Janelle Washington’s December 2022 Commencement Address

Janelle Washington

Thank you, Dean Higginbotham, administrators, and distinguished School of the Arts faculty, for having me here today. I am honored and surprised to be standing here with you all at my alma mater, giving this year’s December keynote address. To be speaking here, when I was an ordinary student at VCUarts in the School of Fashion, shows how life can change, people can grow, and how your journey can come full circle. I am grateful to be nominated and selected because someone understood that my creative journey could be inspiring enough to share with you School of Arts graduates.

Now, I would like to say congratulations, class of 2022! Congratulations on making it to this critical step in your life. To the guardians, parents, family members, mentors, teachers, allies, and friends who have stood with this graduating class to encourage, support, and uplift them, we thank you!

To the graduates who have experienced losses in the last couple of years while trying to maneuver in this pandemic, hold on to your good memories and keep them close. Let those memories inspire you to be better and do better.

As I contemplated what part of my story to share, I tried to think of a quote that summed up my career outside of VCU thus far. I came across a tweet with a quote I would like to share from James Baldwin, an American novelist, and playwright. This quote was taken from his 1984 interview with The Paris Review.

He says, “Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck but most of all endurance.” This was Mr. Baldwin’s advice on writing, which is part of my advice today to you all as creatives.

I want to break down his quote on how it applied to me and how it may apply to you in your future creative endeavors.

First, Mr. Baldwin says talent is insignificant, meaning that talent alone does not determine whether you can have a fulfilling career as an artist. Growing up, I knew I loved art and drawing. I practiced drawing every chance I got and bugged my mom to buy me how-to-draw books from the Scholastic book fairs in school. Then, on Saturdays, after watching the news with my dad, I would watch TV recaps of couture fashion shows. This time spent with my dad activated my love for fashion. I attend John Marshall High School; at the time, it was known as the fashion school here in Richmond, Virginia. I took merchandising and made sure I had art as an elective every single year in high school. As I pursued art and cultivated a strong passion for it, my family and friends knew that I could draw somewhat, but they didn’t see me as having a natural talent for it. When I did show my drawings to people around me, they would nod their heads, say, “that’s nice,” and would proceed to tell me of someone else with actual artistic talent according to them, like a neighbor’s child or a 2nd cousin. Growing up, I figured we all had some creativity that manifested in us somehow, but it all came down to what you do with that talent that counted. Barbara Mason, an American soul singer, says, “Art is like singing, some do it better than others, but everyone can and should be doing it for their soul.”

So whether you are naturally talented or have to work harder at what you love, keep creating art for the sake of your soul, and the world will see your passion and reward you for it, just as it has me.

The next word is discipline. You arrived here because of the discipline you received at VCU in your respective art concentrations. There are several reasons why VCUarts is among the country’s top-ranked arts and design schools. Here you get the training you need to further your horizon. You are taught to think outside the box, push your imagination, collaborate with others, and take and give critiques. As a creative person, you will need the self-discipline to push your career ahead even if you are uninspired or life feels hopeless because these feelings will come from time to time.

After I graduated from VCU in 99″ from the School of Fashion, I waited a year and a half before I mustered up the courage to move to New York City and live with one of my oldest brothers. At that time, if you wanted a solid fashion career, you needed to move out of Richmond, specifically to New York or Los Angeles. I wanted to honor my parents’ financial investment when they sent me to VCU, so I knew I would need to move soon. While living with my brother, I secured my first fashion job as an assistant designer at a children’s wear company in Manhattan. In my new position, I was nervous and unsure of myself. To overcome these feelings, I did what I learned in my college classes: ask lots of questions, pay attention to what was happening around me, and take excellent notes. Unfortunately, during the early months in my new job, I botched up on what the industry calls a “tech pack,” which is a document of technical specifications and design details. I emailed the tech pack with the wrong measurements for a top to the overseas factory, and those measurements made it into the final production. I just knew that this was the end of me. I was reprimanded, and somehow the mistake was corrected, or there were children out there wearing shirts that didn’t fit correctly. Either way, to ensure that another mistake like this wouldn’t happen and I wouldn’t be found in the hallway crying, I made a tech pack checklist for myself that the company eventually used for new hires. Creating this list saved me from feeling like a failure and allowed me to be more organized and detail-oriented. Discipline, especially self-discipline, is critical to one’s ability to succeed in life, and as you grow in your creative career, discipline will take on new shapes.

