Artist Kerry James Marshall delivers remarks at Columbia College Chicago commencement on May 14. | Video by Columbia College Chicago

 

MORE THAN 30 YEARS AGO, when Kerry James Marshall left Los Angeles to move to New York, his friend and fellow artist Carrie Mae Weems called Dawoud Bey, who was living in the city. She told Bey to give the artist a call when he arrived. She conveyed the same message to the Marshall, recommending he look the photographer up when he got to town.

Bey recounted the story a few weeks ago at Columbia College Chicago, where he is professor of art and Distinguished College Artist. Bey was introducing Marshall, an honorary degree recipient at the May 14 college commencement. He said after speaking with Weems, he met Marshall later that year when he arrived in New York to begin a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem (1985-86).

“The ensuing years have been richly rewarded by my knowing him. Marshall’s insistence that diligence, research, and the consistent practice of intentional craft could yield something of artistic consequence has never wavered from the moment I met him,” Bey said.

BOTH MARSHALL AND BEY live and work in Chicago now, and the artist began his remarks by emphasizing that although he was born in Birmingham, Ala., and grew up in Los Angeles, his destiny seemed to be in Chicago. Marshall’s wife, actress Cheryl Lynn Bruce, is a Chicago native. In addition, one of his greatest mentors, artist Charles White (1918-1979), who taught Marshall at what is now the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, was born in Chicago.

“In everything I tried to do, in most of my life and in most of my career, I was trying to do everything like Charles White did it. I was trying to be like Charles White. And so being in Chicago is the fulfillment of a part of what it meant to be like Charles White,” Marshall said.

Declaring himself “a bit of a traditionalist,” Marshall went on to deliver a conventional commencement address, conveying to the students both the good and bad that awaited them in the real world. The approach was familiar, but the content was far from standard. Based on his decades of experience and recent observations, Marshall’s remarks were candid and grounded in reality.

“I have a motto I’ll share with you for times like this. It’s a motto that keeps me focused on the goals I set for myself in an art world that is flush with cash, driven by hype, and intoxicated on self regard,” Marshall said. “The motto is ‘Take nothing for granted. Expect nothing from nobody.’ I find these useful phrases to live by because the first principle of psychological good health is that your well being cannot depend on somebody else modifying their behavior in order for you to fulfill your desires.”

“I have a motto I’ll share with you for times like this. It’s a motto that keeps me focused on the goals I set for myself in an art world that is flush with cash, driven by hype, and intoxicated on self regard. The motto is ‘Take nothing for granted. Expect nothing from nobody.'”
— Kerry James Marshall, Columbia College Chicago commencement

The following day, Marshall gave the commencement address at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he received another honorary degree. Meanwhile, his 35-year retrospective, “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, through July 3.

 


Museum director and scholar Johnetta B. Cole speaks to graduates at Gettysburg College on May 21. | Video by Gettysburg College

 

OVER THE PAST SEVERAL WEEKS, Marshall, Bey, Weems, and many other African American artists, curators, and art world figures have participated in university commencements, as speakers and honorary degree recipients.

Johnetta B. Cole, who retired in March from her role as director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, made the rounds this commencement season. Cole, who previously served as president of Spelman College was honored with a 2017 Barnard Medal of Distinction at Barnard College on May 17 at Radio City Music Hall. On May 21, she delivered the commencement address at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pa. Cole also spoke at the University of Washington’s commencement in Seattle (June 10).

Poet and Yale English professor Claudia Rankine also participated in a trio of commencements. The author of “Citizen: An American Lyric” is using her 2016 MacArthur “Genius” Grant to establish the Racial Imaginary Institute, a vehicle for artists to present talks, exhibit work, and engage through other mediums and platforms about race and the creative imagination. Rankine’s institute hosted a public forum at the Whitney Museum of Art following the controversy surrounding “Open Casket,” the Dana Schutz painting of Emmett Till in his coffin, that appears in the 2017 Whitney Biennial.

Rankine received an honorary doctorate from Emerson College in Boston on May 14 (along with Anita Hill). Delivered the keynote address to graduates at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. (May 21), where Nell Painter was also honored. Then on May 28, she addressed Wesleyan University’s commencement.

