Elizabeth Turk’s May 2019 Commencement Address

Headshot of Elizabeth Turk in a white shirt, sitting on a chair

Artist Elizabeth Turk delivered the 2019 VCUarts May Commencement address on May 11. Read what she had to say to the Class of 2019, or watch the video below.

Thank you Dean Brixey, trustees, administrators, faculty, parents, loved ones and you guys! Above all, congratulations to all of you graduating today, the Class of 2019!

Thinking about this moment is humbling. The years, the resources, the commitment, the work expended by all of you to be here celebrating. What an achievement!

I kept wondering, how can my words do justice to your effort?

For the last several months, this has been my weight. My initial remedy: to Google every possible commencement address. This decision, of course, only made it worse. So, my second remedy: to ask friends to help brainstorm.

Their advice:
Get out of it.
Be careful.

This was not going in a helpful or positive direction. But doesn’t it sound familiar? The third remedy: research. Reading the words of Teresa Pollak, the acknowledged founder of VCU’s Art Department. She said “Go ahead, [work] as you want to work, any way it comes…” Her words, nearly a century old, incited her student’s creativity and underscored the need for expression during what she defined as (and I quote) “our age of confusion, fear and uncertainty.”

Yes, these words remain inspirational, in fact, freeing. They are simple, direct, honest, powerful to us today in our age of confusion, fear and uncertainty. Her words reminded me to simply work, start, make a mark where there is nothing and set a direction. To work and stay vulnerable, is to be not perfectly packaged. That is ok, just see what happens. It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? But all of you creatives know the strength it takes to start. Finding expression at the pace of your own heartbeat, not from voices embedded in media, nor even those of treasured friends can seem impossible. Unplugging, setting perception and judgment aside to listen to what is valid in a singular voice, your own voice, isn’t this the essence of creation?

Of, finding the new, over and over and over again? Of, discovering your extraordinary voice, which can give shape to the enormity of a new shared vision?

I think of the image of Freddie Mercury entering that stadium, arms raised, vulnerable, alone, quieting millions with only his voice and a piano key…alone with the sound of a single note to begin his work. All of you have proven your creativity and capabilities and now each of you will leave today to join a larger world daring it to stop, to make space and discover your singular voice, your first note.

We, the world, we need your voices. We need imagination. We need optimism. We need beautiful and brave creative spirits, which can turn barriers into bridges.

In the tradition of commencement speeches, this is where I’m to speak about the leap to create masterpieces, in defiance of fear. Or, the discovery of untapped strength and originality found at the depths of failure. But, having just Googled hours upon hours of commencement addresses, I urge you to listen to the many inspiring stories, as I skip over that part of the speech.

Instead, it is the inspiration found in being alone, being uncomfortable, being detached, away from a phone or the internet, to think, to listen and simply, to exist. This effort to be in the empty space where deeply unique and original thought resides, this is what is important as a creator. Addressing how to enter and remain in this ‘head-space’ without self-destructing and with the self-confidence to collaborate is a lifetime of difficulty. This is what I thought to share.

I love, love creating art. Maybe this desire borders on addiction. It is definitely obsessive. You artists, whether: designers, performers, scholars, musicians, or fine artists, you know exactly what I mean, because we, all of us artists, we create something new where there is nothing.

Ideas are thrilling and consistently give me a high. But it is in the Process of making art where I find refuge. In the face of life’s fragility and incoherence, it is IN the hands-on, dirty work that I find peace and feel safe. Don’t you? The focus required gives order to my thoughts and emotions, regardless of how fast they race. And, I can discover the pace of my own heartbeat.

At the start, the initial brainstorming, I don’t, in fact, I can’t listen to anyone, even the voices which mean the most to me. It is all distraction.

Nietzsche reflected: “One must have chaos within, to give birth to a dancing star.” His words are a reminder that framing psychological and philosophical depth is not new.

My messy passions mix with too many conflicting ideas, and if I speak of meaning too early, all vanishes. It’s like trying to take home an ocean wave by stuffing it in my pocket. Words confine and create their own change. Allowing internal turmoil to swirl and just work, not defining specifics allows layers of significance larger than a single concept to arise. This is the magic of extreme focus; the edges of my ‘self’ are lost, my physicality and my ideas merge, seamlessly. Even, if it is in laddering ideas with others.

Let me explain. I was really angry when I started making sculpture, carving marble. Everywhere was ugliness; divorce, a political job in DC, no money, did I say, no money? Knowing my life had fallen short of my expectations, by age 30 and it felt empty, this fact, gave me the courage to make art, to be vulnerable. I was looking for a passion, a comeback, and enough bravery to expose something deeply meaningful. It was in this fragility, that I found a strength.

In this period, hitting, smashing, cutting marble and drowning the world with noise was the only way I could work. My entire body needed to be focused in the same direction. Emotional energy was my tool. Even though I believed my intellectual concepts to be more significant. I overwhelmed my ‘self’ in the physicality, the ‘doing’, and this act left subconscious marks.

