I’m so glad to have so many opportunities to speak to generous audiences. Among the favorite such moments I’ve had are the three convocation speeches I gave to three consecutive incoming Freshman classes at the Columbus College of Art & Design, 2001-03. They were acts of furious love.
Here’s the third one, The Arrival Of The New Paints. I hope you like it.
“Board Chairman Rocky Saxbe and trustees;
College President Denny Griffith;
Provost Anedith Nash;
The most reverend Tim Ahrens;
Members of the Legendary Faculty and Staff;
Most Celebrated Students,
now entering the Columbus College of Art & Design…
Whatever our burdens, whatever our sorrows, whatever our aches and pains and anxieties — however hard it is to get up so early as Youth collides with Autumn — whatever our issues: We are truly fortunate to have reached this magnificent day! Congratulations. Be thankful. Welcome.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you at such an important moment in your lives.
While preparing, I called the Admissions Department to ask about you. (How about a round of applause for Admissions? I mean, you’ve got to love them.) How, I asked, can we describe the entering class? Here is what I learned from Brooke Hunter-Lombardi who is in charge of knowing you well enough to place you in your registration groups for Foundation Year.
359 people were accepted and submitted the non-refundable $100 scheduling deposit. If everyone showed up today, you are still 359 people. If any didn’t show up today, they can kiss that hundred bucks goodbye. They might not learn anything else from CCAD, but we definitely taught them the meaning of “non-refundable.”
55% of you are women; 45% of you are men. This is the second time, I think, in the history of CCAD, that women have outnumbered men. I hope you’re happy.
We didn’t ask if you are straight, gay, lesbian or transgender. Good luck to all of you.
Most of you are 18 or 19 years old. According to one application, one of you is four years old. But we corrected that typo. We know typing is not your biggest talent. Actually, the youngest of you — 21 of you — are 17. That’s too young to buy beer in Ohio. The oldest of you is 51. That’s old enough to buy beer for everyone in Ohio. But, please, don’t. Then again, you can buy me a beer. I’m 43. You have four years to find me.
You come from 28 states. 20 of you are from international origin, representing 16 countries: Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, Korea, Pakistan, Poland, South Africa, Singapore, South Korea, Slovakia, Taiwan, Thailand. Three of you are from Texas, which is part state, part international. 73% of you are from Ohio. That’s important. A great roadside diner is surrounded by trucks. A great college in Ohio should be popular with Ohioans.
81% of you are entering as Freshmen. Most of you have never taken a college class anywhere. The rest of you are transfer students. You started somewhere else and then realized: CCAD!
Many of you will change your minds before finally declaring your major area of study. Of the Freshmen, most of you have suggested that you will pursue advertising, illustration, media studies, fashion design, industrial design, fine art, and interior design. A large group of you claim to be undecided. (I like you the best, because I am still undecided. Some say that the goal of education is to challenge your thinking so much that you become more undecided.) 20% indicated more than one interest. That’s great. It’s hard to choose from among so many appealing choices. Six of you indicated four or more majors. That reminds me of an old saloon in New York which had a huge sign over the façade that said: “Too much ain’t enough.”
No one this year — absolutely no one — has chosen political science or molecular biochemistry. That’s because we don’t offer those. Those are very important subjects. But between you and me, at CCAD we are not down with those. Are you with me, my peeps? [Hand sign.] Word. [Fist.] I’m in the his-‘ouse. [Raise the roof.] Fer SCHIZZLE! …. Tight.
Among female students, the most popular names are Jessica and Stephanie. We have eight of each. If you get a date with Jessica or Stephanie, get a last name.
Among male students, the top name is Andrew, shared by seven of you. If you get a date with Andrew, get a last name.
Even more confusing, there are five women named Christiane, Kristina, or Christine, and five men named Christopher. We have a female Jesse and male Jesse, but his nickname is “Moose.” And two Samanthas plus one Sam.
And there are three women and men named Daniel or Danielle, seven women and men named Eric or Erica. There are a dozen named Stephanie or Stephen or Steven. So if you get a date with Chris or Jesse or Sam or Daniel or Danielle or Eric or Erica, get a last name — and make sure you’ve got the right gender.
