Iconoclasts Coming for Commencement

On Saturday, May 30, filmmaker John Waters will accept his first honorary degree ever at RISD’s 2015 Commencement ceremony, where he’ll also deliver the keynote address. Waters is one of several icons of contemporary culture who will travel to Providence to celebrate with graduating students and their families at the Rhode Island Convention Center.

Other special guests accepting honorary degrees this year are art and culture writer Adam Gopnik and musicians and former Talking Heads members Chris Frantz 74 PT, Tina Weymouth 74 PT and Jerry Harrison. In addition, painter Miriam Beerman 45 PT is being honored with the 2015 Alumni Award for Artistic Achievement. This year’s honorees will join the 690 students who are collecting their hard-earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the extra-exuberant ceremony.

Seen as “an enduring inspiration for RISD students seeking to break boundaries, challenge conventions and define an expressive style,” as President Rosanne Somerson 76 ID noted in a message sent to the campus community today, John Waters has written and directed 16 movies, several starring the memorable Divine. In 2014 the Film Society of Lincoln Center honored him with the 10-day retrospective Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take?, screening such gems as Pink Flamingos (1972), Polyester (1981), Cry-Baby (1990), Serial Mom (1991) and Hairspray (1988), which went on to become an award-winning Broadway musical. Waters has also published books and screenplays, including the New York Times bestsellers Carsick (2014) and Roll Models (2010), and shows his photographs and sculptures in galleries throughout the world.

RISD is recognizing Adam Gopnik, a staff writer at The New Yorker, for his insights and humane criticism about contemporary art and culture. Over the past three decades, he served as The New Yorker’s art critic from 1987–95 and has contributed fiction, humor, book reviews and profiles to the magazine, earning the National Magazine Award for Essays and Criticism three times. A keen cultural critic, Gopnik is also a novelist and a much-admired speaker.

Alumni Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth began playing music with David Byrne while they were still at RISD but founded the band Talking Heads when they moved to New York two years later, performing for the first time in 1975. Jerry Harrison had played keyboards in the seminal punk rock band The Modern Lovers before joining Talking Heads in 1976. A year later, the band released its first album, which was immediately hailed as a breakthrough for its bold mix of performance art, punk, funk, new wave and intelligent lyrics. Talking Heads went on to tour the world, record 10 albums and work with director Jonathan Demme on Stop Making Sense, among the best concert films of all time. Their many hits – including Psycho Killer, Once in Lifetime, Road to Nowhere, Take Me to the River and Burning Down the House – earned Talking Heads induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.

Harrison has since released three solo albums, produced recordings for such artists as the Violent Femmes, Foo Fighters and No Doubt, and helped to define the rapidly evolving online music industry. Frantz and Weymouth formed the band Tom Tom Club in 1981, which led to their first gold record through the hits Wordy Rappinghood and Genius of Love. They continue to record and tour, and recently embarked on a new electronic music project.

Given her health, Miriam Beerman is unable to travel to Providence to accept the Alumni Association’s Award for Artistic Achievement in person, but her son will do so on her behalf. At RISD she discovered a lifelong love of abstract expressionism that blossomed into a deeply satisfying 65-year career in which she embraced the “beauty and vigor” of painting as a means of bearing witness to the injustices, atrocities and absurdities of our times. Along the way she exhibited in 32 solo shows.

Chaired by Dean of Liberal Arts Daniel Cavicchi, RISD’s 2015 Honorary Degree Committee selected this year’s recipients from a list of dozens of nominations from the campus community. Other committee members this round were the RISD Museum’s Curator of Contemporary Art Dominic Molon, Assistant Professor of Painting Angela Dufresne, Head of Landscape Architecture Scheri Fultineer, trustees Amy Korenvaes 74 SC and Meghan Reilly Michaud 01 GD, and student representatives Winston Cuevas and Alexander Stewart.

– Liisa Silander