School of Visual Arts shop staff create special award for students who bat it out of the park

“The Shop,” as it is fondly known in the Penn State School of Visual Arts (SoVA), isn’t just a room filled with tools and equipment. It is also a classroom in and of itself. Serving as the core of activity for a variety of classes and individual projects from beginner to graduate level, it embodies the sense of community in SoVA. Students hone their skills under the guidance of Matthew Olson, assistant teaching professor, and Mark Risso, laboratory mechanic.

In spring 2014, Olson was working on a series of wooden bats when he and Risso decided to establish an award that would recognize students who excelled in their work in the shop through their leadership, dedication and desire for learning new processes.

“I think this award is very special to Matt and me in part because when recipients spend as much time as they do in the shop, we get to know them both in our capacity as educators, but also as individuals,” said Risso. “Crafting an award specific to each student is a fulfilling way to express the pride I feel in working with them.”

In an ode to Major League Baseball’s Silver Slugger Award, Olson and Risso decided to call the award “The Littler Slugger” award. It ultimately took the form of a small wooden bat and a custom holding device. As former Penn State art students themselves, Olson and Risso know first-hand the integral role the SoVA shop plays in a student’s learning process.

“Although there isn’t a monetary component to the award, there certainly is a sense of accomplishment, pride and even a little unpredicted emotion that occurs when it is received,” said Olson.

That emotion may come, in part, because the award presentation is a total surprise. Olson and Risso typically enlist the help of a previous recipient to call the winner to the shop, where they are presented a certificate, the bat and a unique holding device designed just for them. Leading up to the award’s presentation, Olson and Risso often spend hours working on their portion of the award, which can be a challenge considering the recipient is frequently in the shop. Olson creates the bat, and Risso designs and fabricates the apparatus that embraces the bat. Although the bat’s dimensions remain relatively the same, its material is not limited to wood. Like the bat, the bat holder is custom-made and often embodies attributes of the individual being awarded.

“Part of the enjoyment is surprising the winners; it is at this moment that I know the true validity of the award is experienced by the student. When you take the time to make something special, it’s typically something one-of-a-kind,” said Olson. “There is an enormous sense of satisfaction seeing the expression on the face of someone you’ve given a gift to. Making something for a person can be so meaningful. There’s a lot of care, thought and love put into it, and the recipient will know that you really put the effort into making something just for them.”

The spring 2023 recipient, receiving the 16th Little Slugger Award, was Selena Donado, who graduated with a B.A. in art. The design for the award was inspired by a piece that Selena made that was recently displayed on campus.

“Selena’s enthusiastic attitude and devotion to making was instrumental to her success this semester,” said Olson.

Baseball bat in tent-like holder

Christopher Brogan Willis, who received his B.F.A. with a sculpture focus in December 2022, was the fall 2022 recipient. “He was the student that stood out amongst all of the many hard-working students in SoVA,” said Olson. “Over the course of his last few months at Penn State, Brogan pushed himself to learn new skills both inside and outside the shop, and through this motivation, his artwork has taken new directions.”

In keeping with the “unique holder” tradition, the holding device for Willis’s Little Slugger award mimics the aesthetic and contraption-style devices used in the projects he worked on in the shop.

Matt Olson, Christopher Brogan Willis, Mark Risso

“When I received the award, at first I was in shock because there are so many other talented artists in SoVA that I thought were more deserving of the award. This award really made me think that all my hard work paid off. The countless hours, the early mornings and the late nights, were getting noticed by others around me,” said Willis, who will pursue his M.F.A. at the University of South Florida in the fall. “Receiving this award was an honor and will continue to be one of my best accomplishments as it truly showed me that if I keep pushing myself, no matter how hard things get, others will take notice and the work will pay off.”

Previous recipients of the Little Slugger Award include: Christina Dietz (spring 2014), Chia Yen Gan (fall 2014), Antonella Crescimbeni (spring 2015), Maura Clark (fall 2015), Julia Connelly (spring 2016), Jackie Lawlor (fall 2016), Bobby Hricko (spring 2017), Sophie Najjar (fall 2017), Danni Spewak (spring 2018), Ryan Wagner (fall 2018), Andrew Storck (spring 2019), Zack Stein (fall 2019), Greta Miller (fall 2021) and Victoria Oishi (spring 2022).