17 Tips for Aspiring Artists from the Year’s Top Commencement Speeches

Nick Cave, Carrie Mae Weems, and others bring down the house.

James Franco, speaking at Cornell University. Image: Courtesy Cornell.
James Franco, speaking at Cornell University. Image: Courtesy Cornell.
Carrie Mae Weems, speaking at SVA, 2016: Image: Courtesy of School of Visual Arts.

Carrie Mae Weems, speaking at SVA, 2016. Courtesy of School of Visual Arts.

1. Carrie Mae Weems, artist, at the School of Visual Arts
“Making art is extremely difficult, requiring tremendous courage, enormous sacrifice, great risk… Knowing this, you nevertheless stand at the precipice and you leap into the abyss, into the arms of uncertainty. Open and alert, you respond sensitively to the world around you, and it causes you a great deal of pain and tremendous trepidation. But, of course, these are the natural byproducts of a closely examined life.”

Tania Bruguera at SAIC commencement. Image: Courtesy of School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Tania Bruguera at SAIC commencement. Courtesy of School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

2. Tania Bruguera, artist, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago
“Remember to be the best you can at what you do, but never forget to be a good person, because we do not need more asshole artists… But real success is not to be interested in success. It is not easy. It took me a long time to think this way. I had to unlearn all that society expected of me in order to learn what I expected of myself.”

Left to right: Otis dean Bruce Ferguson, Rick Lowe, and Masami Teraoka. Image: Courtesy Otis College of Art and Design.

Left to right: Otis dean Bruce Ferguson, Rick Lowe, and Masami Teraoka. Courtesy Otis College of Art and Design.

3. Rick Lowe, artist and founder of Project Row Houses, at Otis College of Art and Design
“I realized the importance of being proximate. We all have things we like, and things we care about, and of course with social media and the internet, and [the way that] we all communicate via cyberspace, we don’t know how to be proximate to things any longer. And I’m going to tell you: Being proximate is so important.”

Dana Schutz speaking at the New York Academy of Art. Image: Courtesy of New York Academy of Art.

Dana Schutz speaking at the New York Academy of Art. Image: Courtesy of New York Academy of Art.

4. Dana Schutz, artist, at New York Academy of Art
“You build the art world with your friends. Show with your own generation. There is more power in trying to build something yourself than trying to fit into some scene that already exists. Paint what you would like to see painted. Don’t paint for an audience—it’s too general and weird. Paint for a shifting cast of friends in your head. Define yourself not by your successes, but by how you survive your most difficult times. Alice Neel, the painter, once said, “The more experience you have, the better it is. Unless it kills you, and then you know you have gone too far.”

5. Pablo Helguera, artist and educator, at the Kansas City Art Institute
“There is no way around it. You will be, always, essentially alone. You will certainly love, and will be loved by someone, and will have lifetime friends and journey companions, but the fact is that your journey as an artist will include experiences, things, that are incommunicable even to those who are closest to us. We can’t talk about them, because the only way to communicate them is through art making. And the beauty and the hard truth about art as communication is that you never know who will be on the other end to receive your message, or when that might happen. You will need to get used to this kind of solitude.”

Melvin Edwards speaks at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. Image: Courtesy PAFA.

Melvin Edwards speaks at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. Image: Courtesy PAFA.

6. Melvin Edwards, artist, at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
“The solid evidence of the truth comes from the circle of discovery in the unknown. You don’t know what you are going to come to in the development of your work. I know that to be a reality as an artist. And what you don’t know is going to give you the best surprises.”

7. Jon Rubin, artist and founder of Conflict Kitchen, at the Columbus College of Art and Design
“I’ve got some good news: Guess who’ve been trained, like secret ninjas, to take disparate, even seemingly opposed cultural influences, styles and identities and remix them into nuanced new forms? Artists! We have the unique capacity to be completely comfortable in what we don’t yet know or understand: what is foreign and unfamiliar. In contemporary society, this is an incredibly valuable skill. As students of the imaginary, we have the most powerful, binary-busting superhero power possible: Empathy. Because what takes more fantastical imagination than being able to project yourself into someone else’s experience. And as artists we don’t do this for ourselves, we seduce the public to take the path towards others, towards ways of seeing that are not our own.”

