Life, Death and Research

Mark Anner and Jobany Valesquez, the son of Febe Elizabeth Valesquez, who died in a the same bombing in El Salvador that wounded Anner. Jobany was six months old at the time his mother was killed. The photo was taken in front of the exact spot where the bombing occurred on the 25th anniversary of the bombing. A series of events were planned that day to celebrate the lives of those who died.
Penn State researcher Mark Anner and Jobany Valesquez, the son of Febe Elizabeth Valesquez, who died in the same bombing in El Salvador that wounded Anner. Jobany was six months old at the time his mother was killed. The photo was taken in front of the exact spot where the bombing occurred on the 25th anniversary of the bombing. A series of events were planned that day to celebrate the lives of those who died.

When you write about Penn State research, you have to be ready for a lot of knowledge and passion, maybe some controversy, and occasionally a big word or two that you pretend  you understand during the interview, but immediately try to find its definition on your iPhone as you run back to the office to start the story. Not that this has ever happened to me.

You learn a lot. But some of the lessons never make it into the story.

Here is the challenge I heard in the work of Mark Anner, associate professor of labor and employment relations and the director of the Center for Global Workers’ Rights: Would you be willing to take a stand for something you believe in?  Let’s go a step farther: Would you be willing to risk your life for something you believe in?

Anner and a colleague recently wrote a report on garment workers in El Salvador. These workers are finding themselves targets of violence and intimidation by corrupt union officials, factory owners, and even street gang members. But violence and intimidation are no stranger to Anner, who worked as a labor activist in El Salvador in the 1980s and 1990s. Early one morning in 1989, a group of armed men broke into his home and abducted him. He was taken to their headquarters, blindfolded, handcuffed, and tossed into a basement jail. For a period of time, his captors did not offer him food or water and forced him to stand for an extended time between interrogation sessions.

While Anner was released in about a day, some of his fellow unionists were held much longer, beaten and even raped.

Six weeks later, he was seriously wounded when paramilitary forces bombed the union cafeteria where he and friends were meeting. Ten people died and scores were wounded.

“Three union friends who were sitting with me at the time were killed, including a top union leader, Febe Elizabeth Velasquez,” Anner writes in the preface of his book, Solidarity Transformed.

The injuries he sustained during the attack created lingering health problems, he adds.

But this hasn’t stopped Anner from returning to El Salvador and continuing his research, work that he hopes will bring justice and prosperity to groups of people that often have no voice.

I should add that Anner did not mention any of this during our interview. I found most of the details of the attack afterward. However, the last few minutes of that interview did bring things home for me. In most releases, I try to mention all the researchers and collaborators who helped out on a study. Unfortunately, for the story on El Salvador garment workers I could not. Anner has colleagues who are still in that country and the release of their names could endanger them.

That was a quick way to put my day in perspective.



A Taste for Art in the Big Apple

Last week Research On the Road motored down Route 80 to the Big Apple for two events. The concept of both? Simply this: a number of our School of Visual Arts faculty members live and work in NYC, regularly traveling to Penn State to teach.  We thought it would be inspiring to shine a spotlight on a few of these commuting teacher-artists and introduce the public (alumni and non-alums, alike) to a taste of their diverse artistic styles and themes.

Designed in the French Renaissance style in 1892 by architect Henry Hardenbergh, the Art Students League building is a designated New York City Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The first event featured Penn State professor of art Helen O’Leary, giving a presentation on her work as part of the  “Artist’s Talk” series at the venerable Art Students League of New  York.  Founded in 1875, the League has been instrumental in shaping America’s legacy in the fine arts. The list of their famous students and teachers is nothing short of a Who’s Who of American Artists. (If you’re interested, this short film about the League’s storied history is fascinating!)

O’Leary’s talk was titled “Serenity and Abandon:  Drawing on the Physical and Emotional Landscapes of Ireland.”

IMG_4923 As the title suggests, she discussed what it was like growing up in rural Ireland, and how the physical and emotional landscapes of that homeland have influenced the themes and aesthetics of her artwork.

O’Leary’s presentation took place in the Phyllis Harriman Mason Gallery on the second floor of the League’s landmark building on West 57th Street.

In particular, Helen spoke of the impact of her life experiences on her work: the beauty of her family’s seaside farm in County Wexford and her mother’s fierce determination to keep the farm going after Helen’s father’s tragic death.

IMG_5723Helen emphasized the way certain themes and values of her childhood still permeate her work today. Among other things, her art conveys an appreciation of craft and craftmanship, a love of tools, structures and supports, and a celebration of the creative—and, at times, tragicomic—ways people “make do and get by” in life under difficult circumstances.

