Embracing the Asterisk

Making a heartfelt case against cynicism, writer Hilton Als reminded the 465 bachelor’s degree and 209 master’s degree recipients at RISD’s 2016 Commencement ceremony that artistic “making is an act of hope” and an important and powerful antidote to cynicism.

In his keynote address on Saturday, June 4, the artist and chief theater critic for The New Yorker spoke of a recent invitation to collaborate from legendary dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp, whom he has long followed and admired. He spoke of how each of their mothers had invested their own hopes and dreams in their children, imbuing them with a sense of creative possibility. “We were raised on hope – refugees from the act of cynicism,” he noted, urging this year’s graduates to make hope the foundation of their own practices. Prove all doubters and naysayers wrong, he said, “as you build your own artist’s house for all the world to see.”

Als was one of three special guests who received an honorary degree at Commencement, along with journalist and education reformer Esther Wojcicki and visual artist Martha Rosler, who delivered the keynote address at the Graduate Hooding Ceremony on Friday. Other award recipients honored at Commencement include artist/educator Bunny Harvey 67 PT/MAT 71/MFA 72, who earned the Alumni Award for Professional Achievement in recognition of her remarkable body of paintings and four decades of teaching young artists at Wellesley College. Adam Dalton Blake 16 AP earned the Stephen T. Mendelson Award for Community Service for his selfless commitment to the campus community, working as a resident assistant and a teaching assistant, helping in the Office of International Services and providing entertaining commentary during RISD Balls basketball games. European Honors Program Director Ezio Genovesi and Literary Arts + Studies Professor Mairéad Byrne were each recognized with the John R. Frazier Award for Excellence in Teaching.

"Here you have learned to challenge the norm and to make entirely new realities."
RISD President Rosanne Somerson 76 ID

At the festive occasion, the Extraordinary Rendition Band led this year’s class into the Rhode Island Convention Center hall, turning Pomp and Circumstance into a riotous, New Orleans-style parade of brass and drums. Bold paper installations and flags representing graduates from around the world adorned the cavernous space, where approximately 4,000 family members and friends gathered to celebrate with this year’s graduating class.

In congratulating graduates, President Rosanne Somerson 76 ID reminded them that the “world desperately needs what you do.” She thanked students for bringing issues of social equity to the fore on campus this year, continuing the long tradition of artists and designers as catalysts for social change. “Here you have learned to challenge the norm and to make entirely new realities,” the president said before urging new grads to “be decisive [and] be brave.”

When he took to the podium to offer greetings, Board of Trustees Chair Michael Spalter called for a moment of silence in memory of Muhammad Ali, who died the day before. He lauded graduates for their “ability to obliterate and transcend boundaries and exist in new ways. This is what you do, what you’ve done on campus and what you will do out in the world.” Provost Pradeep Sharma spoke of the “even better times ahead” that await graduates, telling them to “never stop learning, never stop thinking, never stop doing. Be relentlessly human and relentlessly humane.”

In addressing the “fully committed” graduate students who “came to RISD because we felt ready to turn all of our experiences into a voice,” Lisa Maione 05 GD/MFA 16 spoke about the importance of finding and honing one’s voice as an artist. “It takes time – a lot of time – to sharpen a tool well,” she noted before urging fellow graduates to “speak up, wake up and stay awake.” She also picked up a giant megaphone and both spoke through it and raised it to her ear to indicate that the ability to articulate one’s voice also comes with the responsibility to listen to others.

"We came to RISD because we felt ready to turn all of our experiences into a voice."
Lisa Maione 05 GD/MFA 16

Senior class speaker Tim Plummer 16 GD took the opportunity to dismantle a bit of corporate buzz-speak in challenging grads to not just be “t-shaped people” with depth and breadth of knowledge but rather to embrace becoming “people with asterisks.” The asterisk, he noted, signals messiness and complexity – “a sign that there’s always another stone to turn over and [that] we want to be the ones to do it.”

“In a world so complex, how could we possibly content ourselves with being t-shaped?” Plummer asked fellow grads. “We have to embrace our asterisks on this messy, strange, beautiful, violent planet earth.” The Graphic Design major then likened Commencement to an ampersand – the typographical character for and, which acknowledges all that comes before it while also connecting to the unknown future of possibility awaiting the Class of 2016.

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