Naturally, our 2014 Commencement ceremony was filled with many cheers and tears. While the Class of 2014 looked forward to ushering in new phases of their promising careers, they also couldn't help looking back, reflecting upon time spent at the Academy. As words of praise and encouragement commemorated the festivities, perhaps, the most stirring was delivered by Honorary Doctorate recipient Walton Ford.
Walton, a powerful painter who often "meditates on the violent and bizarre moments at the intersection of human culture and the natural world," stormed the podium much like the primal subjects of his monumental watercolors. Once front and center, he revealed a vulnerability that captured the audience's attention. Throughout his speech, Walton conveyed the importance and rarity of "an education of beauty" encouraging artists to take their time and stay inspired.
At the end of the 20 minute address, the audience erupted with applause. The response was a meaningful sign that Walton's words of wisdom had not only resonated in that moment, but will also serve as an enduring source of inspiration over time.
Keep reading below for Walton Ford's full commencement speech. And to watch the video, please click here:
WALTON FORD’S COMMENCEMENT SPEECH
Thank you Eileen, thanks so much. Thank you Peter, David, Wade, all the Academy students. It's such an honor to be here. It's just a great honor. You do know me because I came to the school. So I don't have that much material. So you're going to hear some of it again probably but some of it is maybe it's useful for you to hear it twice. I don’t know.
You're my heroes, all the graduates the Class of 2014. You’re my heroes. It's like you're studying artists. I have so much respect for you. You all had to fight to be here as Eileen said. It's heroic, it really is. You had to convince your loved ones, you had to borrow money, you had to overcome discouraging predictions of failure, you have to cope with insane rents, all to study within a tradition that many would argue is an anachronistic, obsolete, reactionary, unnecessary.
And once you won the battle to be here, and once you were accepted into this community, you were presented with one of the most incredibly challenging tasks, an almost impossibly difficult task. You started to train yourself to really see. To really see how the human body moves. To really see the luminosity of skin over muscle and blood and bone. To really see how warm and cold light falls on our beautiful breathing world. But that's not all. You were challenged to communicate what you saw to the rest of us. To communicate with ancient, lovely, sometimes completely uncooperative stuff. Gliding, grimy charcoal, smooth clay, creamy oil paint, the bony burning plaster. And you tried to use these materials to speak, but the language is a hard one to learn. So you felt clumsy, you felt awkward. You felt like your gifts eluded you. Everyone who tries to master these materials feels this way. But because of this intense concentrated effort, this effort to see and then communicate, you can no longer look at the world the same way.
Because this kind of study switches something on inside of you that cannot be switched off. You begin to rotate objects in space in your head, the most advanced kind of computer program is in there now. You begin to see patterns of light and shade. You begin to see structure and meaning. And in this concentrated seeing, you join a great sisterhood and a great brotherhood of people through thousands of years of history who tried to see in this exact same way. You join the prehistoric genius drawing fluid bulls in the caves of Lascaux. You join Dürer, training his super high-def renaissance eye on a tuft of meadow. You join Alice Neel mixing blue and magenta and yellow tints to render the drum tight skin of a woman's late term belly. This is a really great club to get into and you're in. You know the doorman now.
So I just talked about how hard it was to do what we do, and the struggle, and the challenge. So why do it? Why take it on? Well it's all too daunting unless it's play. And this is what I mean about play. If you watch children at the beach building sandcastles you will learn a lot about what you’ll need to do in your studio. There is no doubt these kids are playing, but watch how they play. They are serious, they are focused, they’re intensely concentrated. They use the tools at hand. They don't complain about lack of materials. They got cups, they got straws, they got seaweed, they got shells. They get wet. They get gritty. If there are few of them, they argue. Somebody gets bossy. The pale ones get burnt up in the sun. And they keep at it until the tide comes in and it washes it all away. It's urgent, serious, play that's not wedded to an outcome.
It's not the same thing as fun. People get killed playing-- skateboarders, boxers, skiers. People get killed playing, it's serious business. So it's life or death this kind of play I'm talking about. And it can get frustrating. And it can seem futile, effort can get washed away with the tides and yet this is the ideal place to be as an artist, in this playful space.