The talk was attended by about 30 to 35 people  who were riveted by Helen’s hour-long presentation. The volley of questions and answers with attendees at the end included a brief discussion about how Irish writers, including Samuel Beckett and James Joyce, have portrayed their native country. These bright and quirky moments of audience dialogue were (to me, a native New  Yorker) so quintessentially New York that it was a perfect end-note to a stimulating evening at the Art Students League.

The following evening Helen was joined by two other NYC-based Penn State colleagues—assistant professors Rudy Shepherd and Brian Alfred—for a talk and reception at Mixed Greens, the Chelsea gallery that represents Rudy Shepherd.

Another sophisticated design for us by Penn State visual communicator Erin Wease

Thirty or so attendees mixed and mingled in the loft-like gallery space before the talks got started.


Brian Alfred spoke first. A Penn State alumnus himself and a former student of Helen O’Leary’s (as was Mixed Greens director, Heather Darcy Bhandari) Brian had just returned from Art Basel Miami Beach, an international art show for modern and contemporary works, where his animation work titled “UNDER thunder AND Fluorescent LIGHTS” was selected for exhibition both inside the Miami Beach Convention Center and outside on a 7000-square-foot projection wall of the Frank Gehry designed New World Center in SoundScape Park.

unnamed-1 2

As a Penn State article on Brian explains, “Under Thunder and Florescent Lights, which was scored in collaboration with the artist and the band Storm & Stress, is in line with Alfred’s current work, which has themes of auto racing, globalism, transportation, and speed as a starting point.”

Cargo, 2014 acrylic on canvas 78 × 68 in

In response to audience questions, Brian also discussed his passion for integrating music into his work, as well as the success of his self-taught animation pieces in large-scale public art installations . For instance, his animation “Help Me” was featured on the Times Square NBC Astrovision screen as part of Creative Time’s 59th Minute, and a documentary about Alfred, called ArtFlick 001, was featured at the Sundance Film Festival.

Next to speak was Rudy Shepherd. Like his colleagues, Shepherd works in a lot of different media, including sculpture, drawing, painting, video and performance.  Originally intending to become a doctor, Shepherd took a sculpture class in his Junior year at Wake Forest University and his passion for art was ignited.

IMG_4994Rudy’s recent work is often inspired by world events as reported in the news. Rather than being dogmatic or distancing, his political art is approachable, emotionally engaging and hopeful.

One example of the intention behind his work is his series of public sculptures called The Black Rock Negative Energy Absorbers. As this article points out, Shepherd’s hope is for these works to “to expunge negative energy—which may come in the form of prejudice, racism, or even quotidian disdain” —from the people walking by the piece. His goal, he has said, was to create “moments of collective reflection” that would help humanize and heal.


This video from his Disaster Fatigue solo show gives a feel for the impact of his recent work:

Last to speak was Helen O’Leary.  In this setting, she shared more about  the effects of the economic crisis in Ireland after the banking boom of the 90s and her quest to document its impact on the Irish people and landscape.  In addition to her recent work, she also shared some images that were part of her collaboration with her daughter, photographer Eva O’Leary.


I hope you’ll take a moment to watch this video of Helen describing the themes of her work, including survival, inventiveness, armor, and a literal and metaphorical process of unraveling and reclaiming the raw material of art and life.

While the crowd for this gallery event wasn’t as grand as our packed concert hall in Nashville last month, it was convivial and intimate—the perfect scale for three personal and engaging presentations by the artists and for attendees to chat and really connect with the artists and with one another during the reception.

Melissa Beattie-Moss with two attendees, Mixed Greens gallery NYC


"The artists. Bravi!"
Thank you to photographer Matt Weinstein who attended the event and allowed me to use some of his wonderful shots here!

Warm thanks go out to Brian, Helen and Rudy for their involvement with our first, but hopefully not last, Research On the Road event in New York City. It was a treat for all who attended to meet and listen to all three of you, and together you powerfully represented the high calibre of talented and dedicated faculty in our School of Visual Arts.

After logging many miles across New England, the South, and the Empire State this semester, Research On the Road will cool our heels here in State College briefly during the holidays, but we’re already hard at work planning some intriguing public engagement events for spring semester. Which Penn State faculty members will be in the spotlight next? You’ll have to wait until the new year to find out. Happy holidays to all!


A headline act in Music City

There’s seeing Nashville—and then there’s taking Nashville by storm with Jerry Zolten.

10390022_10152825535492086_8165040390046874029_nThis is a story of the latter experience.

Jerry Zolten and Melissa Beattie-Moss in Nashville landmark, Ernest Tubbs Record Shop

In late November, Research On the Road headed to Music City where Zolten—Associate Professor of Communication Arts & Sciences and American Studies at Penn State Altoona, as well as a veteran music producer and historian—was scheduled to give two presentations I’d arranged as part of our traveling public engagement series.

