Ashley Hawkins’s (BFA ’07) December 2017 Commencement Address

Headshot of Ashley Hawkins wearing black shirt and denim jacket

Thank you for such a warm welcome. It is truly one of the greatest honors of my life to stand in front of you today.

First of all—congratulations, graduates! You’ve spent years working for this day and you should be incredibly proud of what you have accomplished. It was not that long ago that I was sitting exactly where you are and I know the literal blood, sweat, and tears it takes to get here. I’m sure you are thrilled to have made it and excited for the future. But I assume that you are also scared out of your minds. And you should be. It’s scary. There’s this huge cliff awaiting you: life after college. You’re leaving this challenging place that is also regular and secure and known. And you’re heading out into the unknown.

In preparing these remarks, I kept coming back to the same thought . . . “What the hell do I know?” I’m 32. I regularly forget to buy food. Just this week I bought new underwear rather than do my own laundry. What can I possibly say to this incredible group that you don’t already know?

I started thinking about how I was feeling at my graduation 10 years ago. I was terrified. I had finally found this place of constant challenge, of close and continuous human contact, of community and of meaning. And I wasn’t ready to give it up. I had found something I loved and I suddenly realized that, as soon as I stood up from that chair and walked across this stage, I might not have it anymore.

So, I did what any good VCUarts student would do. I hustled and I made something.

The something I made is called Studio Two Three. Studio Two Three is my life’s greatest work (except, of course, for my two beautiful children). We started Studio Two Three in 2008—less than 3 months out of undergrad. The idea was just to create a place where we could continue making prints outside of VCUarts, because no such place existed in Richmond at the time. We rented a small studio, Studio #23 (hence the name) at Plant Zero art center. We borrowed an etching press, tended bar to pay the rent, and put every spare moment, thought and dime into starting this little artist’s collective.

In the 9 years since we began, Studio Two Three has evolved into a non-profit community organization that gives over 100 artists 24/7 studio access, teaches thousands of people art-making and business skills, and has become an anchor in the Richmond arts community.
So, even though I can’t manage to wash my own clothes, I realize there are definitely a few things I do know now that I didn’t know 10 years ago. I am going to share with you four things I now know as a result of being an artist and making an organization.

First, if you know what you are on this planet to do, then do that thing.

I’m borrowing a bit from Neil Gaiman here. He suggests we picture “the thing” – your goal, your calling, your must – as a mountain. A distant mountain. And make sure every step you’re taking, every choice you’re making in where you spend your energy and your time, is moving you closer to that mountain. If you know what you are on this planet to do, do that thing.

I knew that I must make things and serve people. I knew that that was it and it was that simple. I loved the community of VCUarts, the camaraderie of the print shop, the inspiration of working in the studio alongside other artists. I knew in my heart that was something I wanted to create outside of the university. I knew I must make artwork but also make something bigger than myself, a place that helped others do what I wanted to do – build careers in art and live creative lives.

You have to constantly and consistently choose to live a creative life. Distractions will get in the way. Failures and struggle to pay the bills may be your reality for a short time or a long time. I almost threw in the towel many times while building Studio Two Three because it was a lot of hard work for no money. Instead, I chose to bartend at night to keep my days free to build printing tables, write grants and host workshops. I chose to stick with it because I knew that Studio Two Three must be. Those years of struggle have paid off richly – I am living a life that I love.

You are here, graduating from this prestigious program, because something in your heart or in your gut said “I make things. I create. Deep down, what I know to be true, is that I must make art.” In your time here, you have learned to create something from nothing. That isn’t a common experience. That is something that artists do. That mothers do. That makers of futures and societies do. That is your power.

The second thing I know is:
You can make your own path.

In the arts, there is no “one path” and that’s what’s interesting, isn’t it? In making art, we make something from nothing. I took what I learned at VCUarts and I pivoted. I was an artist who needed to create an organization in order to continue making art. So, that’s what I did. And over the past 10 years, organization-building has become my art.

You can forge a path for yourself. I created an organization where there wasn’t one before. It was a direct result of learning how to make art and how to think about making art. All of those skills translated immediately into the process of organization building. Describe, analyze, interpret, judge. Every step of making Studio Two Three and choosing what programs we offer and how we are serving the community involves these phases of critique.

I work every day alongside scores of other artists who are making their own paths. Some of them are your professors and your deans, coming in after a day of teaching you to make art of their own. Some of them are your peers, who just graduated and are now building careers and reputations as freelance artists and designers. They are all creating their own paths and experiencing the exhilaration of success and the disappointment of failure. And then they are critiquing, and moving on, and doing it better the next time. You can make your own path.

The third thing I know:
Always hustle.

I’ve already said it once, but it bears repeating — we must choose to live creative lives. That choice entails sacrifice and challenge and constant hustle. And it means that you will always love what you do. That is your power, and your tool for changing the world.

I was lamenting to my good friend Jackie – a published author with a fine arts degree – how humbled I felt in being asked to speak in front of you today. She asked if I had a metaphor. I replied “nope.” So, Jackie loaned me a metaphor (which she partially stole from a Sarah Silverman joke) for the purposes of this speech. Actually, “loan” is generous – she charged me $5 for it. Anyway, the metaphor is:

The average lifespan of the Grey squirrel is 11-12 months. They are the most anxious animals I’ve ever seen. They spend most of their day burying nuts for the future, and then they only find 20% of the nuts that they bury. This is the life of a crazy person.

It’s also a life of passion, one that makes a difference. It’s a life of creativity, without even knowing it. Because the 80% of nuts the Grey squirrel doesn’t find? That’s how we get new trees. New forests.

What you do all of your life – because it feels as if it will sustain you – the thing that you just have to do, or you’ll die — that’s how you’ll change the world.

This is a ridiculous metaphor. But it comes back to the hustle. Rely on your network – your teachers, your peers, the people you meet along the way. Use the contacts you’ve made here, and make more because those connections will make great things possible. When I was trying to rent Joe Seipel’s building on Main Street, I wrote a “Name Drop List” of people at VCU that would vouch for us. I scribbled it on a piece of notebook paper at the bar where I work and handed it to the owner, who happened to be a friend of Joe’s. I thought maybe he’d call Joe and mention the names, but instead he simply handed him my hot mess of a piece of paper that probably had beer on it. And it worked. Joe took a chance and rented his building to a scrappy group of punk rock kids because of that name drop list. The move to Main Street transformed Studio Two Three.

Sure, when you’re just starting out, say yes to everything, maybe do things for “exposure.” But know that your efforts, your time, your labor, your hustle – they are worth something. Your brain is different. As clichéd as it is to say “college taught me not what to think but how to think” – it’s true. You have just learned design thinking, critical making, and how to choose what you spend your time thinking about. These skills are in demand in every sector – with the right hustle and the right network, you will be successful.

The last thing I know is that you have a power that you have only begun to realize.

You make something from nothing.
You make existing things better.
You make the quotidian extraordinary.
You don’t just gild the lily, you cast it from gold.

You have the power to change our world – in every sense. You have the power to streamline organizations. The power to create beauty. The power to advocate for change. The power to change minds. The power to change landscapes. The power to change taste and culture and communities.

Take that power. Go out there with vigor. Stand at the edge of the cliff, leap off, and fly with it. Create something from nothing, because that is what you do.

And if you know one thing, know that you will always make art.