2013 Faculty Address to the Graduates of Montserrat College of Art

Each year a faculty member of Montserrat College of Art is chosen by the graduating class to deliver a commencement address. As this year’s speaker, I had the pleasure of creating the following speech.

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Thank you, seniors, for inviting me this morning to speak to you on behalf of the faculty of the college. Thank you, faculty, for not blocking me from the microphone. (I know you all very well, and I know the temptation was there.)

Parents, grandparents, family, friends, trustees, colleagues, Mr. Representative, honorary degree recipients: Good morning.

Let me start by saying, I know how you feel.

I know what you’re thinking…

Graduates are thinking: “Please don’t talk about me in your speech!”

Mothers are thinking: “Can he keep this brief?”

Fathers are thinking “Hmm… what will I have for lunch?”

So, that in mind, please allow me to talk about other students, and I’ll try to be brief, so that Dad and I (I’m a dad too, after all) can get some lunch.

Seniors, you are just minutes away from having the same education as I have, a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. Same education, that is, if you don’t count experience: life experience—the “what’s comes next” part.

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When Pablo Picasso was asked how long a particular artwork had taken him to create, he would answer by stating his age. 57 years, or 38 years or whatever age he was.  After all, it takes a long time to become a great artist and years of experience add up to your latest work of art. Being a great artist is a lifetime pursuit. You could say to someone when they ask how long that sculpture took to make… “about fifteen years!” No doubt, your parents know you’ve been majoring in art since you were very young. Did you start when you were four years old? Five years old?  It’s hard to say when we started to be an artist. And, being an artist is not something you retire from, really.

But it was at Montserrat College of Art that you made the difficult transition from making Art as Play, to making Art as Work—your life’s work.  Art Work.

Our best students work exceptionally hard here at Montserrat. And there is no such thing as hiding in our classrooms.

When I spoke at an Education Conference last summer on the topic of creativity and education, the audience, who were all science education professors, were very, very interested in what happens in my classroom. (Actually, they were far more interested in my class than my own students are, which is a different story.)

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When I told them that we had lots of “critiques,” their eyes grew wide. “Tell us more of these… critiques.” They said.

“Well,” I said, “my students create projects, which, when they are finished, are placed in the front of the classroom. We gather around them as a group and discuss them for the entire period.”

“For the entire period?” they asked.

“Yes.”

“How often do you do that?”

“For me, almost every class.”

“And you say the students are evaluated publicly? In front of each other?”

“Yes, in front of each other, and by each other. Together we talk about the strengths and the flaws of the work and the efforts exhibited…and we talk about how it could be made better or redone. We talk about the concepts behind the project, the research involved, the success of the communication, the craft. My colleague Antoine Revoy likes to say ‘Making art is making decisions.’  In art and design, decisions are made manifest. They face us all. In class, we discuss those decisions and the impact on the project’s result. We break those decisions down. We talk a lot about changing our decisions. That’s what a critique is.”

“Students get evaluated publicly? For hours?” they said. “Our students could never ever do that! They couldn’t survive it!”

I think if I told them that at Montserrat, at the end of each semester, a panel of teachers from different disciplines critique your entire semester’s work, with you alone in a room, they would have screamed and then fainted.

Since then, I’ve thought a lot about what we do here at Montserrat. After all, I was educated the same way you were. By hippies. (I’m only joking… I was never a hippie…not all of my teachers were… but some of them were (pointing at the faculty). Oops, I didn’t mean to point at President Immerman.

No, I was educated as an artist and designer. I too, faced assigned problems, thought hard about creating a thoughtful, unique solution. I worked for hours and hours to bring my concepts to life and brought them in to test them out, in front of everyone. I, like you, learned by facing the blank page… creating solutions… and surviving critiques.

When I read business magazine articles about the “top qualities of best employees, or bosses in today’s marketplace” … I think… we artists and designers exhibit those traits every day.

Take for example, Fast Company Magazine’s “The Five Biggest Characteristics of Great (Business) Leaders.”

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1. Flexibility

I’d argue that an artist or designer has more flexibility than almost anyone in tackling problems.

2. Communication

Every work of art is a work of communication (whether it’s designed to be or not), and every critique is a useful discussion of its results.

3. Courage, Tenacity and Patience

This whole art thing takes courage, tenacity and patience, believe me. It’s uphill all the way.

4. Humility

Every single work of art that I’ve ever made could be better. Art and art schools make you humble… pretty quickly.

5. Responsibility

With artists and designers, success or failure is on your shoulders. Who are you going to try to blame for a lack of success. Seriously, who’s work is this? Your work.

Now, I’m an artist who is a professor. I’m also an artist who is an illustrator. Maybe you’ll be an artist who is an illustrator, or an artist who is graphic designer, game designer or art director. Or, maybe you’ll be an artist who is an entrepreneur: a buyer or a seller. Maybe you’ll be an artist who’s an artist.

