Jarvis Jefferson’s (BFA ’82) 2016 Commencement Address

Thank you, Dean Seipel, for that extremely generous introduction. And thank you to University President, Michael Rao, the Department Chairs, faculty and staff of this, the #1 Public Fine Arts University in the country – but more importantly, as revered in the hearts of every Fine Arts Graduate who has passed through this institution since its humble inception in 1928, including the 471 GRADUATES sitting here right now – the Class of 2016.

Yeah, I said it! GRADUATES! You are no longer students – you are GRADUATES! Or more poignantly, ARTISTS – each and every one of you! And as such, you have a few “thank you’s” of your own due. Look at this place! It’s packed to the gills with friends, girlfriends, boyfriends, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings, moms and dads – who are all here today in support of your accomplishment, and to bear witness. So…I’m going to help you out by leading you in an original performance art piece called: Commencement Kudos. Okay, GRADUTATES, listen up – this is how this is going to work: when I give the signal (demonstrate the signal), I want all of you to stand quietly. Then when I direct you (demonstrate again), I want you to erupt into sheer elation, jubilation and exaltation; jumping around, shouting and yelling your “thank you’s and praises” at the top of your lungs to every deserving individual in your family, in your circle, in your network – maybe it’s your supervisor at work who allowed you time off so you could concentrate on a project. Maybe, it’s a professor who encouraged you to hone and develop your craft because it “just wasn’t quite there yet”, or maybe it’s a creative who came before you, who inspired you to go down this road in the first place. Whoever it is, whatever the reason, this is your opportunity to offer a very public expression of your thanks and gratitude. Then, when I give the signal again (demonstrate the stop signal), I want you to end it…………….just as abruptly as it began. I will instruct you to be seated and the performance will be concluded. Got it? Alright, let’s do this – Ladies and Gentleman, in its inaugural presentation, Commencement Kudos!

WOW! That was pretty spectacular! And I’m sure your loved ones appreciated seeing art in the making. It’s a rare and beautiful thing to witness the creative process. Just to give you some background on that piece, it was inspired by President Barack Obama. Yes, I happened to be in Washington, DC last weekend and the President happened to be giving the Commencement Address at Howard University. I watched it on television. While the President was speaking, the TV camera scanned the audience and, of course, the graduates. And to the horror of their parents, I’m sure, some of them were sleeping on camera during the President’s address. And I said, “OH NO, that is not going to happen to me today!!!” Because if you can go to sleep when the President is speaking to you, then I don’t stand a chance. And hence, Commencement Kudos was born to invigorate before I go on – and the few minutes I have left will tell how effective it was.

I am truly honored to have been asked to offer a few words of advice and encouragement to you today. Throughout the course of my career, I’ve routinely spoken to and offered my perspective to individuals, college audiences and more seasoned professionals alike, but today is particularly special, as it marks my first commencement address and I’m thrilled to be sharing it with you, here at my alma mater. It’s also allowing me to cross something off of my bucket list that wasn’t even on there a few months ago.

In my head, it wasn’t all that long ago that I followed a similar path to get to where you all are sitting right now. I vividly remember my very first day of class at VCU – September 6th 1977. A Tuesday; the day after Labor Day and 5 days after my 18th birthday. Eight O’Clock A.M. It was a beautiful late summer day; mostly sunny with scattered clouds; low humidity; a slight refreshing breeze blew through the open window. I had just climbed the 3 flights of stairs to the top floor of the old “Art Foundation Building” over on Franklin Street with what felt like the equivalent of an entire art supply store strapped to my body: a portfolio of sketch pads, a stainless steel ruler and square, a fishing tool box filled with charcoal and pencils and paint brushes; pins and tape and glue; watercolor and gouache – whatever that was, India ink; a compass. It was all there – all with me. Three other people had beaten me to the room. Two of them, like myself, had a ton of equipment they were off-loading and claiming one of the many easels scattered around the room. The third, stood off to the side, by the window – a young waif-like woman in a t-shirt and shorts. “Is this Drawing Studio 101?” she inquired as I surveyed the room for a place to set up. “I believe so,” I responded, glancing at my class schedule. I leaned over to pull one of the easels closer and as I lifted my head, the most incredible thing happened – in slow motion, no less – The woman moved toward the center of the room and stepped onto a platform that was sitting there and very nonchalantly peeled off her t-shirt over her head and threw it in a heap to the side (gasp!). And then she did the same with her shorts as she began to do stretching exercises. It was in that moment, at 18 years and 5 days old, that I had a revelation: ART IS AWESOME!!! Nobody told me there were going to be nude models! I thought we were going to be drawing fruit bowls, like we did in high school! I didn’t know – and you don’t know! You don’t know, what you don’t know – and that’s okay as long as you learn from every experience and are enriched by every endeavor. That was my introduction to VCUarts and that day I became an ARTIST and I owned it.