James Balwin lists love as the second thing you need next to discipline. To truly succeed in any field, you have to have a love for what you are spending your time on. Unfortunately, after ten-plus years in fashion, I fell out of love with the industry.

Tony Robbins, a motivational speaker, and author, says, “Until you get dissatisfied, you won’t do anything to really move your life to another level. Dissatisfaction is a gem. If you’re totally satisfied, you’re going to get comfortable. And then your life begins to deteriorate.”

I have found throughout my life that you will have moments of dissatisfaction, but to move out of this phase, you will need to look inward and remember what it is that you love and act on that love. You will also need to have a love of self. Self-compassion, acceptance, and loving yourself is an art form all on its own, and learning to do this is vital for your well-being.

While at my last fashion job, I realized my true love was creating art for myself, concentrating on my interest, and creating my personal style. Life threw me a life jacket and introduced me to a new art form called paper cut art, and a whole new world started to unlock for me by allowing me to find my creative God-given voice.

After love is luck or what I call blessings, luck describes happy circumstances or coincidences, and blessing is a spiritual word that conveys divine intervention instead of mere chance. Whatever way you lean, these words will show up throughout your life as opportunities to help move you ahead if you prepare accordingly.

During my early years out of the fashion industry and now living back in Virginia, I worked full-time in the public school system, had a part-time job on the weekends, taught art twice a week for an after-school program, and worked on my paper-cutting at night. These jobs paid me less than my fashion jobs but were more fulfilling because they gave me the freedom I desired. As a result, I truly started to feel successful. During this time, I designed my website, opened an online store on Etsy, learned where to exhibit my art, took business classes, and joined like-minded communities. By taking these proactive steps, each one relatively simple and uncomplicated on its own, I planted the seeds for continued success and growth while honing my new art form.

So as you step out into the world, prepare yourself as you have here at VCU getting your degree so that luck or blessings will find you and not pass you by. Since I spent time planting seeds and preparing, I landed several major commissioned jobs. For example, I created silhouettes for The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. I cut a silhouette of Breonna Taylor for the historic cover edition of The O magazine. In addition, earlier this year, I made my debut as a picture book illustrator using my paper-cut art. I could do all this because I was prepared at the right time.

The last word in Baldwin’s quote is endurance. Faith Ringgold, an American textile artist, says, “You can’t sit around waiting for somebody else to say who you are. You need to write it and paint it and do it. That’s the power of being an artist.”

I am what some folks call a late bloomer. Yet, here I am, seeing some of my ancestors’ wildest dreams come true. To endure is the ability to withstand hardship or adversity. And you graduating class of 2022 have already endured so much. So be proud of how far you have come, and know you have what it takes to keep going. Your journey outside of VCU won’t be a straight line. You will sometimes fail and feel unsure of yourself, but hold on to the training you received here, allow your self-discipline to keep you motivated, and give yourself the space to rest. Love what you do and love who you are. Prepare yourself in your field so blessings can come in abundance and endure so you can see your hard work bear fruit. Refrain from leaning on your talents only or focusing on your deficiencies. Remember, you have what it takes to be successful, and success will differ for each and every one of you. And lastly, do not despise small beginnings because they will set you up to take you to higher heights.

I wish you all a successful journey no matter what you do or where you go, and I look forward to reading about you in VCU’s Featured news and other publications.

Thank you!