“Graduates of the arts, this work you have chosen is more important than ever. You are the connectors. The Creative People who can reinvent a more inclusive America. Who can discover ways to save the planet or at the least, stop hurting it. Who will find a replacement for an economics based on war, who can honor all of our children and who can see each human life as potential for beauty and vision. Do not be afraid that you do not know enough. Do not sell out your art. Do not be afraid to make mistakes as you most certainly will. Make passionate mistakes instead, but commit to making the world better through your work. You can prove, once and for all, that “the space between imagining and making real is very small.”
– Professor Judith F. Baca Commencement Address at UCLA
commencement speech from SPARC Murals on Vimeo.
UCLA COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS 2012
SCHOOL OF ART AND ARCHITECTURE.
BY PROFESSOR JUDITH F. BACA
Good afternoon, Dean Waterman, distinguished faculty, staff, graduates of the class of 2012 and good afternoon family members and friends!
On this joyous occasion I add my Congratulations to the class of 2012. I also extend congratulations to everyone that contributed to the creation of the class of 2012…because what we all know is, that no one can do this alone. This is the day you have been anticipating for the last four years or perhaps a lifetime. You are a graduate of this extraordinary university, UCLA, in the School of Art and Architecture.There is no profession greater than that of a teacher and no greater combination than that of an artist/teacher. For that reason I congratulate your faculty as well. I must also acknowledge your families for the sacrifices they have made to bring you to this moment.Can we have a round of applause for the friends and family members here today?
Yes…This is a very important marker in your life, but it maybe not definitive in the way you anticipated. It is a beginning not an ending of your education in your field, particularly in the mastery of your work in the arts.Years ago as an undergraduate in the arts, I remember straddling a bench with my large drawing pad in a live drawing class led by a master of abstract expressionism Hans Burkhardt. He sailed past me as I drew on the large newsprint sheets with graphite—my rendition of the nude model seated before us. As he passed my easel, he pulled out a carpenters pencil, from his shirt pocket to correct my drawing, and with one quick gesture; he drew an elegant thick black line under the arm and a leg of the figure leaning back in a classic repose. Surprisingly, with his marks, my limp tentative drawing snapped into shape before my eyes. How was that possible? I had struggled for hours! His lines provided not only weight and movement and strength to my drawing, but also COMPLETE FRUSTRATION for me! I looked up at him from my easel (practically pulling out my hair and with a flare for drama that I was prone to at the time) said: Oh God, when will I ever be able to draw? He looked down at me with a slight grin and said simply–“in eleven years”. You can imagine that his response to me was overwhelming. Was he putting me on? …. 11 years? 11 years represented more than half of my 19 years of life.
Year’s later, working in a studio (with a team), on a mural design, I drew a figure and reached for a carpenters pencil and weighted the figure with a thickened black line. Suddenly, Burkhardt’s marks on my drawing vividly appeared in my mind.At that moment I realized: I now understood how to make the line carry weight and power and my figure was anything but tentative. The image triggered Hans Burkhardt’s words and I counted back the years. Yes …you guessed it. It was eleven years. How did he know? There are theories now that confirm that it takes at least 10 years to become proficient at anything, and that the context in which a person works, the people that they surround themselves with, and where they come from is part of what makes them successful.
I want to tell you:
What is important for us as artists, Architects, scholars, and as human beings, is our “connectedness”: connection— to our own cultural identity–because it provides the fountain out of which our very specific manifestations of the human spirit spring; connection— to the time in which we live and the geographic place in which we create because they provide the context for our work; but most importantly, connection to each other, because we are storytellers and what we make is not complete until others hear the story we tell.
You are sitting alongside people who have accompanied you on an extraordinary journey, some as collaborators, some as competitors. Some of them you will know a lifetime, and life-long relationships are nothing less than miraculous. But make no mistake, the future is more about cooperation than competition. You will need allies and partners in your next stage of life as scholars and artists. They will remind you who you are when you forget. And you will need reminders.
Graduation day is filled with family expectations:
My own family gathered at my graduation as they would for a baptism or a wedding. I was the first of the Baca’s to graduate from the university. My grandmother Francisca a traditional indigenous woman, small-bodied but giant in stature, whose healing practices saw our family through many difficult times, was among the celebrants. In an effort to understand what the diploma meant, she said, “let me see what it is that you do mija.“ I flipped through my portfolio for her–-the accumulation of 4 yrs of my art school training. As I watched her look thorough the pages of my artwork, for the first time I saw it through my grandmother’s eyes rather than those of my professor. She viewed one formal visual exercise after another and after a long silence, simply asked, “ Para que sirve este, mija?.” “What is its purpose dear one?”
Her words were totally without judgment. She simply wanted to know. Everything had a purpose in Francisca’s world. What I had seen as useless–-weeds growing by the water fountain, for example, she turned into exquisite vegetables with frijoles. What was its purpose? I had never even considered it. Her question set me reeling, and my answer over many years has become a measurement of my artistic growth.