Pepón Osorio, on stage at Maryland Institute College of Art. Image: Courtesy MICA.

Pepón Osorio, on stage at Maryland Institute College of Art. Image: Courtesy MICA.

8. Pepón Osorio, artist, at Maryland Institute College of Art
“Little did I know that by stepping out of the art world that was constructed for me at school, I was creating my own art world. A 360-degree artistic practice developed, where my surroundings, regular people, shared stories, and urgency mattered. I realized the importance of placing empathy at the center of my artistic career, and I really urge you, graduating class, to place empathy at the center of yours.”

Commencement speaker Nick Cave. Courtesy of Lesley.edu.

Commencement speaker Nick Cave. Courtesy of Lesley.edu.

9. Nick Cave, artist, at Lesley University
“You must be a creative change agent, navigating and operating in this vast changing complex world. Art is our diplomacy. Use it to make a difference. Be of service to the country, to the world. Have passion. Speak out when necessary. Be kind to one another. Help somebody. I am a living example, and I live my truth, hustling everyday to make a difference. Using art as a vehicle for change. That is what leads my life’s work.”

10. Edie Falco, actress, at Columbia University School of the Arts
“Say what you mean in all your interactions. Mean what you say. And don’t say it mean.”

11. Gonzalo Fuenmayor, artist, at School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
“I believe pursuing a career in the Arts is an act of rebellion; a rebellion against fear, imposed social norms, disappointing family or other people expectations or financial uncertainty. The fact that you are sitting here, in this room, is a clear indication that you’ve swam against the current; that you’ve been brave.”

12. Kay WalkingStick, artist, at Pratt Institute
“Don’t let money be the primary goal, but rather let your goal be interesting, enlivening activity. (Oh, money is important, but not more than the avoidance of boredom.) Take risks to find an interesting life partner—someone who can talk about your profession, whether that is art or not, with curiosity and affection. Take plenty of time with both roles. They last a lifetime, so treasure them.”

Ruby Lerner speaking at the Maine College of Art. Image: Courtesy MECA.

Ruby Lerner speaking at the Maine College of Art. Image: Courtesy MECA.

13. Ruby Lerner, founder of Creative Capital, at Maine College of Art
“We need artists to be part of redesigning our health care, education, criminal justice systems. We need more artists in public office. You have been set up to be “social sculptors,” as influential artist Joseph Beuys advocated. He saw society as a great work of art that we are all called upon to transform and reshape. As artists, look at what you bring to that task.”

Laverne Cox, speaking at the New School. Image: Laverne Cox.

Laverne Cox, speaking at the New School. Image: Laverne Cox.

14. Laverne Cox, actress, at the New School
“I am here because I had a lot of support. I never gave up on my dream. And the moment I had a platform, I tried to use it to give back. To be of service.”

Lisa Congdon, speaking at Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Image: Courtesy MCAD.

Lisa Congdon, speaking at Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Image: Courtesy MCAD.

15. Lisa Congdon, artist and illustrator, at Minneapolis College of Art and Design
“Gone are the days when you had to choose between being an illustrator or a fine artist. An editorial illustrator or surface designer. An animator or a graphic designer. Today you can choose to pursue and thrive at any number of creative pursuits.”

16. Dominic Man-Kit Lam, artist, inventor, and physician, at Brooks Institute
“Sometimes people think that your ideas are ridiculous. You should try and prove them wrong.”

James Franco, speaking at Cornell University. Image: Courtesy Cornell.

James Franco, speaking at Cornell University. Image: Courtesy Cornell.

17. James Franco, actor, at Cornell University
“You don’t have to lose your mind and go to every school like I did, but be a bit like Steve Jobs—every once in a while, try a calligraphy class, because you don’t know where it will lead.”


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