Ceramic masks reveal students' pandemic emotions

September 30, 2020

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — On a campus known for hands-on education, a unique hands-on art project has given students an outlet for creatively expressing their feelings about the COVID-19 pandemic.

About 80 students enrolled in Ceramics 1 classes at Pennsylvania College of Technology crafted clay masks for “Regarding the Mask …,” an exhibit of nearly 170 art pieces being displayed on a fence surrounding The Victorian House in the center of campus. The location of the artwork — wrapping around a home to evoke 2020’s housebound focus — is as symbolic as the pieces themselves.

The ceramic masks feature a range of messages from lighthearted inspirations to deeply felt disappointments. Some lament the loss of cherished pastimes, while others celebrate newfound joys or thank essential workers. Many offer encouragement to keep pressing forward with safety protocols for the benefit of all.

The initiative is the brainchild of David A. Stabley, instructor of ceramics and wood sculpture, who envisioned the art project as an emotional channel for students as they navigate the new terrain of a global pandemic.

“Wearing masks is the ‘new normal,’” Stabley said. “Most of us aren’t used to having face coverings. They can feel uncomfortable, emotions are hard to read and communications can be more difficult.

A ceramic mask hangs on a fence outside a Victorian house

Drawing inspiration from Scandinavian folk art, graphic design student Kaylee N. Masullo, of Bellefonte, said, "I wanted to convey a sense of comfort in home … there is much to appreciate about our homes."

IMAGE: Penn College

“Some ideas that could be expressed on the masks are feelings about the situation we’re all in and how this has affected them personally: how wearing a mask and social distancing have impacted their social interactions and daily functions. Positive messages and awareness could be communicated, while foul language and political messaging would be discouraged.”

Stabley hoped the initiative would stir a sense of community among the student artists as well as the campus community as they stroll along the fence, taking in the various designs.

Penn College’s ceramics classes serve as art electives for all majors, so a strong cross section of students enjoys the hands-on art form as it complements their studies with its parallel concepts of creative thinking, problem-solving and attention to detail.

Dominique “Nikki” Hardy, of Muncy, drew a peaceful lake and mountain scene on her mask to honor her rediscovery of nature in 2020.

“I discovered kayaking,” said the business administration: management concentration student. “It keeps me sane. I looked into it at the beginning of COVID and ended up buying a kayak. I’ve kayaked at Bald Eagle State Park. I like the calmness of the water. I was happy to get back in nature.”

Erik C. Huey’s thoughts drifted to missing out on his favorite pastime: summer concerts with his favorite band.

“I had a lot of concert plans this summer, including three nights with Phish in Atlantic City on the boardwalk,” said the building automation technology student from Frenchtown, New Jersey. Huey decorated his mask with Phish’s iconic red donuts and positive words: “Spread Love. Stay Positive. Be Happy. Listen to Phish.”

Alexa C. Henry, a graphic design student from Conshohocken, spent time photographing closed businesses in her borough this summer, and that inspired her mask’s words: “Sorry, We’re Closed.”

“I was thinking about all the businesses closing down, especially small businesses that closed near where I live,” Henry said. “As for this project, I think it’s interesting to take time to sit down and visualize and project an image. I’ve done that for other projects, but not for this time that we’re in, so it was a good exercise.”

Kevin C. Osczepinski, a graphic design student from Matamoras, chose to give a shout-out on his mask to essential workers. Osczepinski’s parents are middle and high school educators, and he worked for FedEx this summer, so he’s aware of the pressures of being on the front line during a pandemic.

The words “The Rona” and an illustration of the coronavirus are shared on the mask of Bri Milden, an information technology: network specialist concentration student from Nazareth.

“It’s a true story from work,” Milden said. “I was dropping off packages at a business and there was a customer there, leaning over the counter, and when I walked in wearing my mask, he looked at me and said, ‘You don’t have to wear that mask in here. I don’t have the Rona.’ I was in the mode of wearing my mask to care for others. I think even if it’s not comfortable or fashionable, it helps everyone.”

Abigail H. Finfrock, a web and interactive media student from Mansfield, inscribed her mask with the words: “It’s Not About You! Keep others safe … and hope they do the same.”

Of the “Regarding the Mask …” project, Finfrock said, “I thought it was a cool idea. It’s a different way to get our voices out there. It’s definitely something different; I haven’t seen anything like this.”

Each student in the Ceramics 1 classes made two clay masks and could decorate them both or share a mask with a friend to embellish. Once completed, yarn pieces were tied onto the masks to resemble ear straps that handily doubled as hangars for the art installation on the campus fence.

“I thought the mask project was an appropriate way to start the semester off, with most students having just returned from their COVID-altered summer experiences and new to the practice of wearing masks on campus,” said Deborah L. Stabley, an adjunct art faculty member who also instructs the Ceramics 1 classes. “The colorful ceramic masks provided an outlet for some much-needed venting, as well as a background for some lighthearted messages. I love that they are ‘wrapped’ around The Victorian House, providing more meaning to the project, and visible for all to see.”

The Stableys expect the “Regarding the Mask …” exhibit to be on display through October.

To learn more about Penn College’s graphic design and advertising art majors, visit www.pct.edu/art or call the School of Business, Arts & Sciences at 570-327-4521.

For more about the college, a national leader in applied technology education, visit www.pct.edu, email admissions@pct.edu or call toll-free at 800-367-9222.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated September 30, 2020