The first, on November 21st, was a talk at the renowned Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, TN. Hats off to the center’s director, Greg Reish, for hosting us at what turned out to be an enjoyable talk and lively exchange with the MTSU students and faculty who attended!

Jerry Zolten addressing MTSU community
Jerry Zolten addressing MTSU community

It had already been a big day by the time we got to Murfreesboro. Early that morning, Jerry was interviewed by none other than famed country music radio disc jockey Bill Cody, host of “Coffee, Country and Cody” on the most popular country station in the world (and home of the Grand Ole Opry broadcasts) WSM. As if that wasn’t enough excitement, the show was broadcasting live that morning from The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Bill Cody and Jerry Zolten chatting live on-air from The Country Music Hall of Fame

The interview focused on promoting Jerry’s “Special Program” in the Hall of Fame’s beautiful Ford Theater the following day, a talk titled From Hillbilly to Rockabilly: The Country Roots of Rock & Roll. 

GenPubNashvilleROTR 2It’s worth mentioning that our event poster drew much praise for its Hatch Show Print inspired design. Credit goes to the talented Erin Wease, Penn State Visual Communications Specialist, who captured the Nashville vibe perfectly for us!

10344785_10152827821777086_3892891718796336215_nAs the daughter of a retired typographer and graphic designer, I’ll digress for a moment, if I may:  Hatch Show Print is Music City’s fascinating historic letterpress shop founded in 1879.  Now located within the Hall of Fame itself, they’ve turned out some of this country’s most iconic images of county musicians and concerts, from handbills and posters to limited editions and art books.


Thanks to master printer and Hatch head honcho Jim Sherradan for the behind-the-scenes tour of the print shop. A real treat!

Jim Sherradan, left, with Jerry Zolten

We had been working closely with a bunch of terrific folks to make this event take shape;  as the day drew near the excitement was palpable. Heartfelt thanks go out to Nashville Penn Staters alumni chapter president Paul Anderson, vice president Lisa Fults and treasurer Megan Hershey for helping to turn out the Blue & White faithful—as well as some Penn State alums who had rarely before attended a Penn State event after graduating. We were especially happy to see them reconnect with Penn State at a Research On the Road event!

Jerry Zolten kicking off his talk at the Hall of Fame on November 22, 2014

It was really gratifying to see the theater at Ford Hall filling up with attendees in the minutes before the presentation.  We had at least 150 people in the hall. If you ever wondered if the ten-gallon hat was for real, I can assure you it is. Try not to sit behind one of those fellas if you want a good view!

I also need to give a shout out to the amazing staff at the Hall of Fame who helped this dream collaboration take shape.  A great big thank you goes out to Michael Gray, Ali Tonn, Abi Tapia, and many others!

My own brief Nashville stage moment as I welcomed the crowd and acknowledged the many Penn Staters in the audience.









Jerry’s a real pro as a public speaker and his passion for his subject is contagious. The hour-long presentation was a huge success by any measure. The crowd laughed, tapped their toes and even sang along with (and clapped for) the fabulous performance clips he shared.

That evening, we celebrated the event’s success over dinner with a mix of Hall of Fame staff, Nashville alumni chapter board members and local music producers.


Nashville alumni chapter members who swore to me that they were wearing Penn State shirts under their Nashville Predators jerseys. They were all headed to the hockey arena straight after dinner!

During a Research On the Road trip packed with memorable moments, one more bears mentioning. Among his many career highlights, Jerry Zolten is credited with helping to  resurrect the career of the legendary Grammy-winning a cappella gospel quartet, the Fairfield Four, producing two CDs with them, Wreckin’ the House/Live at Mt. Hope (Dead Reckoning) and  Beautiful Stars (Lost Highway) with  their bass singer Isaac Freeman.

Though the original quartet members no longer perform, they passed the baton to four singers who, as the new Fairfield Four, are continuing the group’s legacy. They’ve recently recorded a concert called “Rock My Soul”  performing with  Lucinda Williams, Lee Ann Womack, Buddy Miller, Amos Lee and other luminaries, for a 2015 broadcast on PBS.

The Fairfield Four, plus two more

Thanks to Jerry’s close association with the group, we were able to stop by a recording studio on Music Row—the Nashville area that’s home to hundreds of music industry-related businesses— to listen in as they recorded tracks for their upcoming CD.  A very exciting and quintessentially Nashville experience indeed.

From the green mountains of Vermont to the honky-tonks of Nashville…what’s next for Research On the Road this semester? One more adventure. Watch this space for a recap after we take a bite of the Big Apple with three Penn State Visual Arts faculty members next week!

Coming soon…

%d bloggers like this: