Jordan Bruner’s (B.F.A.’06/A) Commencement Speech

Jordan Bruner (B.F.A.’06/A) delivered the VCUarts May Commencement address on May 12, 2023.

Jordan Bruner - commencement speaker, spring 2023

About Jordan Bruner

Jordan Bruner (B.F.A.’06/A) is an artist and filmmaker whose work encompasses painting, printmaking, ceramics and animated films. Her work has been exhibited at CADAF Miami and she has created multiple installations with the MTA Arts and Design program in New York. Her animated films have been shown at festivals worldwide including Pictoplasma and the LA Film Festival, and her illustration work has been honored by the Society of Illustrators and American Illustration. Jordan also works as an art + animation director for clients such as the New York Times, Google, Eve Ensler, the Atlantic and Warby Parker. In 2013, she was the recipient of the Art Director’s Club Young Guns Award. Jordan lives in Richmond with her husband Zack, cat Pablo, and whippets Zucchini and Cezar.

Hi everyone! First of all, congratulations graduates! And thank you VCU School of the Arts for inviting me to speak to you today. And thanks to all the family and friends here to support the recent grads.

Being a college student was challenging enough when I was in school, so a major congratulations again for getting to this point after surviving a global pandemic. This shows you have resilience, which you’re going to need in your future art careers. Especially now since you won’t just be competing with your human peers, you’ll also be competing with robots. Or working with them. Or fixing them. Or maybe they’re your boss. My name is Jordan Bruner. I graduated with a degree in Kinetic Imaging in 2006. That was 17 years ago.

I work as an animation director, designer and illustrator in my commercial art life, and as a painter and filmmaker in my non-commercial art life. Now, as a middle aged person, I would say I’ve had some success in my career, and I hope that’s why I was asked to speak here today.

Graduation ceremonies can be formal, stuffy occasions, so I thought it might be fun to deliver your commencement speech in the form of a listicle.

Here it goes: “A Career in the Arts: 7 Rules to Live By: Insights From A Millennial Artist”

Oh No! Did you just graduate from art school? Are you unsure of what to do next? Scared of what the future holds? Knees quivering under a mountain of student debt? No need to fret.

These next few tips will help you navigate your future.

1. Don’t Lose Hope

You don’t need me to tell you that we are living in wild times, but I’ll tell you anyway. We are living in wild times. I won’t enumerate all the examples, but take artificial intelligence. I just heard on NPR that AI is being poured on everything like ketchup these days, and I only like ketchup on my french fries. AI is in its infancy, so we don’t know to what degree this technology is going to impact our careers. But, in the face of adversity, we must keep going.

“The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald said that – not the greatest husband, but a pretty good writer.

2. Live Your Life Really Well

You’re an artist, so that means you can invent the life you want. Being an artist isn’t just about what you create, it’s about how you live. And how you live influences the work you create.

I knew when I first graduated, all I wanted to do was see the world. At that point in my life I had never left the US, so I saved the money I made from waiting tables and went to Europe for two months. I drank limoncello on the Amalfi coast, ate fresh peaches off a truck while biking in Turkey, and drank creamed whiskey with an elderly tour group outside of Edinburgh. Though most of my memories now are food and drink related, the exposure to different cultures, architecture, art, music and cuisine at that young age had an impact on how I create and ignited my desire to deepen my well of inspiration through travel.

Make Your Own Path – subset of listicle item number 2

There will be a lot of people telling you what to do and how to do it. It’s great to seek advice from those you admire, but at the end of the day, you are here to create things that have never existed before. When I was a young person, I struggled to listen to my inner voice, and was often looking to other people for advice and validation. I mean, I still do it…just not as much.

If your inner voice is telling you that you need to produce your own animated feature film, create massive soft sculpture animals, or design a bespoke RPG game, listen to it. We need more weirdness in this world.

3. Know Your Values

Years ago I was making a low budget music video. There was a scene in that video where an animated bear gets up on a table, takes off his clothes, and dances. The band asked if I could remove the scene, but I fought for it to stay in. From my perspective, I wasn’t getting paid enough to make revisions. I asked the band if they would pay for the revision, and they couldn’t or didn’t want to, and while I valued their opinion, I also valued my time, energy, and vision. When I’ve screened the video since then, it’s a scene that gets laughs.

I also value working with considerate people, efficiency, and most of all, sleeping. There have been times when I’ve walked away from projects that I didn’t feel aligned with these values. For example, I once turned down the opportunity to work with a well-known documentary filmmaker because I felt their communication style was disrespectful and undermined my team’s creative effort. That being said, there have also been times when I’ve had to learn to work with people or be in circumstances I didn’t love in order to see a project through.

Let your values lead the type of work you take on, but also recognize that there may be times you need to compromise. But, if you do too much compromising, you may lose sight of your inspiration.

4. Money is Real

I don’t make the rules, but it’s true – money is real. I just bought a house, and I didn’t do that solely through the power of manifestation. I did it with cold hard cash, and a mortgage.

For many that are pursuing a career in the fine arts, it’s likely you won’t be able to survive off of your art practice alone. If you’re in the small minority that can, congrats on finding the golden ticket!

If you’re in the camp that needs to supplement your income to create art, find a way to make a living that feeds into your practice. Like if you’re inspired by nature, you could work in a garden center. Orrrr, if you love watching TV commercials…. you could work in ad agency.

When I work on commercial projects, I let my values steer which projects I accept. Sometimes I’ll compromise a bit if I know my compensation will afford me more time in the studio, or time for doing other things I love, like taking my dogs to the dog park, making little clothes for my dogs, or managing my dog’s social media accounts. You can follow their journey @whippets.gone.wild – it’s on instagram, I’m too old for tiktok

Be in it, but not of it — use the structures of power to make the work of your dreams, and dream a better future for us.

5. Take Care of Your Health

As someone that has lived with anxiety and depression from a very young age, I love seeing the awareness your generation has around mental health, body positivity and inclusion. And I really hope this awareness will guide us into a more gentle and loving future for everyone and the planet. Use this awareness to heal yourself and support one another.

6. Community is Everything

bell hooks said, ‘no one is healed in isolation.’ We can’t create in isolation either. I even had to enlist a dear friend to help me write this speech! Her name is Chat GPT.

Just kidding, it’s Nelly Kate.

It’s crucial to surround ourselves with people who are also creating and living fulfilling lives, as they can inspire, critique, and energize us. We should be mindful of how we spend our limited energy, and invest it in those who reciprocate our support and share our values.

If you’re fortunate enough to have early success, give back to your community and empower others to reach their creative potential.

7. A Career is a Lifetime of Small Decisions

I’m gonna use another garden metaphor here because I have a garden now and I spend a lot of time with my plants.

Right now you are planting seeds in your garden, and these seeds will continue to grow over your lifetime. Some plants will die, but that’s probably because they weren’t a good fit for your garden anyway. Or they got over watered…..Or eaten by squirrels.

Some will grow much more slowly than you want them to, even though you tend to them very carefully. And some will develop into big beautiful oak trees over a lifetime, to be loved by you and future generations to come. Be patient, stay creative and keep going.

Thanks everyone and congrats!