ITEM PHOTO BY SPENSER HASAK
Lynn artist Michael Aghahowa speaks about what inspires his art.
By BRIDGET TURCOTTE
LYNN — A Lynn artist with a knack for giving back to the community delivered the student commencement speech at his graduation from Montserrat College of Art Friday.
Michael Aghahowa, 23, and the first male in his family to graduate college, was chosen by his peers to deliver the speech during the commencement ceremonies.
Montserrat, located in Beverly, is a nonprofit, independent art school accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design and by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Inc.
When he started school, he quickly found the lonely artist stereotype to be true, he said. His classmates kept to themselves and he found it difficult to form relationships. In an effort to get people together, he created flyers inviting everyone to his apartment for pancakes.
“I figured if people won’t come out for each other, they’ll definitely come out for breakfast. So I invited everyone to my house,” he said.
The pancake feast was well attended and quickly became a weekly tradition. Even as he crossed the stage at graduation, freshmen he had never met knew him as the pancake man, he said.
“I’ve always been about getting people together,” he said. “Everyone has differences. We’re all different. But as long as we can understand each other we can respect each other.”
The philosophy is what drives much of his work.
The paintings featured in his senior show included a portrait of his family sitting around the dinner table. He’s depicted as a younger child to express that time can change. Before the internet, he said his family would more commonly sit down and have a conversation. As someone who values a sense of community, family dinners are something he wishes he could get back.
Another piece is a self-portrait inspired by Jim Crow propaganda with large red lips.
“These pieces — I feel like if I make them about me and you can get an understanding for how I feel, you can respect me,” he said.
In the midst of pursuing a degree in illustration and painting, Aghahowa, who grew up on Sachem Street, volunteers at Raw Art Works and Gregg Neighborhood House.
A RAW alumnus, he was first exposed to the program in middle school, but remembers its annual block party from long before.
“Art therapy is an interest of mine,” he said. “I really like working with children. I can walk down the street and see a green car against a red building and get excited about it. Kids look at things like that and they get excited too. They have that creative perspective. Plus I can just be goofy and it’s fun. It’s a break from hanging out with adults.”
Aghahowa was partly inspired to create art by cartoons. He said he wanted to create something that made people happy the same way that cartoons made him happy as a child.
Working with children in kindergarten through grade 8 at the Gregg House, Aghahowa said it feels good to be a positive male influence.
“A lot of these kids are thinking about college and they have so many hopes and dreams,” he said. “For them to see me doing something so nontraditional — I just keep telling them that if there’s something they want to do, if they want to go to school, they should do it.”
Montserrat, though a scholarship fund provided by New England Biolabs, provides scholarships each year to students from RAW.
A volunteer in more than seven of RAW’s programs, he most recently played a part in creating the HOME exhibit, which was unveiled Thursday. His piece, a key with the word zesty printed on its side and a crown as the tooth, is representative of his mother and grandmother because he was raised by queens with zesty attitudes, he said.
Aghahowa said as he and his classmates move on with their lives, he hopes they’ll take the values of respecting people for their differences and keeping an open mind, and spread them throughout their communities.
Bridget Turcotte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @BridgetTurcotte.