Surprise Honoree David Byrne Kicks Off Rhode Island School of Design 2021 Commencement, Virgil Abloh Delivers Keynote Address

Abloh, Byrne, architect Elizabeth Diller, OBEY Giant founder Shepard Fairey and playwright Lynn Nottage received honorary degrees

PROVIDENCE, RI – Today, June 5, Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) celebrated the achievements and perseverance of the Class of 2021. The day began with a fully virtual speaking and awards program at 10 am ET with a surprise welcome by musician David Byrne. Rewatch the ceremony now at commencement.risd.edu. An in-person degree conferral was held at 2 pm ET on South Water Street in Providence, where RISD awarded degrees to 403 undergraduate and 212 graduate students. 

As part of the morning’s virtual speaking program, RISD presented five honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degrees to visionaries in contemporary culture. Artist and designer Virgil Abloh accepted an honorary degree and delivered the keynote address. Byrne, architect Elizabeth Diller, OBEY Giant founder Shepard Fairey [BFA 92 Illustration] and playwright Lynn Nottage also accepted honorary degrees and delivered virtual remarks. 

In addition, a series of virtual and limited in-person end-of-year exhibitions and events highlight new work produced by graduating students. Grad Show 2021 is presented as a digital publication and an in-person exhibition at the RISD Museum’s Chace Center galleries and the WaterFire Arts Center—open to current students, faculty and staff. The Grad Show 2021 digital publication showcases the work of grad students across 17 disciplines. The Senior Film/Animation/Video Virtual Film Festival is presented at: favshow.risd.edu and Apparel Design’s Collection is presented via video at: apparel21.risd.edu

The work of all seniors receiving undergraduate degrees was featured by department  throughout the spring semester in weekly shows at Woods-Gerry Gallery, which is open to current students, faculty and staff. Installation and work images are viewable online

Virgil Abloh | honorary degree recipient + keynote speaker
Born in Rockford, IL, Virgil Abloh is an artist, architect, engineer, creative director, artistic director, industrial designer, fashion designer, musician, DJ and philanthropist. After earning a degree in civil engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he completed a master’s degree in architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), Chicago. At IIT, while studying a design curriculum devised by Mies van der Rohe, Abloh began to craft the principles of his art practice. The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago presented a major traveling survey of his work in summer 2019—one of the best attended exhibitions in the museum’s history. Currently, Abloh is the chief creative director and founder of Off-White™️ and men’s artistic director at Louis Vuitton.

David Byrne | honorary degree recipient
World-renowned musician, performer and multidisciplinary artist David Byrne began his artistic journey as a student at RISD in 1971 before briefly attending MICA, where he studied photography, performance and video production. He co-founded the group Talking Heads in 1975, introducing his innovative visual approach to performance to audiences around the world. Byrne works in photography, drawing, installation art, performance and design and has been publishing and exhibiting his work since the 1990s. Like his music, Byrne’s visual work elevates the ordinary into the iconic and challenges fundamental notions of what constitutes art. Recent works include the Broadway debut of David Byrne’s American Utopia (2019) as well as the Spike Lee-directed film version (2020), the launch of his Reasons to be Cheerful online magazine (2019) and the solo album American Utopia (2018). His work is on display at numerous institutions, including the Denver Art Museum and the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, NC. His book projects include How Music Works (2012), Arboretum (2006), Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information (2003) and David Byrne Asks You: What Is It? (2002). Byrne lives and works in New York City.

Elizabeth Diller | honorary degree recipient
Elizabeth Diller is a partner at Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R). She and partner Ricardo Scofidio were included on TIME’s 100 Most Influential People list, and she earned the first MacArthur Foundation Fellowship awarded in the field of architecture. DS+R completed two of the largest architecture and planning initiatives in New York City’s recent history: the adaptive reuse of an obsolete, industrial rail infrastructure into the High Line, a 1.5-mile long public park, and the transformation of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts’ half-century-old campus. Most recently, Diller led two other projects significant to New York: The Shed and the expansion of MoMA. She also co-created, -directed and -produced The Mile-Long Opera, an immersive choral work featuring 1,000 singers assembled along the length of the High Line. Diller, who was recently appointed a member of the United Nations Council on Urban Initiatives, is a professor of Architectural Design at Princeton University.

Shepard Fairey | honorary degree recipient 
RISD alumnus Shepard Fairey [BFA 92 Illustration] is a contemporary street artist, graphic designer, activist, illustrator, DJ and founder of OBEY Giant Art and OBEY Clothing. In 1989, while still a student at RISD, he created the Andre the Giant has a Posse sticker, which later evolved into his OBEY GIANT art campaign. In 2008, his portrait of then-Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama became an internationally recognized emblem of hope. Since then, Fairey has hand-painted more than 105 public murals across five continents, becoming one of the world’s most provocative artists and changing the way people view the urban landscape. Fairey’s stickers, guerilla street art presence and public murals are recognized globally. His works are in the permanent collections of the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum and many others. Born in Charleston, SC, Fairey now resides in Los Angeles.

Lynn Nottage | honorary degree recipient 
Lynn Nottage is a playwright and screenwriter and the first woman in history to win two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. Her plays, which have been produced widely in the US and around the world, include Floyd’s, Sweat, Mlima's Tale, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, Ruined, Intimate Apparel, Fabulation or the Re-Education of Undine Crumbs from the Table of Joy, Las Meninas, Mud, River, Stone, Por’knockers and POOF! She has also written such musical librettos as The Secret Life of Bees and MJ (forthcoming); developed This is Reading, a performance installation presented in Reading, PA; and served as a writer and producer on the first season of the Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It, directed by Spike Lee. Nottage is the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship, a Steinberg “Mimi” Distinguished Playwright Award, a Doris Duke Artist Award and a PEN/Laura Pels Master Playwright Award, among others. She is a member of the Dramatists Guild and an associate professor at Columbia University School of the Arts.

About Rhode Island School of Design
RISD’s mission, through its college and museum, is to educate students and the public in the creation and appreciation of works of art and design, to discover and transmit knowledge and to make lasting contributions to a global society through critical thinking, scholarship and innovation. The college’s strategic plan NEXT: RISD 2020–2027 sets an ambitious vision for educating students for the future and bringing creative practices to bear on the creation of just societies, a sustainable planet and new ways of making and knowing. RISD’s immersive model of art and design education, which emphasizes critical making through studio-based learning and robust study in the liberal arts, prepares students to intervene in the critical challenges of our time. Working with exceptional faculty and in extraordinary specialized facilities, 2,225 students from 60 countries engage in 44 full-time bachelor's and master's degree programs. RISD’s 30,000 alumni worldwide testify to the impact of this model of education, exemplifying the vital role artists and designers play in today’s society. Founded in 1877, RISD (pronounced “RIZ-dee”) and the RISD Museum help make Providence, RI among the most culturally active and creative cities in the region. Find more information at risd.edu.