Love Is All You Need

“Love is our highest purpose,” noted design visionary Bruce Mau in delivering the Commencement keynote at last Saturday’s ceremony. “Work on what you love and starve the things you do not respect. Protect your time and your mind and give all that you can of these great treasures to the work you love the most.” The Canadian designer was addressing the approximately 700 jubilant art and design graduates who collected their hard-earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at last weekend’s event.

Mau’s message of love was the centerpiece of Commencement 2014, a raucous celebration marked by boisterous brass-and-percussion numbers courtesy of Providence’s Extraordinary Rendition Band, festive decorations that transformed a huge plain vanilla hall in the Rhode Island Convention Center into a colorful installation and a series of inspiring speakers from on campus and off, including RI Congressman David Cicilline and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras. To set the tone after the informal, New Orleans-style processional, Tony Johnson 93 SC, RISD’s director of Intercultural Student Engagement, belted out a campy musical rendition of protocols about exit signs and cell phones, accompanied by interplanetary electric guitarist Skyjelly (aka Office of Information Technology Analyst Rick Lescault).

“Now that’s what I call a hard act to follow,” President Rosanne Somerson 76 ID (second video above) quipped as she stepped up to the podium to welcome the 5,000 graduates, family members and friends in attendance. As gigantic papier-mâché flowers spun slowly overhead, Somerson assured graduating students that they have “the capabilities, creativity, ingenuity and agility” to “repair crumbling systems and structures that no longer work.” Describing their work as “wonderfully, radically incomplete,” she encouraged graduates to continue to evolve as practicing professionals, to remain connected with RISD and to embrace the nonlinear paths ahead.

In his address, Board of Trustees Chair Michael Spalter (third video above) picked up on Somerson’s themes of talent and responsibility and also paid homage to poet Maya Angelou, who passed away three days before the ceremony. He quoted an observation from Angelou that was particularly apropos for an art and design audience: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Among the special guests at the ceremony, design luminary Todd Oldham and former US Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith (represented at Commencement by her niece) accepted honorary degrees for their work in furthering art, design and cultural understanding. Panamanian architect and social justice champion Hildegard Vásquez BArch 94 accepted the Alumni Association’s 2014 Alumni Award for Professional Achievement, echoing the unwritten theme of the day in telling graduates: “I urge all of you: Follow your heart. The math will come later.”

Graduating senior Michelle Cho 14 IL earned the Stephen T. Mendelson Award for Community Service, while faculty members Dalia Linssen, a lecturer in the History of Art + Visual Culture department, and Jean Blackburn 79 PT, a professor of Illustration, were honored with RISD’s highest academic accolade: the John R. Frazier Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Graduate Student Speaker Jordan Taylor MFA 14 CR (fourth video) – decked out in full “Kale-man” regalia – started out with the provocative statement that “RISD has no heart,” preferring instead to speak of “rhizomes” as a “much better metaphor” for the type of interconnected exchange that happens among the creative community on campus. The Ceramics major went on to compare the beauty of the RISD experience to the lure of the desert – “a labyrinth of intimate encounters” – rather than a hierarchical system with one supporting heart. “The Rhizomatic School of Design will feed you well into the future,” he predicted.

As Senior Class Speaker (fifth video above), Illustration major and leader of the RISD Global Initiative Leah Chung 14 ID laughingly said goodbye to all-nighters in the studio and the word “juxtapose,” which she says came up ridiculously often during critiques. “Our work,” she said on a more serious note, “has traveled beyond museum walls. Designers are creating systems that affect human behavior and public policy. We can shape our collective values.”

Chung couldn’t resist playfully poking fun at friends and acquaintances in her home city of Seoul, South Korea, who were surprised and visibly confused to hear that she’d be going to the US to attend RISD rather than Yale or Harvard. Speaking with passion and conviction, she dismissed as passé the view of art school as a second-tier option with fewer challenges and less impact on the world and welcomes the day when the world wakes up and no longer refers to RISD as “the Harvard of art schools,” but where Harvard is seen “as the RISD of liberal arts schools.”

Simone Solondz

June 4, 2014