April 28th, 2012 was a memorable day for artist, author and A&D alumnus Chris Van Allsburg. In the morning, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree at the University-wide graduation ceremonies in Michigan Stadium. In the afternoon, he headed up to North Campus to address A&D's graduating class of seniors as this year's commencement speaker.
Here is the story he told the class that day.
Forty-five years ago, I sat outside my high school guidance counselor’s office waiting to be interviewed by a representative from the University of Michigan. This individual was empowered to accept applicants to the University on the spot, providing the interview went well, and he found their transcript and test scores satisfactory.
When I entered the office, my application was incomplete. I had not yet chosen which college within the University I wanted to attend. My interviewer looked at the form and assumed I was an LS&A applicant. He was about to indicate that on the application when I asked (because I always want to know what my options are), if he could tell me about the other colleges.
We talked briefly about Forestry, Engineering, and Education. Then, I asked him what the A&D College was I‘d seen listed on the application. He explained that was the School of Architecture and Design, the Art school.
“You mean”, I asked, “where they make paintings and sculpture?”
He nodded, “yes”.
Now, if the next 30 seconds of my interview were depicted cinematically, they would look something like this:
A close-up on my face shows a far away look in my eyes, the window light of the counselor’s office reflected in them. We hear a sound, a child’s laughter.
A dreamy sequence shows a young boy joyfully playing with finger-paint, then modeling a plasticene dog. This reverie is interrupted by the interviewer’s voice, calling me back to reality. I respond, “Yes sir, A&D. I believe I’d like to do that, make art.”
As the admissions representative peruses my transcript for my art grades, I am thinking to myself [which we hear in voice over]:
“...This is incredible!! You can actually get a degree from the University of Michigan without grinding away for years in some library, writing paper after paper! You can just goof around, making stuff.”
At this point the interviewer looks up to inform me he sees no record of art courses on my transcript - not a single, solitary credit.
Even though the idea, the impulse to study art was only one minute old, I was already oddly committed to it. It was true, I hadn’t taken art since Junior High, so I concocted a story, explaining that I studied privately on weekends - oils mostly - and I was trying a little stone carving at home.
Because this was 1967, the last year the art school admitted students without portfolios, the load of horse manure I’d buried the admissions person in turned out to be sufficient to gain entry into the University’s School of Architecture and Design.
I didn’t give my decision much thought over the summer. It never occurred to me that the consequence of misrepresenting myself come September, could be humiliation, or feeling like a Hobbit at an NBA tryout.
But that was where I found myself when school began, sharing classroom space with students who actually had been studying privately on weekends for years.
Here’s how clueless I was: I followed my schedule the first week to a class held at 8:30 in the morning, in the top of the old art school building, a place that felt like an attic with skylights. The course was described only by the letters, F G D R W – and required newsprint and a set of materials that completely mystified me: A small hunk of stuff that looked like silly putty wrapped up in cellophane, pieces of burned vine and a patch of deerskin... Where was I going, I wondered, to an art class or to a satanic ritual?
I arrived early, believing punctuality might compensate for incompetence. I entered the studio and found myself alone with a woman, approximately my mother’s age, dressed in a robe and slippers. I struggled to make sense of this and wondered if the woman lived in the school and I had arrived so early that she had not had the time to prepare for her day.
I was embarrassed because it seemed she was unaware her robe was untied, and she wasn’t wearing pajamas, or anything else. I thought I should step outside and give her some privacy, but other students began filing in, and, to my surprise, were completely oblivious to the bathrobe clad woman in the corner. Eventually our instructor appeared, and, I learned what F G D R W stood for: I was in my first figure drawing class.
That year was difficult for me. I did not understand that the drawing skills I saw around me were the result of the instruction my classmates received in high school. I thought they were born that way, gifted - and that I was not.
It looked like as if the capricious decision I’d made at my admissions interview was a very big mistake. Then, in an introductory sculpture course, I discovered that I did have a gift, one that was buried and long forgotten.
For a few of my boyhood years, I’d been an avid model maker: Cars, boats, planes, in plastic or wood. It was not only enthusiasm I brought to theses projects, but also a level of craftsmanship and attention to detail that I can see now was not normal for a 10 year-old boy.
It was about that age that I begged my parents not to send me to camp, but instead, buy me a 3 foot long model of an old whaling vessel. Evidently unconcerned about my social adjustment, my parents got me the boat and I spent the entire summer in the cellar, happily stringing yards of rigging and dreaming about life on the high seas.
This phase did not last long - I was not a complete nerd. Soon enough, I figured out that the road to social acceptance did not run by the glue- and paint-smeared table in my basement, where I dreamed of scaling the foremast and yelling, “Thar she blows!”
So my introduction to sculpture - making objects with my hands and fussing over how things went together, how they were finished - instantly reconnected me to the pleasure and gratification I felt as a 10 year-old, alone in my basement.