Admissions reports one thing that you most have in common. Before I tell you what it is, will the members of the Foundation Studies Faculty please come forward? They will distribute a pencil to each of you. The presentation of these pencils — from the hands of expert faculty, passed along the row of eager classmates, into your own hand — represents the next four year’s presentation of the world’s most successful art and design curriculum.
Do you have a pencil? I’ll wait. I won’t go on until you have one. From now on, you are not at home unless you have something to draw on and something to draw with. Really, without those you are naked… I will wait because I don’t talk to naked people… I discriminate against naked people. Actually, I am married and have two children, so I at times I talk to three naked people. I like them that way. But that is none of your business.
My wife and son are here today, but I’m not going to introduce them right now. That would be cruel. My mother’s here. She saw me naked. But not lately.
O.K. Everyone has a pencil. While this might sound like the wild, wild west: Go ahead. Draw.
Now, back to the one thing you all most have in common.
Almost all of you have come from a place where you were the strange one. You were strangely talented in art. And you were strangely attracted to it. And you were strangely willing to work at it. Maybe there were a few of you at your high school who hung out in the art room. But you were definitely a minority. Maybe you kept it a secret. Or perhaps others knew, and looked at you and said, “That’s an artist.” You were a fish out of water. Or, more appropriately, you were like a tube of paint that had been mistakenly sent to a book store — instead of going to the shelves of an art supply store.
Today, this moment, represents a huge change for all of you. For now, you enter this room, this college, where for a few short years, you will be in the majority.
Everyone draws. That’s what you most have in common.
Welcome home, to the art store.
That’s the view from Admissions.
Now, let me describe how the faculty sees you. I can’t speak for them. They all represent genius, but each is genius in a slightly different direction. Nonetheless, here I am. Let me offer one man’s opinion of how you look to the faculty.
But first, let’s talk about artists. Julian Steinzak (“stein-check”), who has served as a visiting lecturer here, and whose art hangs in museums and private collections around the world, including the Columbus Museum of Art, says artists make art because they have a need, a deep need to create proof of their ability and their perspective. Each artist needs to leave behind a proof, an example, a trophy, a fossil, a bone, a drawing — some tangible proof of artistic ability. Each day you return to the studio is a renewed attempt to prove that yesterday’s proof was not a fluke, not some happy coincidence, but rather the undeniable proof of your continuing talent.
You feel this way. Your medium, before you pull it out of the tub or squeeze it from the tube — whether it is paint or clay, fabric or Kryptonite — it is the raw stuff of this proof. When you first see it, before you have had a chance to touch it, it sends a thrilling fear into your eyes, into your bones. Before you touch it, it represents your challenge. Only after you are finished is it your proof. I know this feeling. Although I have sculpted and drawn, my primary media are wood and words. Whenever I come home from the lumber store, I have the same feeling as when I sit down to write. Thrill. And fear. I can make anything. But can I truly?
We, the faculty, see your arrival today as if it is the Arrival Of Our New Paints. We have not taught you yet, so you represent a thrilling, fearful challenge.
But we are confident that we know how to teach you to be great artists and designers. In Foundation year, we will return you to the cool, moist Earth, cleanse you of your habits, and shape you into technically expert artists. And that is only the first year.
As seriously as you regard your medium, we regard you. For we are artists. Accomplished, sought-after, published, collected, renown artists. Painters, sculptors, designers, glassblowers, welders, writers, thinkers — artists in every medium.
But your arrival is the Arrival Of Our New Paints. We see the challenge. We know that last May we turned loose on the world hundreds of expert artists. But understand: we are thrilled with the challenge of your arrival.
We want you in our classrooms and in our studios. Not because it strokes our egos. We want you because we each know how to shape you, how to expand your mind and your skill. We know how to infuse you with power — if only we can reach you, to offer teaching not available in any book or over any website. Teaching that can be offered only life-to-life, breath-to-breath.
We are not satisfied to stay alone in our studios and make our art. We don’t want to simply produce alone, to pleasure ourselves. There’s a word for that, but we don’t use that word in church.
Here we are in a church. Let me tell you something about Jews. (If laughter: Hey. This is an away game for me.) According to tradition, if you teach someone Torah, Jewish law, then your relationship becomes more than student and teacher, your relationship becomes and forever remains as if child and parent.
