I am pleased to be here with you all today to celebrate this momentous occasion.
This is a new beginning for all of you creative souls and today you will receive papers that will validate you in your given profession. Everyone is expecting great things from you. You have the gift of being a maker. With your abilities, you can change how the general public sees the world. It is creative people who shape and mold the future. Yes, there will be challenges, and life does happen, no exceptions. But as creative beings, you have the talent to problem solve and find solutions. The journey you are about to embark on is about discovery, finding solutions and learning who you are. Please remember that this is a journey, not a race. Enjoy the daily task of discovering who you are and how you can make this world a better place. As artists, the road you have chosen is not straight—it is full of twists and sharp turns. In order to survive it, you must learn to be flexible. Learn to be open to new ways of seeing and being. Don’t be judgmental of yourself or others. Acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses and remember that you do not have to be great at everything.
When I graduated with my undergraduate degree, my dream was to join the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Baily Circus. I had spent my high school and college years perfecting my skills as a clown. I wore a blonde wig and covered my face in white grease paint. My body was disguised with my grandmother’s pajamas. No one knew I was black, poor and living in a housing project. My disguise hid who I was. When Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus came to my hometown looking for new talent, I tried out, but was not accepted. The auditions were conducted without costume and makeup. I was unable to hide all the things I didn’t like about myself. Perhaps I was rejected from clown college because they could see that I was not comfortable in my own skin. At the time, I was devastated. What would do if I could not be a clown? Well, I decided to apply to graduate school in painting, and was accepted at Penn State. There was no hiding in graduate school and there was no costume to wear. I had to learn to love and accept who I was. What I suggest to your graduating class is that you know who you are and love who you are. Don’t try being something you are not. The key to happiness is knowing yourself. It will make your art practice authentic and it will draw others of like minds to you and to your art. Learn to listen to that little voice inside of you and use it as your GPS to guide you through this world. Remember that a rejection is just the universe redirecting your path. I am happy to not be a clown and I believe that who I am today is my most authentic self. I wonder, if I were a clown today, would I have been asked to be today’s speaker?
I encourage you graduates to be fearless. Acknowledging fear is the first step to eliminating it. It’s okay to say you are scared, but most of us develop paralysis and never really go after our dreams. We become so afraid of failure that we do nothing. I encourage you to court NOs. This will lessen your fear and allow you to apply for many opportunities. It is said that the average Guggenheim recipient applies a minimum of ten times before being selected. Start applying as soon as you graduate!
Graduating class, my hope for you is to be happy. Find out what you love to do and do it. Don’t let fear or naysayers stop you from living your dream. As creative graduates, you have chosen one of the most challenging professions, but one that is most satisfying. Today, you become the CEO, Creator, Negotiator, Marketing and PR Person, Janitor, and Grant Writer of your own company. It is up to you to grow your business and nurture it. I recently read an article that interviewed graduates with degrees in art. The interviewers asked if they would change their degree to a more lucrative one if they could. Ninety percent of the graduates said NO, they were happy with their creative degree. The article also stated that most artists weren’t working in restaurants or other service jobs. Instead, they had found a way to use their creativity in various other positions. I asked my Penn State art professor, Richard Mayhew, “but how will I make money as a painter?” He looked at me with a smile upon his face and said, “If you do what you love, the money will come.” I thought my professor was crazy or at least high. His words went completely over my head, but since that time, I’ve learned that Richard was right. When you do what you love, the money will come… and when you learn to feel worthy, all the success you desire can be yours.
There will always be naysayers, but you can’t listen to them. Remember that most people who offer negative advice are projecting their own insecurities onto you. The people who say you can’t are talking about themselves and their unwillingness to try. Surround yourself with friends and family members who are on your side and those who encourage you to be the best you. They should lift you up and celebrate your successes as if they were their own. Never take advice about money from anyone who makes less than you. They are only capable of keeping you poor.
I wake up every morning to a mantra that hangs on my bedroom wall that says “Dreams Do Come True.” It’s the last thing I see before I go to sleep and the first thing I see when I wake up. I also have a song that I play and dance to daily. It’s entitled “Happy” and it sets the tone of my great day. I’d like to share the chorus of “Happy” by Pharrell Williams with you. I hope and pray that you will be HAPPY as you go out into the world to pursue your dreams and take this life’s journey. No one creates success on their own. There are many who help along the way. Acknowledge them, and show gratitude. Always be gracious and whenever you can, give back.
Happy Mother’s Day to all the great mothers and congratulations to the class of 2014.