Now, ARTIST is what I call an “umbrella” term because it covers a broad range of creative disciplines, as represented here today. From Art Education and Art History to Cinema, Dance and Theatre. My original “plan” for coming to VCUarts was to become a graphic artist and design album covers for the major record labels. It was a lofty goal, I know (and many of you have no idea what an album is), but lucky for me, because I envisioned the music technology explosion and the demise of vinyl record covers in a dream in 1978, I was able to change my concentration from graphic design to fashion design – because of course, we all know that nothing ever changes in the world of fashion. Why am I sharing this? Because it’s a widely accepted notion that a person will have, on average, seven careers in their lifetime. What does this mean to you? It means: now that you have your degree, and because you don’t know what you don’t know, it’s still okay for you to change your mind. It’s perfectly fine for you to change your vision. It’s completely acceptable for you to change your focus or direction. You majored in Painting & Printmaking, but Photography is really your thing? No problem! You are multi-dimensional and multi-faceted with multi-interests. I give you license to explore all of your multi’s. But sometimes, it’s not you initiating the change. Change is inevitable in your professional life as in every other aspect of your lives. So you must be able to change or become obsolete; standing still is just not an option. Sometimes, it’s forced upon you by industry; sometimes it’s forced upon you by technology. And sometimes it’s forced upon you just out of sheer necessity. However it comes, whenever it comes pay attention to it and heed the warning. Don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone; to draw outside the lines. Don’t be afraid to fail. But the good news is: failure is not fatal. When you do, it is typically when you grow, learn and develop the most. Learn how to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and reinvent yourself over and over again and above all, keep up with the technology in your field or area of expertise for an exceptionally, healthy and vibrant career.

Lastly, I’ve had the good fortune of working for companies with very strong brand identity, as recognized in my bio in the Commencement Program.

  • Mercedes-Benz positions itself as a manufacturer of well-engineered, highly reliable, safe automobiles with attention to detail and outstanding service solutions
  • Time Warner Inc. positions itself as the global leader in media & entertainment with businesses in television networks, film and other entertainment brands. Think: CNN, HBO, Turner Broadcasting, Warner Bros., and DC Comics
  • Macy’s – America’s Department Store; national merchant of iconic retail brands; curator of the country’s most widely recognized and watched parade

The mere mention of these companies and their brands conjures up reaction, opinion, emotion – whether real or imagined. Brands stand for something and companies will protect their brand image ferociously. Do you have a brand? Actually, that’s a trick question. You have a brand, a personal brand – it has already been developed. When you use your strengths to deliver value to others, you develop an identity in the minds of those who encounter you. That identity becomes your reputation, your brand and a symbol of who you are and what you stand for. The real question is: do you know what your brand says about you? If I asked your professors or loved ones to characterize your brand, what would they say? Do you consistently meet deadlines? Do you always submit your best work? Do you take constructive criticism well? Do you give back to your family, your school, your community? You can be the most talented actor at the audition, but your personal brand could mean the difference between a call-back or not. It can open doors of opportunity for you, but it can close them just as quickly. Your brand will be important way beyond your time spent at this institution. You should know exactly what you stand for, manage it, and protect it ferociously!

Congratulations and Good Luck, Graduates – in all of your endeavors. Thank you for having me, thank you for listening. I hope to see all of you in New York, or better yet, in the New York Times Arts Section one day soon!

Good evening!

Speaker: Jarvis W Jefferson (BFA ’82), Fashion Merchandising