This aspect of play in the studio is what makes great art. Sandcastles, tree houses, homemade Halloween costumes, serious beautiful childlike play. This is the energy you need to bring to everything you do as an artist. So you go in the studio and you get playful. Highs stakes, life or death, playful. Playful like Picasso, playful like Lina Wertmüller, playful like Andy Warhol, playful like Louise Bourgeois.
So now I named a few artists and since you're young artists you can start beating up on yourselves. That's what you're going to do. I just mentioned great artists and what comes to mind when I mention such artists is work of the highest master. And when we look at such work, it is easy to beat up on ourselves. We're young artists, we're students, we're particularly good at beating up on ourselves for not creating masterpieces right away. But that is not your job quite yet. This is a time of gathering. You're gathering ingredients. I want you to think of this time as the time at a farmers market.
You have a basket. You are looking around. What do you like to eat? What looks fresh? What’s available? Just gather stuff. Put it in your basket. That's the first step and in many ways, the most important step in making something delicious to eat later. So don't rush it. Enjoy this process. Steal a grape, you know? Look carefully, squeeze, taste, smell you know? While you're at the market, does it make sense to beat yourself up for not being in the kitchen? For not plating a completed meal? Common sense says it's not time yet. You are gathering, pick up a nice tomato. It's not time to open a restaurant. You are gathering. Smell that melon. Is it ripe? It's not time yet to write a cookbook.
Every artist has times of gathering and times of creation. The really great and fortunate artists have several times of gathering and creating, alternating times of creating where it all comes together and you have a body of work to do. But every single artist starts out with an extended time of concentrated gathering. So take your time at this great farmers market. You're going to museums, galleries, book stores, searching the web, taking suggestions, watching films, hitting the streets, catching live music, theater-- you're gathering, gathering. Finding your heroes, finding your mentors, finding your nemeses.
And this is your job. Cook it all up later and then you know. You'll follow the recipes for a bit, but you don't need to write your own recipes for a while. There is time for all that. Life is long.
But this advice to slow down and enjoy the gathering time is not to diminish the urgency of what can be done with your gifts. The education that you have begun, this intense seeing, this mastery of these ancient mediums, this humanistic study of nature, this process of gathering, this education of beauty, what a rare thing in today's world.
And there is proof of this rarity. Just get in the car and take a drive. If you drive up or down the east coast on a major route and you look out the window at the banality of the giant, urban, mega, strip mall that uber city that we call Bos/Wash, Boston to Washington, look out the window it’s pretty banal. It’s a wasteland. Beauty, craft, design, in short supply. There is plenty of horror, ugliness, and banality out there. But here at the Academy, you have touched on the cure. You’ve touched on an education that pushes back with everything that makes humanity okay.
I remember as a student at your age standing inside of the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena. I was surrounded by Lorenzetti murals depicting good and bad government. All of medieval Italy is painted on those walls. Beautiful women on horseback, pigs in the street, falconers, sinners, saints and outside of Palazzo Pubblico is the medieval city of Siena spread out on its soft Tuscan Hill edged by olive groves and vineyards. And something in the moment of standing in that place changed inside me. I didn't long for the primeval forest that was cleared to make way for the town and I didn't think about the corruption of the Lords that financed the building of it. I was simply overwhelmed by the beauty of it all. The murals, the building, the town. I was an American suburban kid and I needed to see a Tuscan Hill town to understand that not only nature, but also people could create beautiful ravishing things.
And this education you have begun connects you to all that. Yours is a school that a renaissance master would recognize. He'd see the casts, the skeletons. He'd smell the paint, he’d see the posing nudes. We need this beauty so desperately. And we need you to make things for us. We need more eyes that have followed the swooping curves of the human skull. We need more hands that have pushed and pulled clay until it looks like and feels like human muscle. We need more minds that have puzzled out the mixing of paint into the myriad tints of human skin. Because this is an education in magnificent beauty. This is an education in the perfection of design. This is an education in visual ravishment. I can only hope that when you go out there some of it rubs off.