Sean T. Buffington : 2013 Commencement Remarks

Sean Buffington Commencement 2013

Sean T. Buffington
2013 Commencement Remarks
May 16, 2013

Good morning. Welcome, trustees, honored guests, faculty, alumni, friends and family to the 135th Commencement Exercises of the University of the Arts.

Let me begin by asking you to join me in acknowledging the Class of 2013.

Now, Class of 2013, we're going to have plenty of opportunities to cheer for you this morning. So let me ask you now to join me in welcoming to UArts—and more importantly, in saying thank you—to the people who are here today to celebrate with you. They have been with you every step of the way these last four years and for many years before that! You wouldn’t be here without them.

Class of 2013, I want you to bring this house down for your parents, friends, your brothers and sisters, your grandparents—everyone who helped you to get here today.

For the last five years, I’ve been charged with opening these Commencement Exercises. My task seems simple: welcome graduates and guests and offer a few words of wisdom.

Wisdom?! What can I tell you? For the last few years, you’ve worked 16—even 20—hour days. You’ve broken bones and torn ligaments. You’ve had close encounters with band saws and blowtorches. You’ve run lines until the words don’t mean anything anymore, and you’ve stared at a blank screen for hours on end, praying an idea will hit you—and fast!

You have gone deep inside yourselves; you have shared more than you ever imagined you had to share; and then you have listened patiently as teachers and colleagues and audiences misunderstood, or understood you too well, and sent you back to try again… and again… and again.

And you know what’s most incredible—(if I didn’t know you better, I’d say, crazy, not incredible!)? What’s most incredible is that you stand here today—with your bruises and scars—asking for permission to go out into the world and to keep right on doing it.

Sounds to me as if I should be asking you for advice, not the other way around!

So I did. Instead of digging deep into the College President’s Compendium of Wit and Wisdom for Every Occasion (which is not a very big book!), I thought I would ask you.

Or rather, I thought I’d ask the “you” who have sat where you’re sitting over the last few years. I sent messages via Facebook to more than a dozen UArts graduates, alumni who had to make do with my wisdom sometime in the last five years before walking across this stage and out into the rest of their creative lives.

I asked them what advice they would offer to you, as fellow artists who brought to the seats of this Academy the very same feelings of despair and joy, of frustration and revelation that you have.

From their comments, I’ve extracted a few lessons, which I’ll call the UArts Graduates’ Guide to Making Art and Being Happy after Graduation.

Lesson One: You really will get by with a little help from your friends.

You can’t do this, you can’t follow this path, without help. It’s true that much of your time as an artist will be spent alone, wrestling with a script or laboring to get just the right effect in Photoshop or playing the same passage over and over again in a rehearsal room.

Your time alone making art will ensure that that piece or performance is perfect, but it’s the community you build around yourself that will sustain you. George Schwab, Graphic Design, 2008 urges you to “surround yourself with people who will feed your creative soul. The world is full of boring… people; be nice to these people, but keep your distance.”

Some of the people who will feed your creativity are already in your life: they’re your fellow graduates sitting with you today. “Always appreciate and rely on the invaluable relationships you've made with fellow students and faculty at UArts,” says AJ Luca, Instrumental Performance, 2011.

They were your first creative community after all. They knew you when neither you, nor they, knew the first thing about modes or Illustrator or color theory. Trust them. They’ve got your back.

Lesson Two: Be generous!

“Champion the underdog,” says Sebastian Brauer, Industrial Design, 2010, because “at some point in your life you will be on the [other] side of advantage.”

But don’t give only because you fear the turn of the karmic wheel. Give because the creative impulse is, before anything else, a generous impulse. You make not for yourself but to add something meaningful to a world overflowing with meaninglessness. Giving is the very essence of artmaking; hoarding, withholding, secreting away—these impulses destroy creativity and creative community.

Lesson Three: Be courageous.

Well, mission accomplished: you made it to this day, after all, and that required plenty of courage. But “the first year out is the hardest,” says Dan Fishel, Illustration, 2009. “Your career might not get off the ground right away.” Dan says his didn’t, and he admits, “it's frightening. Success will come right away for some, while for others it is a slow, gradual climb.”