My draftsman’s skills became less important. I only needed to draw well enough to figure out how much bronze, wood, clay or resin I would need.
Once I found my calling in the sculpture department, I stopped thinking of the A&D building as a place I was earning a degree while not measuring up. It became my playground. I was there day and night. I knew the place better then the custodians and had more keys then they did.
I had work benches for myself in the woodshop and the foundry. I had a locker in the ceramics studio. When I wasn’t enrolled in a particular course, I could still get my hands on equipment by cozying up to a grad student.
At the beginning of my senior year, it occurred to me that in 9 months, I was going to get booted off the playground. I reviewed the requirements for BFA candidates and saw that I was deficient in art history credits. I skipped the art history courses I should have taken and crossed my fingers, hoping the registrar wouldn’t blow the whistle and tell my advisor.
Somehow, she missed it. Toward the end of the second semester, my advisor called me into his office with a grave expression on his face.
“Chris”, he said, “I’ve got some bad news. I don’t know how this happened, but you don’t have enough art history credits to graduate”. He suggested summer school, but I told him I had a job. “Well then”, he said, “I’m sorry. I guess we’ll see you next fall.”
So I returned for a 5th year in order to take two art history courses and continued to enjoy the playground I’d come to think of as my own very large, well equipped studio.
I’m sure there are some of you saying goodbye to this building, who are nursing the same feelings I had back in 1971: A desire to keep doing what you’ve been doing, in the place you’ve been doing it. There is, of course, a way to postpone eviction from the playground life: Find a playground elsewhere, called Graduate School.
This was the path I took, but two years later I found myself contemplating the same questions: How will I be able to keep doing what I want to do? Does it even make sense that an adult should strive to do the kind of thing that brought him pleasure as a solitary 10 year old in a basement? Is that allowed? Is it even possible?
I am by nature a risk-averse individual and contemplate uncertainty with a good deal of discomfort. It amazes me now, looking back, that I pursued, care-free, a path in college that would inevitably lead to the abyss of uncertainty that awaits so many art school graduates. There was something about this pursuit that pushed reason and risk-aversion aside.
In my junior year, someone with a peculiar sense of humor taped up, in the A&D hallway, by the sculpture studios, a publication from the Department of Labor. It listed professions according to their viability as livelihoods.
At the very bottom was, PHILOSOPHER – not a teacher of Philosophy, but someone who actually pondered life’s mysteries for a living. Just above that, was sculptor.
News like this should have freaked me out, but I didn’t pay much attention to it, and when I did, I would end up romanticizing it as the Artist’s Struggle and comfort myself with the knowledge that, thank God, I didn’t want to be a philosopher.
At least not full time. I’d actually like to do some philosophizing right now and ponder this puzzle: What is it about the opportunity to spend one’s life engaged in the creative process that can lead even timid individuals, like myself, to throw caution to the wind and sacrifice security; to invite hardship and the judgment of others?
For me it comes down to this:
The act of transforming the imaginary into the concrete, turning thought into things, produces a sense of accomplishment that can not be experienced through any other endeavor.
Ideas are nothing more than a minute and ephemeral discharge of electricity between synapses buried inside our skulls.
Regenerating or sustaining that discharge while attempting to give it form, through pen and paper, words or notes, clay or glass, is an activity that is completely absorbing.
The product of that effort, the art, can be disappointing, because it is so difficult to make something that stimulates in us the same feelings we had when contemplating the initial idea. Yet as artists we are not discouraged by this outcome. We are, instead, invigorated and motivated to go back to work.
I often feel like a kind of magician when I look at something I’ve made and consider that weeks or months earlier it existed only in the ether of my imagination. This thing I’ve conjured started inside my head. Now it is real, a physical manifestation of my thought. It is something I made, and also something I am. It’s existence is a record of the part of my life I invested in it. It is time in a bottle.
This extraordinary feeling is the only reward that you, as artists, can count on. The judgment of others will determine the material rewards that await you, but your ability to independently engage in the creative process and savor the deep satisfaction that comes from it is yours, no matter what. It is the lifetime benefit of the decision you made to study art and design.
In the future you may be called upon to exercise your creative energies in a field outside your discipline, or you may find periods in your life that require you to do more mundane work, leaving your creative energies untapped. But that does not mean you need to abandon them.
Wherever you find yourself in the coming years, make the time to perform your own acts of magic. Don’t stop turning your thoughts into things.
It turns out, metaphorically speaking, that it is possible to return to the basement and scale the foremast. I invite you all to join me there. I’ll be the one hollering, “Thar she blows!”
Watch Chris Van Allsburg's full speech above.
Want more? Check out the full commencement video for more fun, including: faculty, family members, space helmets (?!), staff, and student speeches.
You can also learn more about the final year thesis projects created by our seniors at the Synthesis: the 2012 A&D Senior Show page, and check out an album of images from the Senior Show openings on our Facebook page.