan. 29–June 23
  • (re)Focus,” University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Jan. 27–April 20
  • lucent,” Wexford Arts Centre in Wexford, Ireland, opening June 15
  • A Trick of Light or Distance,” Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, April 3–July 24

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