Your birth parents made you genetically. We will make you artistically. Tomorrow, we begin rewriting your artistic DNA. Some say, you are what you eat. We know that you will always be more than that. You will be who taught you.
As artists ourselves, we want you with us, because we want to produce — and release into the wild every year — a new generation of artists. Artists who know what they are doing. By 2007, you will be proof that CCAD — we, a team comprising everyone from your professors and advisors to security guards, custodial staff and librarians — you will be proof that we know exactly what the hell we are doing.
We can be long-winded. But I’m almost finished. Three short lessons before we go back into the brilliant landscape of day.
1. Lesson number one. Look at this magnificent church. It is a message crafted to change behavior. It is not simply a pretty building. It is a work of art that leads people to productive behavior, to community, to social action, to learning and teaching about our shared humanity, to acts of loving kindness, to meditation, to worship. What will your art do? Will it simply amuse or please or offend or challenge? Or will you rise to a higher ideal, and help to repair a broken world? While you are at CCAD, you need to become more than simply technically proficient. So, lesson number one is: Study with more than your eyes and hands. Expand your mind, so you understand the meaning of your art from the perspective of the viewer. That way, you can change the viewer’s mind, or heart, or behavior.
How many of you have heard of Rod Stewart? He is a long-haired, over-sexed millionaire who got that way through rock and roll. He said, “Every picture tells a story, don’t it?” Actually he sang it. Please join me, especially those of you who were alive in 1971:
“Every picture tells a story, don’t it?”
“Every picture tells a story, don’t it?”
“Every picture tells a story, don’t it?”
[Possible ad libs: “You aren’t the minority any longer. No reason to stay ‘cool.’” Sing, so you can hear it… Start quietly… Sing by sections… “This reminds me: I need to get my own congregation.” To Tim Ahrens: “Really, can you do this on Sunday?”]
Well, Rod Stewart told the truth. And now, so have you. You’d better listen to him — and to yourself and to your classmates — if you want to become a long-haired, over-sexed millionaire. And I know some of you do.
Learn more than how to make pictures. Learn how to tell stories.
2. Lesson number two. Art is not an unnecessary extravagance. President Denny Griffith says we only need to look at the headlines in the newspaper to see how the world craves for people who former President Joseph Canzani called “people of taste.” Art is not silly. During World War II, when the British war machine needed money, the Minister of War went to Prime Minister Winston Churchill and asked, “May we sell the art in the National Gallery?” An accomplished painter and a gardener, Churchill knew the importance of art, that it would be a fossil left behind to prove that the British Empire was an advanced civilization. “Hell, no,” he said. “That’s what we’re fighting for.” So, lesson number two is: a few years from now, you will return to a world in which you as artists will again be a minority. Learn all you can at CCAD to prepare yourself to help a world that doesn’t understand that you can repair the world with your art. You can make CCAD more than a college. You can make it a movement that seeks to repair the world.
3. Lesson number three. Learn how to be the person who starts the applause. (Not now.) We all know how applause spills over an audience like a wave. But that wave must start somewhere. Do not be content to merely join the wave. Learn how to critically judge the value in what is before you. Learn how to be the first person to applaud. Listen. [Clap once in the silence.] In a big, silent room, that is courage. There are others around you who long to applaud, but if they don’t hear that courageous first clap, the wave of applause might never be born. As Shakespeare’s Henry V describes royalty, I will describe artists: “We are not the followers of fashion. We are the creators of fashion.” So, lesson number three is: applaud your professors, applaud your classmates. This is a rare place. It deserves your applause at every turn. In fact, if you applaud your professors at the end of every class, they will be inspired to teach even better. The same is true in food. If you applaud the chef, you get better food. The same is true in friendship and love. When you applaud, you get more.
Welcome to CCAD. Take our classes. Receive our lessons. Teach us and each other. Work hard. Become the artist you are not yet, the artist that tomorrow you will start becoming.
Welcome to CCAD. You have only a short time here. Please don’t waste that time. Leave brilliant fossils.
Welcome to CCAD. We are very glad you are here.
Welcome to CCAD. Thank you.