Helen Perham standing in front of her poster of selfies

With her art, Helen Perham ’18 becomes part of something greater than her selfie

May 16, 2018

When Helen Perham ’18 spent four months studying abroad at The Umbra Institute in Perugia, Italy, she wanted an inexpensive and accessible way to stay in touch with family and friends. So on Jan. 7, 2017, during her first week in Italy, she posted a selfie and caption on Instagram: “broke the potato chip bowl at the bar tonight.”

Perham’s posts soon became a daily ritual, and morphed into something bigger: a yearlong project and, eventually, her senior honors thesis in studio art, where she analyzes her experience and her Instagram followers’ interaction with her work.

“It was a wonderful way for me to share my experiences both to the people I’m close to as well as the people I don’t know,” she says. “People I didn’t know that well would come to me and say, ‘I love this. Keep doing this.’”

In actuality, Perham’s senior art exhibition, “365 Grams,” exists in cyberspace, accessible only to followers granted access to her private Instagram account.

“It became a daily decision: how intimate I wanted to get with this,” she says. “I was definitely inspired by some other accounts of people who are vulnerable and open about the things going on in their lives.”

"All 365 posts create a quilt. It can be read as one collective piece or by its individual parts. Some images act together to create a sub-narrative simply from their placement beside other images.”

Helen Perham '18

A more traditional, print-friendly, and public version of her Instagram photos is on display, along with the art of seven other graduating studio art majors, in Traina Center for the ArtsSchiltkamp Gallery. Their Senior Studio Art Exhibition, “Beg, Borrow & Steal,” is open through Commencement weekend, May 19-20.

Each day for a year, Perham posted a photo and caption about what she was feeling and doing. “The photo and caption don’t always go together,” she explains. “I wanted to share this art at this moment, but also the details of my day. It became a special time of day; I always posted in the evenings.”

Her mother especially appreciated knowing what Perham was up to in Italy. “It made me feel more a part of her life,” Christine Perham said at the exhibition’s April 25 opening reception, part of Clark’s Academic Spree Day.

Her daughter’s Instagram posts range from the mundane and whimsical to the profound and reflective. One day she’ll relate what she ate for lunch, the next she’s pondering her future. A typical post: “Thought a lot about endings and priorities and letting go; also baked cookies and got 3 hours of sleep last night.”

One of her best days? Seeing an icon in concert: “skipped two classes, saw Bob Dylan and watched the Celtics win.” But in Perham’s typical fashion, her accompanying photo is something more ordinary: a houseplant.

In her honors thesis, Perham writes about the process of dealing with “a massive amount of data … and a desire to analyze the data in a visually compelling way.” She wanted “to show the quantity of material representing the long year, while allowing the viewer to identify their priorities and self-interest alongside my own.”

Helen Perham's art hangs on wall of gallery
Helen Perham's art hangs at the Schiltkamp Gallery
through the May 19-20 Commencement weekend.

Perham used a decidedly non-artistic tool to analyze her Instagram data: an Excel sheet. She entered all of her captions, then coded words and places to measure the results. Her exhibition includes charts of data that allude to the content.

One colorful pie chart indicates the frequency of the places where Perham posted — 30 percent of her posts originated in Italy, and 58 percent in Massachusetts (her hometown is Greenfield).

Another pie chart zeroes in on Perham’s active verbs: 25 percent of her posts include the word “ate” and 19 percent, “made,” both of which speak to her enjoyment of food, from falafel and sushi to pie and waffles.

For one poster, she arranged her 365 captions, line by line, somewhat chronologically, “abstracted to look like high-frequency sound waves. As if all captions and thoughts from the year were being screamed loudly and quickly,” Perham notes.

For the largest poster, she lined up her 365 daily images in a calendar-like series of rows beginning on Jan. 7, 2017.

“All 365 posts create a quilt,” Perham explains. “It can be read as one collective piece or by its individual parts. Some images act together to create a sub-narrative simply from their placement beside other images.”

Perham’s catalog of a year in her life ends on Jan. 7, 2018, just as she was to begin her last semester at Clark. Recently, her Instagram account had over 375 followers.

Many are from Clark, where she also majored in international development and social change (IDSC). Perham soon will begin her fifth year at Clark in the Accelerated B.A./M.S. Program in IDSC.

As an undergraduate, Perham was involved in Clark Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and the Salsa Encendida dance group, performing at International Gala for three years. A Presidential LEEP Scholar, she interned for four years at Main South Community Development Corp., which works with Clark’s neighbors to improve the surrounding area.

“Part of what I do there is to think about how I can bring the arts into community development and work to transform the spaces where the community can come together,” Perham says.

As for Instagram, Perham has stopped posting daily; as she got busier with this last semester of her senior year, her posts became more infrequent.

“I really missed it when I stopped my daily posts,” she says. “I like Instagram. I can look back as far as I want to see what I was doing. It’s somewhere on the Internet forever, and that’s special to me.”

At top: Helen Perham with her poster of Instagram selfies.