Megan Wellman, Vocal Performance, 2010, reminds you that what will carry you through are “perseverance, courage, and [the knowledge] that you chose this path for a reason.”

You chose this path because you loved making things. You chose it because you were spending every waking hour thinking about getting to the studio to put the sounds and images running through your head into space, onto paper. You chose it because you couldn’t imagine not choosing it.

But still: you chose it, as Megan says; you didn’t have to. In fact, plenty of people around you probably advised against it. And plenty more will say the same thing in the coming months and years. You will have to choose this path again and again, every day. And to do that takes courage: the sort of courage you demonstrated when you chose UArts, when you defended your work at crits, when you performed on the Merriam stage for the first time.

Lesson Four: Compromise without compromising yourself.

Really?

Aren’t you supposed to pursue your vision with single-minded passion? Isn’t that what got you here today? Bin Huang, Museum Studies, 2012, is working as an exhibition designer in Los Angeles. He reminds you of the tension “between satisfying clients and satisfying your own creative goals. You gotta be willing to compromise,” he says, “sometimes on small things, sometimes even the [big] picture.”

Bin’s talking about the designer-client relationship. But his insight is relevant whatever your field. This is a long road you’ve starting on. And it’s a road without clear signposts or even a definite destination. The real objective is to keep moving. Sometimes, unyielding commitment is what’s needed; other times, compromise is the choice that keeps you moving forward.

Lesson Five: Sometimes, the way to move forward is to step to the side, to choose the un-obvious path.

Dan Delaney, Multimedia, 2008, started making video webisodes after graduation; now he’s making brisket in Brooklyn. He reminds you that “the principles you learned in school can be applied in [many] ways… and [take you] on paths you might not have expected to travel. That's OK,” he says. “Don't be afraid to take those paths, they can lead to great places.”

Sometimes, the right choice is the one that seems to take us away from what we’ve been aiming for. But how do we know it’s the right choice? How can we be sure we’re not just running away from something else? What if we fail and can’t get back on the road we’d started on?

First: there are no right and wrong choices, only consequences—and all choices have consequences, both good and bad. The important question is, do the possible outcomes thrill you—even if they frighten you? Do you feel the inexorable push of compulsion—as you did when you weighed your college opportunities and kept coming back to that envelope labeled “UArts”?

If so, choose the fork in the road.

And finally, and perhaps most important—Lesson Six: Invent your own future.

This last lesson comes from Michael Doherty, Musical Theater, 2010. “Seize whatever projects come your way,” he says, “but don't wait for them to come to you. Create your own opportunities. If you have an idea, make it happen. Don't just be an artist, be a pioneer!”

Fate, destiny, birthright: they’re key ingredients in drama, fiction, myth, and legend. But they’re useless as tools for living. Nothing’s inevitable or assured—not success, not failure; not this particular career or that one; not one future or another. You get to choose—over and over again—and each time you make a choice, you make the future—your future.

Now, I’m not so naïve—and I don’t think Michael is either—to suggest that anything’s possible, that there are no limits, that all you need is a bit of pluck and a song in your heart. There will be obstacles—some you’ll make for yourself, others you’ll encounter along the way.

Some will be unconquerable.

What matters is what you do when you run into them. Those are the choices you make; that is you, shaping your future.

Do it with courage. With generosity. Surrounded by friends. Alert to opportunities that lie just out of view. With humility and an openness to compromise.

Choose your future, as you chose these last few years. Choose, as the artists you have become—fearlessly, honestly, imaginatively.

Choose every day to create—to create art, to create knowledge and understanding, to create yourself. That’s the wisdom I leave with you—the wisdom of Michael, Dan, Bin, Megan, Dan, AJ, and Sebastian. It’s the wisdom of all those who sat in those seats before you, who went out into the world as you will today, who are out there right now, ready to welcome you into the limitless expanse of the future—your future.

Now go out there and make it.

Thank you and congratulations!