Frankly, I see no reason why an artist couldn’t go anywhere with their education. I have an ex-student who’s a lawyer and one who’s a veteranarian. One of my Montserrat ex-students is one of the nation’s foremost chocolate sculptors. She made plaster bunnies for my class and now she makes chocolate bunnies for  your Easter celebrations.

In other words, the name of your concentration doesn’t have to be the name of your career in order for you to be a success. Heck, you could be an artist who becomes the next State Representative… (I doubt the Representative majored in “Representation” as an undergraduate.) Now, of course, you should only run for Representative long after our guest here, has retired… by their own decision.

I have two more stories and then a gift for each of the graduates—an assignment, actually—an opportunity, really.

First story:

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One day, a few years ago, when I was drawing in the small medieval city of Viterbo in Italy—I have to good fortune to teach in Montserrat’s Italy Program each July—I met a special friend. While sitting in the shade, looking up and drawing for well over an hour at an odd house on the edge of town, I heard singing—opera singing—not particularly good opera singing. Where was it coming from? I wondered.

Finally, a short, middle-aged man, wrapped only in a bath towel, came to an open window above, finishing his aria. I looked up. He then looked down, sensing he was being watched, and we both smiled at each other. I held my sketchbook up for him to see, and he nodded.

For the next two weeks after that encounter, we passed each other occasionally on the busy streets of Viterbo, exchanging smiles and nothing more. And the next year, and the year after that, we continued to nod at each other as we passed on our way. To this day, never a word has been spoken. But we have a bond. We have exchanged our art and perhaps shared that vulnerable feeling of having done so.

You graduates all share a bond. What you’ve done, or what you’ve survived… it’s pretty special. Pretty personal. You solved your problems personally and you faced your results publicly…. you were extensively critiqued. The work that you generated was personal, one-of-a-kind.

You are self-made graduates. Self-made men and women. You need to now see the path ahead as your canvas. Be self-made. Use that skill, that experience, that education as you become a self-made person.                                                                                                                                                                                                                Use that creativity—that integrity—to face problems and know you can find unique solutions and implement them yourself, or in collaboration with others. And remember that you know how to present it, learn from it, rework it, try it again, do it differently, and always know it could be better. In other words, critique your life.

So, where do you start.

Perhaps with a sandwich,” your father is thinking.

Well, how about a snack first.

A snack and an opportunity to spur you to move on to your next endeavor.

Second story:

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Long ago, as a very young professor, before I came to Montserrat, before you were born, I was teaching an advanced illustration class and as the first assignment, I passed around a brown paper bag of fortune cookies to the class. I asked each student to reach in, grab a cookie, read the fortune out loud to the class and to then illustrate it for the next week’s class… for critique.

The following week, as I was walking to class, I passed a huge billboard, a block from my classroom, which caught my attention. What was a re-election campaign billboard for the notorious Mayor of Providence, Rhode Island: Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci, had been changed—had been defaced.

The billboard which had featured the Mayor’s smiling face, was now a billboard featuring the face of former professional wrestler, Andre the Giant! Along with the face was the printed the word “OBEY.”

Wow, I thought.

An hour later, in class, my students put their illustrations on the wall for critique. Under each image was the fortune, which I asked them to pin below. As I looked down the wall, I noticed one was grabbing a lot of attention. It wasn’t a typical work of art… it was the entire front page of the newspaper. It was the front page of that day’s Providence Journal, the big paper down there.

I was confused. I asked, “who did this?”

A pimple-faced kid in the back of the room ran his hand through his hair and then raised his hand shyly. He looked like a skateboarding kid. He dressed like one and had a scab on his arm.

I asked him, “So, is this a found object, used as a solution to the problem?”

“No”, he said, “that’s mine.”

“So, you made this newspaper? Or, did you take this photograph?” I asked. The front page had a large, above-the-fold photograph of the very billboard I had seen walking to class. In big bold type, the headline said something like, “Mayor Irate About Defaced Image on Billboard.”

“That’s his billboard!” a student shouted.

My face dropped. I realized that this kid, using my homework assignment, a lowly fortune cookie fortune, had created a local sensation. He’s climbed up in the dark of night and changed that huge billboard to make his statement, and to do his homework!

“Read the fortune, read the fortune” the class called.

And I did. It said:

To Affect the Quality of the Day is No Small Achievement

That student was Shepard Fairey, who’s gone on to affect the quality of many days all over the world with his art, design and illustration. He’s perhaps best known for his famous “Hope” poster, created for Barack Obama’s presidential election campaign. He’s kept that spirit alive all these years later, and he’s kept his deviousness alive too. He was arrested for the billboard he did for my class, and he was arrested on the night of his opening at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston a few years ago for creating graffiti in Downtown Boston.

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I’m not the only one to have given him an “A” for his efforts.

Class of 2013, good luck. See the world as your canvas. Continue to create for the world and continue to critique the world.

As a parting gift, assignment, snack or creative opportunity, I offer you a lowly, random fortune which I ask you to take from this brown paper bag. Use it as you wish. But remember, To Affect the Quality of the Day is No Small Achievement.

A large, brown paper bag of fortune cookies is then presented to the graduates, to be passed.

Thank you.

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