Bobby C. Martin Jr.’s (BFA ’99) May 2018 Commencement Address

Headshot of Bobby Martin wearing a black suit and tie.

Bobby C. Martin Jr. (BFA ’99), founding partner of The Original Champions of Design, delivered the 2018 VCUarts May Commencement address on May 12. Read what he had to say to the Class of 2018, or watch the video below.

I want to start by thanking Dean Brixey. And thank you to VCU, where I had many incredible teachers and invaluable lessons. To all of the families and friends who’ve come so far to be here today. Thank you.

VCU class of 2018. Hello. You look great today. A little smarter. A little wiser. A little more ready than yesterday. I can see it in you. You have a gift, a gift that can’t be bought or sold. You have dedicated the last few years of your life to growing it. And it will repay you in spades. But, creativity is a fickle beast. It gives us the extraordinary ability to make something from nothing.

Now, it’s work. Hard work. But it pays off. It gives us the pride of a job well done. The relief of getting that idea on paper, on screen, on canvas, out of your head. Then, it turns a corner, it makes us vulnerable. In bringing creativity to the world we confront the fear of the new, the power of the familiar, the ease of “No, I don’t like it” or “That’s weird.” To make, is a risk. To love, to like, even, is a risk too. That’s why it is so hard to get to “yes.” That’s why they say the second person on the dance floor is the bravest.

Let me tell you why.

It takes heart, and passion, and grit to make something artful—something wholly new. And to you, that’s just homework. But man, it takes guts to show it to people. Being an artist is to be completely vulnerable. So why do we do it? The world is a crazy place. We bring context to confusion. We bring insight to instability. We challenge. We celebrate. We see the unseen. We offer new ways into hard ideas, big ideas, old ideas. New ways of seeing that only we have the vision to bring to the world. And bring it we must. After all, that’s how we got here. Here, to this place in the world. Here to the Altria Theater.

It’s hard to imagine a time when Richmond did not value the arts. When there were no colorful houses on Cary Street. When there was no Grace Street Theater. No Reynolds Gallery, no MoB Gallery, no 1708 Gallery. It’s hard to imagine a time when there was no Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, no VCU Institute for Contemporary Art, no Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts. But it wasn’t so long ago. Richmond was bleak. Times were hard. Progress seemed impossible.

Two young activists, women your age, decided to do something about it. Adele Clark and Nora Houston first took on the fight for women’s right to vote, then unaccepting of the impossible, they brought the arts to Richmond. They founded the Richmond Arts Club. And it’s there that another young woman, Theresa Pollak, found her gift for creativity. With the support of Clark and Houston, she moved to New York to deepen her studies. Upon arriving back in Richmond, she participated in a group exhibition where she was approached by Dr. Henry Hibbs. He asked Pollak if she’d start an art school. She said “yes.” That was the Richmond Division of William & Mary. Years later it became the Richmond Professional Institute and in 1968, Richmond Professional Institute became Virginia Commonwealth University. Your School of the Arts.

Three women, your age, back in the 1910’s, brought us here today.

Can you imagine the vulnerability they must have felt? Remember this—right around the corner in Monroe Park, a place we’ve passed through thousands of times, our hero, Nora Houston gave a pro-suffrage speech. People threw stones at her. Years later, long after her death, Adele Clark found one of the stones in Ms. Houston’s jewelry box.

Art makes anything possible, if you’re tough enough.

So, what I am talking about today is an awareness of how hard it is to lead, to create, to make something totally new. And how easy it is for the world to greet that with resistance. I know a little something about this. I am a black man. And, this is America. This is America. My dad, a professor at Hampton, a university not too far from here, would always tell me, “Do more than you’re asked, son. You are going to have to give more and you will get less. Do not give up.” He might have thought I wasn’t listening, but I heard him. Who here has had that talk? It will serve you well in the arts. As an artist, we have to push, push, push and over deliver.

Never give up.

To create is to make something from nothing, to bring something totally new into this world. Then what? We’re not done there. We need to learn how to talk about it, we need to share it with people, we need to share it with lots of people, we need to explain it and we need to make it better.

I think that’s why I am here today.

I am here because I am the most relentless. My parents set me up to “give more and expect less” and I have grinded it out every day since. I grew up in Hampton Roads. If you know that area, then you know it’s a sports town.  In my generation, Hampton Roads gave us Alonzo Mourning, Joe Smith and Allen Iverson. Growing up I wanted to be one of them. I wanted to play in the NBA. Instead, I came to VCU and I was the president of the illustrator’s club. In 2001, Iverson won the NBA MVP. I started graduate school. In 2010, I opened a design firm. In 2012, we rebranded the WNBA. In 2016, we relaunched the NBA Development League. And, in 2017, my team of eight young designers and strategists, people not too much older than you are, we made the first updates to the NBA logo in 48 years.

Coming out of Hampton Roads, I was no NBA player, but I have made NBA history.

And, my client was NBA Chief Marketing Officer, Pamela El, VCU class of 1983. It wasn’t an easy process. We heard “No, I don’t like it” and “That’s weird.” But we were ready for it. And I want you to be ready for it. Be ready for the challenge that comes after you’ve made something totally new. Be relentless. Over deliver. Don’t give up. VCU has taught you how to make. You’ve got that. You’ve got that gift in you.

If my time with you today can do anything, I hope it prepares you for what comes next. I hope you hear my voice in that moment after the making when the fear creeps in. There are so many brilliant kids that disappear. Not because they fail. But because they were afraid to fail. Another brilliant woman once said, “Fear is always with us but we just don’t have time for it. Not now.”

I’m asking you to be bold. Seek out the “No, I don’t like it” or “That’s weird.” Confront it with confidence. Conquer that vulnerability. Show your work. Talk about your work. Write about your work.

Change the world.

We see the unseen. We do the impossible. We challenge. We dare. We are hope. We are love. We are pride. We are “the arts.” We put the stones that are thrown at us in our jewelry box. Those little slings and arrows can’t kill our big ideas. They only make them stronger.

Because starting today. Starting right now. We are ready!

About Bobby C. Martin Jr. (BFA ’99)

Bobby C. Martin Jr. (BFA ’99) is a founding partner of The Original Champions of Design, a branding agency headquartered in New York City.

He guides the agency’s culture and sets the relentlessly high standard of design. Since founding the company with Jennifer Kinon in 2010, he has partnered with a wide range of clients such as The Atlantic, Dartmouth College, Girl Scouts of the USA, MoMA, MTV, NBA, The New York Times and The Studio Museum in Harlem.

Fast Company recently named Martin one of the Most Creative People in Business.

He has lectured on the role of brand identity systems around the world and has been a special guest on Design Matters and Studio 360. Martin is a board member of the Type Directors Club and served on the board of AIGA/NY from 2006–08.

Awards include honors from AIGA, the professional association for design; the Art Directors Club; D&AD, the global association for creative advertising and design and advertising; and the Type Directors Club.

Prior to founding OCD, Martin led an internal design team for Nokia in London tasked with the redesign of their global packaging range. Martin also served as design director of Jazz at Lincoln Center where he worked with Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis to bring the brand to life and reach new audiences.

Martin graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University and earned an MFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York City, where he is currently serving on the faculty.