She said in addition to congratulating the graduates, she had “come to make a plug for failure.” She cited South African artist William Kentridge’s Centre for the Less Good Idea. Rankine said:

    “Kentridge is a personal hero of mine. His deeply collaborative and engaged work on life in South Africa, from apartheid to the AIDS crisis to present states of poverty and violence, has been moving, informative and transformative. The Centre for the Less Good Idea, according to Kentridge, is a ‘safe space for uncertainty, doubt, stupidity and, at times, failure.’ He believes we humans have too much investment in certainty and he personally feels ‘rescued by failure.’ Consequently, he is more interested in provisional positions and in the “desperation present in all uncertainty.

    “What I personally love about this kind of uncertainty is that it allows for the creation of a habit of being that is willing to risk the self in service of the formation of some unknown. This instability means failure is imminent but not inevitable. And the exciting part is that alongside failure lives possibility.”

“What I personally love about this kind of uncertainty is that it allows for the creation of a habit of being that is willing to risk the self in service of the formation of some unknown. This instability means failure is imminent but not inevitable. And the exciting part is that alongside failure lives possibility.” — Claudia Rankine, Wesleyan commencement

Rankine concluded: “What I wish for you is that you will pursue your unknown and unrealized imagined possibilities, even though the imagined/unimagined resides with such close proximity to failure.”

 


Poet and author Claudia Rankine addressed Wesleyan University’s commencement on May 28. | Video by Wesleyan University

 

A selection of 2017 commencement appearances follows:

May 3 | Lamar Dodd School of Art, University of Georgia, Athens, Ga.

Artist, curator, and art historian Leslie King-Hammond, founder and director of the Center for Race and Culture at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where she is also graduate dean emeritus, gave the commencement address at the Lamar Dodd School of Art.

 
May 12 | Lincoln University, Pa.

Roger W. Ferguson Jr., president and CEO of TIAA, which provides retirement investments and financial services, delivered the commencement address at Lincoln University, where he was also honored with a doctor of humane letters. Founded in 1854, Lincoln was the first degree-granting HBCU. A former vice chairman of the Board of Governors of the U.S. Federal Reserve System, Ferguson was recently appointed to the Smithsonian Board of Regents.

 
May 13 | North Carolina State University, Raleigh, N.C.

Architect Phil Freelon, who led the design team for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), received an honorary degree at the NC State commencement. He recently stepped down as managing director at Perkins + Will’s North Carolina practice, following a diagnosis of ALS, and now serves as design director. Freelon gave the 2013 commencement address at NC State.

 
May 13 | Barton College, Wilson, N.C.

An artist and educator, Endia Beal spoke at the 115th commencement at Barton College. An assistant professor of art and director of the Diggs Gallery at Winston-Salem State University, Beal is recognized for her “photographic narratives and video testimonies that examine the personal, yet contemporary stories of women of color working within the corporate space.”

 
May 14 | Syracuse University, Syracuse, N.Y.

Syracuse University awarded doctor of fine arts to Carrie Mae Weems, who primarily works in photography and video, often incorporating text. The Syracuse-based artist was recently honored by ICA LA at the forthcoming museum’s inaugural gala brunch. (Vernon Jordan Jr. also received a doctor of laws.)

 
May 14 | Emerson College, Boston, Mass.

An attorney and scholar, Anita Hill was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Emerson College. A professor of social policy, law, and women’s studies at Brandeis University, she became nationally known in 1991 when she accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment at his Senate confirmation hearing for the U.S. Supreme Court. Hill has been in conversation with artist Mark Bradford at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum, where she serves on the board. She also contributed an essay to the catalog accompanying “Tomorrow is Another Day,” Bradford’s presentation at the 2017 Venice Biennale. Poet/author Claudia Rankine was also among the honorary degree recipients at Emerson’s commencement.

 
May 14 | Columbia College Chicago

Chicago-based painter Kerry James Marshall was honored in his hometown. Marshall received an honorary degree from Columbia Collage Chicago. Before giving remarks, he was introduced by a friend, the photographer Dawoud Bey.

 


Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden gives commencement address to graduate students at MICA on May 15. (Introduction begins at 27:40). | Video by MICA

 
May 15 | School of the Art Institute Chicago

Kerry James Marshall, the artist who lives and works in Chicago, delivered the commencement address at the School of the Art Institute Chicago, where he also received an honorary doctorate. (The New York Times art critic Roberta Smith also received an honorary degree.)

 
May 15 | Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), Baltimore, Md.

