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New Grads Commence with Confidence

On Saturday, June 1, as 197 graduate and 462 undergraduate students waited restlessly in line for the start of RISD’s 2013 Commencement ceremony, many took the opportunity to adjust their eye-catching graduation paraphernalia – from papier-mâché creatures to fake flowers to unorthodox objects, all creatively incorporated into the overall look. They also took a moment to reflect on the years of hard work that helped shape them into the highly accomplished artists and designers they are today.

“This is such a hectic, emotional and wonderful day,” noted Paul Savovici 13 ID, who will soon be moving to Houston to start a new design job at NASA. “This day represents years of friendship and hard work. It’s tough for all of us to leave this magical place, but I’m more than ready to explore the next phase of my life.”

Keeping with tradition, the ceremony was as colorful and out-of-the-ordinary as one would hope. The Extraordinary Rendition Band, a clownish marching band trumpeting up-tempo ragtime tunes, provided its own unique take on Pomp and Circumstance as students danced and pranced into a Rhode Island Convention Center hall transformed by oversized Tyvek flowers and festoons of balloons. Students close to the hoopla seized the opportunity to bang on the musicians’ drums with flowers and copies of the printed Commencement program they’d rolled into drumsticks.

Once the joyous graduates took their seats, President John Maeda kicked off the ceremony with welcoming remarks, reminding the audience that art and design are essential building blocks of innovation and that RISD alumni are living examples of this. “No one can make the case [for the importance of art and design education] more powerfully than you and the work that you choose,” Maeda told graduating students. “I can feel the world listening, watching and waiting for your next steps. Here in Rhode Island, we’ll all be cheering for you.”

Michael Spalter, chair of RISD’s Board of Trustees, echoed the president’s sentiments and encouraged students to go after their dreams with an unbridled tenacity. “On behalf of the Board of Trustees, we encourage you to realize the power you possess and harness it at every juncture to affect the lives of others and create solutions for a better world.”

Swiss designer Karl Gerstner, environmental activist Bill McKibben and artist/illustrator Maira Kalman accepted honorary degrees, while the Alumni Association’s Art and Education Award went to Tamara Kaplan MA/MAT 00, operations manager at the Providence-based nonprofit New Urban Arts. Earlier in the ceremony Providence Mayor Angel Tavares made note of the important work Kaplan does by helping urban teens find their way through art.

Longtime faculty members Jocelyne Prince MFA 94 GL, an assistant professor of Glass, and Fred Lynch 86 IL, a senior critic in Illustration, earned recognition in the form of the 2013 Frazier Award for Excellence in Teaching and senior Sarah Pease 13 FD, an active member of the Student Alliance, the Government Relations student work team and a founder of the RISD STEAM Club (see also STEM to STEAM), was recognized with Stephen T. Mendelson Award for Community Service.

In addition to receiving an honorary degree for her amazing work as an artist and illustrator, Maira Kalman delivered a humorous and heartfelt Commencement address. She spoke about not knowing the answers to the endless complexities of life, but noted that the two most important things are love and work.

“Caring passionately about your work will make you happy,” Kalman said, and later closed with this admonition: “Go forth with kindness, meanness, courage, fear, compassion. Go forth with knowing and having no idea – and knowing that having no idea is completely acceptable and real. Commence with confusion. Commence with a sense of humor. Walk, breathe, retreat. Commence with an idea... It’ll be amazing to see what you do.”

Speaking on behalf of graduate students, Raine Vasquez MFA 13 PR spoke eloquently about love, art and creativity, noting that they all involve an element of risk and danger. Quoting Marcel Proust, he noted that the act of making art is fundamentally unselfish because the end result is as much about the viewer as it is about the creator. “At RISD I experienced a different kind of love [than the egocentric type]. I found in our conversations, friendships and criticisms – and the unparalleled generosity of the faculty – a love of difference, where love is the denial of the self in the name of creating multiple worlds.”

Jessie Chen 13 FAV also gave an animated and impassioned talk encouraging fellow graduates to be open-minded and willing to transcend boundaries in order to create the kind of world they envision. “All boundaries can be crossed – as soon as you allow your mind to do so,” she noted, wearing a mortarboard with a sparkly moon on top. “Imagine the world as it could be.”