The sculptures created, endured an onslaught of such mental focus that they are so physically extreme, they defy the constraints inherent to their own materiality. Meaning they no longer appear, to be made of stone. And, the unintentional marks left behind convey the most significant insights. The deeply bruised marble crystals, these imperfections, they tell the story I can’t find words to tell, even today, so many years later. The physical work involved in production, healed me. A personal transformation was underway when I was buried in the thinking but loosing my body to the making.

James Baldwin reflected; “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” His words are a reminder that the cost of being vulnerable is impossibly high, but that it is a cost paid by so many. You are not alone.

Complex meaning resides in the space between well-worded explanations and feelings experienced deeply, irrevocably and often without reason. Art is a language addressing the paradox, the layers, the inconsistencies and the injustices in life. It is large enough to speak to the realities of simultaneous opposing truths. It is the intimate as the universal, the interior protecting the exterior, the line creating the plane, and so on, and so on. This is what makes art a powerful language, a language without boundaries. And it takes focus to synthesize the associations made between seemingly disconnected elements.

Frida Kahlo reflected, “Nothing is absolute. Everything changes, everything moves, everything revolves, everything flies and goes away.” Her words are a reminder, no life is without change. And focus is not entered through the same doorway every time.

After 9/11, I left New York, as many did. Moving back to California, overwhelmed by the vengeful human noise of the world, I spent hours walking on the beach, alone. Engaging in the unknown is more important than describing, sometimes. For some reason, I would strap my delicate marble sculptures in the passenger side of my car and drive them down to the tide pools or the beach under Huntington Pier where I grew up. There, I’d video the ocean crashing around them. No explanation existed for why I would invite destruction, after years of the most patient work. But, this was the most significant act of creating for me. A description of why would have tied the process to a single theme and limited my actions. In not talking, not describing, I found anew the pace of my own heartbeat. Lucky for me, the artwork survived, and I could sell it to make more.

Louise Bourgeois reflected, “The spider is a repairer. If you bash into the web of a spider, she doesn’t get mad. She weaves and repairs it.” Her words are a reminder perseverance is strength.

Creating the most fragile, quiet sculptures and allowing nature to overwhelm my intention, my effort, this process worked. Was it rational? Absolutely, not. But, I couldn’t find dignity in human interaction during this period. Thinking alone and simply, working as Teresa Pollak suggests; “any way it comes”, I found a path through the not knowing, the uncomfortable, and thus, a voice back to a larger world.

Our world, where communities can be loud and confrontational and where it takes fortitude to launch collaborations. Embracing chaos is tricky. Many of you share this experience, already. To hear your own voice: clearly, authentically, and without distraction while simultaneously inspiring and coordinating a myriad of other creative voices is a balance of respect and emotional self-control. Creating large events, where the “art” is a platform for the engagement of others, tests my ability to stay vulnerable, open, and humble. Only when “WE” transplants “I”, selflessly, can a significant community work emerge. But a larger joy is embraced when it does, it’s amazing and so much bigger than oneself.

Today, you will share an anniversary. 500 years ago, this month, Leonardo da Vinci left us with a legacy of creativity which continues to frame questions and present new solutions. Through his work, you inherit proof of the expanse that curiosity and imagination can and do travel. This is the gift of original minds and courageous spirits. This is your possibility.

Take a moment to look around at those sitting next to you, surrounding you, and exhale, think, and in this stillness catch each other’s eyes. These are the people who pushed you to work “anyway it comes,” who helped to refine messy creative outbursts and who stretched you beyond what you imagined possible. Catch their eyes because they shared all the days culminating in this day. These are the relationships which will be remembered from this day forward and which will continue to refine your future best.

Congratulations, all of us here can’t wait to experience how you re-imagine our “confused, uncertain and fearful” world reinvigorating it with your power, your own heartbeats.

About Elizabeth Turk

A native Californian, Elizabeth Turk is an artist, primarily known for marble sculpture. In 2010, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and the Annalee & Barnett Newman Foundation award. Today, she splits time between Santa Ana, CA and NYC. Turk received her MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art, Rinehart School of Sculpture in 1994, her BA from Scripps College, Claremont, CA in 1983. She has been represented by Hirschl & Adler, Modern since 2000, and continues to exhibit more experimental work in other venues. Turk’s work searches the boundaries of paradox: the contemporary in the traditional, the lightness in weight, the emptiness in mass, the fluidity of the solid, extended time in a moment. Reducing hundreds of pounds of stone to essential matrices of 5-25 lbs., her intricately carved sculptures defy gravity and make possible that which seems impossible. Inspired by the natural world, she references its myriad of elegant organic structures, yet her work is not complete until abandoned to larger environments, humbling the intensity of her creative focus. The artist’s studio is located in Santa Ana, CA.