I know now that I am more like my grandmother Francisca, with her warm brown skin, long braids and Indian ways, than I am different from her. I practice healing and transformation just as she did with her curandismos. I make images that articulate a community’s dreams for the future. I honor places of public memory to remember those who have been dis-membered.
“Dismembered” by those who insist their reality is the only truth.
Francisca knew that if one could not imagine change, it could not happen. She gave credence to dreams, listened for signs and prayed things into being. She taught me more than anyone “that sometimes the space between imagining and making real is very small.”
What ABOUT THE WORLD YOU FACE NOW, CLASS OF 2012?
–A world that seems to have little regard for the arts or even for living things for that matter, much less the deep soul work that is essential to art making? A world that depresses you daily with bad news—of economic, educational, and spiritual crises? A world of endless war, unparalleled disparity, global warming, unspeakable injustices?
According to some, it is even supposed to come to an end this year in December of 2012 when the Mayan calendar ends. While it may not be ending literally, the world, as we have known it… IS coming to an end. The myth of endless, bountiful resources and abundance, there for the taking by the most aggressive of us–is now over. In our own country, 50% live in, or near, the poverty line. We can no longer consume a quarter of the world’s energy when we make up less than 5 % of the world’s population. Our planet is in crisis and is fast approaching the tipping point where recovery is not possible.So what is clear to me is that we can no longer hold the romantic 19th century notion of a starving artist in a garret, or a scholar isolated in an ivory tower, or for that matter, an artist waiting to join the 1% percenters with six or seven figures for his or her latest work or commission. But we can and should make a case for artist as change-maker. So, have you been perfectly educated, incurred so much educational debt, just to be of little consequence to this world?
I want to tell you: WHY WHAT WE DO IS SO IMPORTANT:
You are the creative ones. You are the dreamers. Are there dream Act students here today? You are the communicators. You have been trained in aesthetics, and like any muscle, your imagination and creative capacities have grown with use. You can interpret the depth of meaning and subtlety in the human experience: the difference in the cry of a child who is lost; versus one who is hungry; the coloration of hope versus violence; the texture of alienation.
You can facilitate communication at time when our inability to reach consensus is threatening the precious democracy that for generations we have cherished. You can teach compassion to even the most hardened among us with one simple story of a homeless survivor. And, as architects, you change the world by building shelter for or with that someone. You can give voice to a planet in environmental crisis, calm conflict with your bold expression, and build hope in communities based on collaboration and empowerment.
I spent the majority of my life learning to listen. I had to quiet the voices in my own head seeking recognition, immediate gratification and wealth as a measure of my success. Only then could I hear a calling to a GREATER GOOD and understand how I could contribute to it. What I could hear when I finally learned to listen, was the land, and—the memory that resides in place. I could feel it and hear it. The inherent nature of the land and all living things passing through it that comprise the living spirit of place. It is why we want to put our hands on the WAILING WALL, visit the ceremonial burial grounds, step into the rainforest, walk into river waters because we can feel the stories flowing there.
When I was an art student and struggling to make meaning of what I had learned, I went to the Los Angeles River, that powerful artery that once ran through our city. I had watched as a child as the river was turned into a concrete channel to protect real estate interests. There was a scar where the river once ran. I recalled the terrible scars, on a young man’s chest in an LA Barrio, a map of violence left by gang warfare. I had helped him design tattoos that transformed the ugly marks into something powerful and beautiful.
So for over three decades, I worked to tattoo the scar where the Los Angeles river once ran, with images that would remember our dismembered history. 400 young people of all races worked on it with me. The result was the longest mural in the world, just minutes from the campus where I was educated. I have travelled all over the world since, listening to the land: from the agricultural fields of Guadalupe, California to Gorky Park, Moscow; from the streets of Montgomery, Alabama to the mountains of Ataco, El Salvador; from the midnight sun of Finland to the mines of Appalachia. In each place, I listen and hear what the land has to tell me; in each place I collaborate with others to bring the stories of place and dreams of the people to life.
You must listen, hard and deep, to that which inspires you. To the task you were put on this earth to complete. And follow that voice.
I want to tell you:
Graduates of the arts, this work you have chosen is more important than ever. You are the connectors. The Creative People who can reinvent a more inclusive America. Who can discover ways to save the planet or at the least, stop hurting it. Who will find a replacement for an economics based on war, who can honor all of our children and who can see each human life as potential for beauty and vision. Do not be afraid that you do not know enough. Do not sell out your art. Do not be afraid to make mistakes as you most certainly will. Make passionate mistakes instead, but commit to making the world better through your work. You can prove, once and for all, that “the space between imagining and making real is very small.”
Thank you and congratulations! Now celebrate.