Carla Hayden, the 14th Librarian of Congress, the first woman and first African American to lead the institution, spoke at MICA’s graduate commencement ceremony where she was awarded an honorary doctor of fine arts degree. A photo conceptual artist, Hank Willis Thomas, addressed MICA’s undergraduate students. He recently took his In Search of the Truth project to Australia where he set up a “Truth” booth in Sydney’s Hyde Park.

 
May 17 | Barnard College, Columbia University, New York, N.Y.

Johnetta B. Cole, who retired in March from her role as director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, was honored with a 2017 Barnard Medal of Distinction by Barnard College at Radio City Music Hall.

 
May 17 | Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Pratt Institute bestowed an honorary degree on photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier at its 128th commencement at Radio City Music Hall. Frazier is an associate professor of photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is currently participating in Creative Time’s “Pledges of Allegiance” project. (Fellow honoree Paola Antonelli, the Museum of Modern Art’s senior curator of Architecture and Design, gave the keynote address at the ceremony.)

 
May 20 | Wheaton College, Norton, Mass.

Russell Goings, one of the first African Americans to join the New York Stock Exchange, received an honorary Doctor of Laws from Wheaton College. The first chairman of Essence magazine and first black chairman of the Studio Museum in Harlem, Goings left Wall Street to become an art dealer and collector in 1978.

 


Artist Hank Willis Thomas delivers remarks at MICA’s undergraduate commencement on May 15. (His introduction begins at 46:25). | Video by MICA

 
May 21 | Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Retired librarian and art collector Vivian Davidson Hewitt was awarded a doctor of humane letters by Carnegie Mellon University, her alma mater (1944). Hewitt was the first African American chief librarian for the Rockefeller Foundation, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the Council on Foreign Relations. She also served as president of the Special Libraries Association. The Hewitt Collection was purchased by Bank of America and is now housed at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture in Charlotte, N.C.

 
May 21 | Colgate University, Hamilton, N.Y.

Poet and author of “Citizen: An American Lyric,” Claudia Rankine delivered the keynote address to graduates at Colgate University. Princeton University historian Nell Painter was also honored at the commencement ceremony.

 
May 21 | Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, Pa.

The former director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African History, Johnetta B. Cole, delivered the commencement address at Gettysburg College. She previously served as president of Spelman College.

 
May 22 | Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio

Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, a historic and contemporary source of visual art funding, gave the commencement address at Oberlin College. Walker and Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), each received an Honorary Doctor of Humanities.

 
May 28 | Wesleyan University, Middleton, Conn.

Poet and Yale professor of English, Claudia Rankine addressed Wesleyan University’s commencement. The author of “Citizen: An American Lyric” is using her 2016 MacArthur “Genius” Grant to establish the Racial Imaginary Institute.

 
June 3 | Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Providence

RISD awarded an honorary degree to the Los Angeles-born, Brooklyn-based artist Kehinde Wiley. “Trickster,” his solo exhibition of portraits of fellow contemporary artists, was recently on view at Sean Kelly Gallery in New York.

 
June 10 | University of Washington, Seattle

Johnetta B. Cole, who recently retired as director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Africa Art spoke at the University of Washington’s commencement. She continues to serve on the Scholarly Advisory Council of NMAAHC. CT

 

BOOKSHELF
“Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” a comprehensive, cloth-covered catalog accompanies his 35-year survey exhibition and includes essays by the curators and writings by Marshall on a range of topics, from his Rythm Mastr comic series to artists Mickalene Thomas and Horace Pippin. Dawoud Bey has published several volumes of his portraits and documentary photography. Recent titles include “Dawoud Bey: Picturing People,” “Dawoud Bey: Harlem, U.S.A.,” and “Dawoud Bey: Class Pictures.” Following “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric,” Claudia Rankine’s critically recognized, award-winning “Citizen: An American Lyric,” is an insightful, provocative mediation on race—how it plays out in daily encounters and is portrayed in the media. She followed up with “The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind.” “Carrie Mae Weems: Kitchen Table Series” explores one of her early and most acclaimed bodies of work. The exhibition catalog “Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video,” coincided with her mid-career survey and includes full-color images of works from throughout her career and contributions by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Franklin Sirmans, Robert Storr, and Deborah Willis.

 


Librarian and art collector Vivian Davidson Hewitt expresses her gratitude for the honorary doctorate her alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University, bestowed upon her May 21. | Video by Carnegie Mellon