Be Bold, Shake Things Up!

“So what if you have talent? Then what? You have to figure out how to work your way inside,” the one and only John Waters told the 669 graduating students at RISD’s 2015 Commencement on Saturday, May 30. “Remember, you must participate in the creative world you want to become part of…. Keep up with what’s causing chaos in your own field.” Ultimately, he urged new grads to “horrify us with new ideas” and “use technology for transgression – not lazy social living.”

The irreverent filmmaker – who noted that he has been called everything from “the Prince of Puke” to “the People’s Pervert” – couldn’t help but smile after he accepted an honorary degree from RISD – his first from any institution of higher education. Honorary degrees were also awarded to breakthrough musicians Chris Frantz 74 PT, Tina Weymouth 74 PT and Jerry Harrison, all former members of Talking Heads, and author and longtime New Yorker writer Adam Gopnick, who delivered the keynote address at RISD’s Graduate Hooding Ceremony on Friday.

While Waters’ unorthodox message of inspiration was the highlight of Commencement 2015, the spirited event was also marked by dancing musicians from Extraordinary Rendition Band who blatted upbeat tunes in a Rhode Island Convention Center hall festooned with digital, paper and sculptural installations. Several speakers from the RISD community and beyond – including Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, RI Congressman David Cicilline and Provost Pradeep Sharma – offered heartfelt congratulations to the newly minted graduates.

In his address, Board of Trustees Chair Michael Spalter quoted lyrics from the Talking Heads song Once in a Lifetime before asking the audience to close their eyes, clear their minds and imagine inhaling positive energy, then exhaling negativity. Beaming with pride, President Rosanne Somerson 76 ID assured the crowd of artists and designers that their ability to “straddle that delicate balance between being an expert and being a novice” will serve them well as professional practitioners. “At RISD you turned your innermost core outwards. You wore your naiveté and inexperience on your face and saw it mirrored in your work… You learned to fail beautifully – to make failure the foundation of new directions,” she told graduates. “As you enter a future where the only constant is change, your willingness to begin again, to reiterate, to reconceive, to reimagine will be the key to your success.”

William Jaffe, son of painter and printmaker Miriam Beerman 45 PT, accepted the Alumni Award for Artistic Achievement on behalf of his mother, who is too old to travel but produced work over the course of a 70-year career that is now part of the collections at the RISD Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, among others.

Graduating senior Scott Harano 15 IL earned the Stephen T. Mendelson Award for Community Service for his ongoing commitment to the campus community by participating in RISD Alternative Spring Break and volunteering as an orientation leader and peer mentor. He has also been a teaching assistant at Providence City Arts for Youth and has led or co-organized events such as Earth Day Cleanup, re Design Thanksgiving, the Holiday Toy Drive, Day of Service and the Hunger Awareness Project. Jennifer Joy, a lecturer in the Sculpture department, and Tom Ockerse a longtime professor of Graphic Design, both earned the John R. Frazier Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Speaking with passion and humor, Graduate Student Speaker Malcolm J. Rio MArch 15 urged his peers to “utilize the revolutionary, transformative abilities” cultivated at RISD and remember to never be afraid of failing. “If you fail to appreciate your failure and only focus on success, you risk becoming blind to the plight of others. You risk becoming more afraid and you risk becoming more isolated,” he said. “Failure is a critical foundation for creative success…. It is the root of our ability to imagine, to make and to act.”

Senior Class Speaker Rachel Ossip 15 GD, a Brown/RISD Dual Degree student graduating with degrees in both Graphic Design and Comparative Literature, compared a RISD education to the mystical properties embodied by a familiar substance vital to all known forms of life: water.

“Today we walk away with so many things: skills and portfolios, mentors and mythologies, crumpled charcoal drawings, essays from our history, projects and memories – and so many stories,” she said. “But we cannot leave RISD and it will not leave us. The strength of this community is embedded in us on a molecular level and stretches across the globe… We are RISD’s water and we can share it, we can spread it, we can use it to make things grow.”

–Abigail Crocker