Sunday, January 25, 2009

And the award goes to...

I was invited by the RI Art Educators Association to speak at the Scholastic Art Awards ceremony today at Rhode Island College. I remember winning a Silver Key when I was in high school years ago, but I don't really remember the award being such a big deal to me. My art teacher had picked the drawing I submitted (some figure drawing that had pretty cool hatch work). I thought it was nice too, but it wasn't anything deeply personal to me like the work that I see students at New Urban Arts create every day.

It was great to be asked to speak. But part of me wondered if I should feel weird that there weren't any winners from New Urban Arts. In general, there seemed to be few winners from Rhode Island's urban core (Providence, Central Falls, Pawtucket etc. but big shout out to the winners from RISD Project Open Door!). Scholastic generally requires a certain level of finish and polish, that while some students at New Urban Arts do achieve, is certainly not as a high priority as the actual learning path that we expect students to independently choose for themselves, with all the bumps and turns and stops and starts that we think it requires. Somtimes that process produces the kind of polished work that can win you a gold/silver key, many other times, it just leads to a much more creative, confident and self-motivated young person, which I'm ok with too.

Here's the speech I gave. Enjoy!

Jason Y.

Keynote Address at the Rhode Island Scholastic Art Awards
1/25/09
Roberts Hall, Rhode Island College


Good afternoon.

Thank you for inviting me to be here today. First of all, I'd like to congratulate the students here on being selected as Scholastic award winners. This is a prestigious honor and you should all be proud of your accomplishment. Lets give them a hand [applause].

Also, I've had the fortune to work with many amazing young people and in my experience, there's usually an extended community that's nurtured their success. Lets also congratulate the network of support that's made this possible: families, teachers, mentors, friends and countless others. [applause].

I'm the Executive Director of New Urban Arts. If you don't know about us, we're a community gallery and art studio in Providence for emerging artists and high school students. Our goal is to nurture in everyone a lifelong creative practice whether they consider themselves artists or not. We believe that imagination and creativity are not special skills limited to just a select few, but necessary to living a full and meaningful life.

We recruit artists from a range of backgrounds to mentor high school students in our studio. Our artist mentors are college students, professional artists and amateurs. What they all share is that they are each deeply invested in the young people they work with. We believe that connection, close personal relationships, are key to developing your unique creative voice.

I'm guessing that each of you award winners can trace your success to some network of support that includes one or more very close mentors. You probably didn't sit by yourself in some room and out of nowhere create a body of artwork that earned you this kind of recognition. Maybe you did, but I'd be surprised. You probably had a network of support that pushed you to create. Maybe it was your art teacher, maybe it was a parent, maybe it was close friends that believe in your talent more than you do. Whoever those people are, we at New Urban Arts believe that everyone needs a mentor – someone to trust, to share honesty with, and enable us to be accountable to ourselves.

For me, one of my life-changing artist mentors was a guy named Andrew. In 1998, I had just transferred into the RI School of Design's painting department after moving up from NYC where I grew up. I bounced around a few different colleges before ending up at RISD and I didn't really have the kind of rigorous training that a lot of my classmates seemed to have. I'd sit in studio in front of my canvas look around and wonder if I had the drawing and painting chops to hang with these kids. Do I even I belong there? I was wracked with self-doubt.

My problem was that I saw my talent and ability as something that was static. Something I had no control over. I didn't see it as a condition that I could actually change through my own effort.

My painting professor saw that I was having some trouble finding my way and suggested that I spend some time after class one day talking with Andrew who was a graduate student and our classes teaching assistant. Over the next few months, Andrew and I developed a close friendship. He encouraged my ideas, gave me tips on how to improve my painting and gave me a confidence in my own voice that I didn't have when I arrived.

I was amazed by him. He was an accomplished oil painter, but he was also working in digital video, photography, building these crazy site-specific installations in the woodshop with complex mechanics like motion sensors, moving parts and motors. I didn't think that artists could be good at as many things as he seemed to be. I couldn't believe the breadth of his interests and abilities. Amazed at how much he could do I asked him one day:

"How.....do you know how to do all this????"

His simple response was, "I learned it." He told me that he knew what he wanted to do with his art, what he wanted his audience to see, feel and experience and he realized that oil painting wasn't going to be sufficient to get his ideas across. His problem was that he had been primarily trained as an oil painter. He told me that he saw a big gap between what he wanted to be able to accomplish and his skills and knowledge he needed so he went about addressing that gap on his own. He went out learning from people, reading books, teaching himself woodworking, webdesign, photography, video, doing whatever he needed to do realize his artistic vision. He told me:

"Figure out what you want to accomplish, what you need to know to do it, find people to teach it to you and then get to it."

His example was just the jolt I needed to wake me out of my self-pity. I finally began to see my ability and knowledge not as something fixed, but something I could change. That I wasn't limited by what I already knew or could do, that I could take control of my learning to accomplish my personal goals either in life or art. Andrew, was never an "official" mentor of mine, but he was a big reason I finished school.

Some of you may go on to be professional artists, whatever that means. Some of you may go on to other professions, maybe lawyers, cops, or teachers. I'll bet that a lot of you go on to lives and careers that we don't even know exist. And you'll probably create your own opportunities in this very rapidly changing world. What you all have in common as successful and driven young artists is what Andrew began to instill in me all those years ago and that's the personal agency to direct your own learning and create opportunities for yourselves.

In my parting words, one thing I'd like to mention we're dealing with at New Urban Arts, especially with ours seniors, is college mania. I'm sure many of you are dealing with this now, the stress around college admissions. What does this school think of my portfolio? What happens if I don't go to a famous school? Is my art what other people will like? What does it say about me?

I'm young enough to vividly remember how crazy that time was, but old enough to look back and laugh, because none of that stuff seems to really matter now.

Opportunity is not something that you should wait to happen to you. This is one of the most important lessons I've learned from the many mentors I've been lucky to learn from people like Andrew. Opportunity is what each of you decide to create for yourself regardless of the school you attend or whatever labels get put on you.

As Scholastic award winners you've already demonstrated that you've got the discipline, talent, resourcefulness and perhaps most importantly, the sense of yourselves to make big things happen.

So in closing, don't doubt who you are! Tackle life head on with everything you have to offer. You're clearly all already off to a really great start!

Congratulations. Thank you for this opportunity to talk to you all.

7 Comments:

Anonymous jean c. said...

jason -- awesome speech! I especially like the part about coming to see your talent and skills (and also your life!?) as dynamic, changeable and under your control, rather than standing still... this idea has been super important to me recently. thanks for articulating it again in another way.

-- jean

9:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

jason -- awesome speech!


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