Former All-American pass rusher Aaron Maybin played six years in the NFL. He was a first round pick out of Penn State after recording 12 sacks his redshirt sophomore season that ultimately resulted in a Rose Bowl loss to USC. These are facts that might matter to the common fan — but there’s far more that lies underneath the helmet.
Maybin is no longer a football player; the former Nittany Lion standout is a brilliant artist. But his art doesn’t merely exist for a wandering eye to gaze at — it exists to evoke real, human emotion. For in Maybin’s paintings lie messages — ones that send a clear message, yet aren’t easy to digest. Because it’s Maybin’s goal to get people to not only process the images and their undertones, but he wants them to take action. He wants to, for lack of a better phrase, start a conversation about very real, prevalent issues.
That’s what brought him back to Happy Valley.
“I was really proud when Ann reached out to me to put on this show,” Maybin said. “With Penn State being such a diverse university, but even in our diversity, there being an underrepresentation of the African-American narrative, it’s important in environments like this for these ideas, images, and discussions to take place.”
He wants his gallery to start those conversations — not because it’s easy to do so, but because it matters. “Not in silos where we’re comfortable,” Maybin said. “But out in the open where we’re forced to acknowledge our implicit bias.”
Maybin’s artwork is visually stunning — that’s part of its appeal. But, its message is just as clear; every single one of Maybin’s pieces tells a different story — one of pain, suffering, or fighting. It’d be easy to portray things that are easy to discuss or talk about — but if that was the case, what would be Maybin’s point? He wants society to stop running from these difficult conversations.
“When Barack Obama was first elected, I was here,” Maybin said. “I remember I was sitting in Nittany Apartments with all of my roommates — me, NaVorro Bowman, Willie Harriott, were all sitting in the same room watching the inauguration, and I remembered that collective moment of fear right before he walked up and took the stage.”
The 2008 Presidential Election struck a chord in Maybin’s eyes. For him, those same mixed emotions revolving around fear that made him ponder the divisive nature of our country haven’t subsided — maybe they’ve even become stronger. “You never forget those moments,” Maybin said. “So, what I think about is how as soon as [Obama] got elected, we were kind of forced by the common person to believe we moved into this post-racial society where issues of racism, sexism, and xenophobia, and religious persecution don’t exist anymore.”
Simply look at where we’re at. Maybin chalks up this obvious divide — a rift in our nation, so to speak — to a few things. He thinks that part of the issue is social media; sure, the various social platforms may connect us, but they’ve been just as integral in allowing people a different kind of platform — one that allows people to merely “retreat back into their silos,” and lose touch.
He’s certainly not wrong.
Issues of race and religion aren’t easy to talk about. Yes, there’ll be discussions on campus and meetings among certain groups, but typically those can represent those silos Maybin spoke about. Only people who want to discuss these issues will go down and do so. But often, it’s the people who don’t actively want to talk about it that could benefit from conversation the most.
Through the collective power of art, Maybin wants to get people out of those silos and having these conversations. That’s how we move forward as a society. As Maybin said, it all starts on a college campus; this is the arena where these tough discussions need to be had. While his art serves an important purpose for Penn State’s African-American population, he strives to affect a different demographic all-together.
“I’m so glad the people who are here right now can see my work and take away this message,” Maybin said. “But they don’t need to have these discussions. I want people who need to have these discussions to come down and feel these emotions so that they can start having these tough conversations.”
Of course, that’s easier said than done, but isn’t it worth it? What better way to foster a climate of understanding or civil discourse than from a simple picture and a message. Even to students who didn’t know the Robeson Gallery existed, Maybin wants those people to give his artwork a try. Because that’s how we move forward as a society, and that’s exactly what took this former All-American back to where it all started.
To those thinking Maybin’s merely a former football player being provocative for the sake of being provocative are wrong — he’s been the same person even when he became the 11th overall pick of the 2009 NFL Draft. “The transition [from football to art]was just in a time,” Maybin said. “The difficult part of the transition was that those in the art community wanted to discredit me. It’s not until you read my story and you learn that while I was here at Penn State, I majored in integrative arts. Before I went to Penn State in middle school, I was taking college-level courses at Maryland Institute College of Art. I did my first commission job for the state of Maryland when I was 11-years old.”
There’s nothing fake about Maybin’s platform or his message. He could’ve never played a down of competitive football in his life, and he’d still be the artist you see today. His impact in the Baltimore community far exceeds anything he did on a football field — that’s because those are the relationships that matter. He’s making a difference in his home, and he wants to do the same in his home away from home, so to speak.
“The kids in the city of Baltimore, not only do they know me, but they have my number. They can call me,” Maybin said. “Fans burned my jersey when I left Buffalo. But these connections, with these kids, that’s real.”
Football is temporary, but the impact Maybin’s been able to have as an activist will last. Honestly, there aren’t enough Aaron Maybin’s in the world — there just so happens to be one, and he’s trying to make a difference everywhere he goes.
So, stop by Maybin’s collection at the Robeson Gallery even if you’ve never seen a piece of art in your life. You might walk out a changed person, or you may simply want to have a conversation you’ve never wanted to have before. That right there is exactly the impact Maybin wants to have.