WHATEVER WISDOM Fulton Leroy Washington (aka Mr. Wash) imparts on graduating art students at UCLA, he will likely emphasize the importance of time. Don’t waste it. Make the most of it. You can’t get it back.

Washington is delivering the keynote address at the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture graduating class of 2021 on June 12. The artist has an inspiring story to share about the arc of his life and the great strides he’s made, particularly over the past five years. Washington spent two decades in prison and was released in 2016. Today, he is among 30 artists featured in Made in L.A. 2020.


Fulton Leroy Washington (aka Mr. Wash) will address 2021 graduates at the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture during a virtual ceremony. | Photo Courtesy UCLA


He is also one of several African American artists speaking at college commencements this year, including Howardena Pindell, Amy Sherald, Sonya Clark, Theaster Gates, and Dread Scott. Artists and arts leaders are addressing graduates and/or receiving honorary degrees. Due to health concerns about the lingering pandemic, many ceremonies are virtual. Others are hybrid events with graduates attending in person with their friends and families tuning in online. The artists are opening up about their personal journeys and artistic paths, offering encouragement and lessons learned.

Compton, Calif.-based Washington’s unusual path began in 1997, when he was convicted of three nonviolent drug offenses he says he did not commit. Based on his prior convictions and mandatory minimum sentencing requirements, Washington received life in prison. While incarcerated, he started sketching and eventually painting, giving him an outlet for expressing himself. He committed to his art, a photorealistic style of portraiture, and said he stopped counting when he surpassed 900 paintings.

After President Barack Obama commuted his sentence, granting him clemency, Washington walked out of prison on May 5, 2016. Since gaining his freedom, he has been making the most of the time he has now with his family and his work.

Washington’s paintings have been featured prominently in Made in L.A., illustrating billboards, posters, and the exhibition website. The highly regarded biennial presented by the Hammer Museum at UCLA and The Huntington is currently on view through Aug. 1, 2021. (Washington’s paintings are on display at both locations.) His work is also included in “Shattered Glass,” a group exhibition curated by Melahn Frierson and AJ Girard at Jeffrey Deitch Los Angeles, through May 22.

In addition to his artistic practice, he is a criminal justice reform advocate and continues to work on his case to prove his innocence.

In a recent interview with UCLA Arts, conducted by Avishay Artsy, Washington said, “You can’t make up time. There’s no making up time. I went in there and I worked everyday and used the time in a positive way. It’s nothing to make up… I am only constantly getting the best out of every 24 hours.”

“You can’t make up time. There’s no making up time. I went in there and I worked everyday and used the time in a positive way. It’s nothing to make up… I am only constantly getting the best out of every 24 hours.”
— Fulton Leroy Washington

Artist Howardena Pindell gave the commencement address to 2021 graduates of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago during a virtual ceremony. | 2018 © Nathan Keay


WASHINGTON IS IN GOOD COMPANY. Artist Howardena Pindell and Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III are also addressing students at college graduations this year.

Pindell, Senga Nengudi, and Trevor Paglen received honorary doctorates from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) during a virtual commencement ceremony on May 15.

Pindell gave the commencement address to the 2021 graduates. Based in New York, Pindell’s multidisciplinary practice spans figuration, abstraction and conceptualism. She explores race, gender, memory, and the American experience. Her emphasis on color, structure, and process is exemplified in her signature un-stretched canvases, textured collaged paintings featuring countless paper dots made with a hole punch.

In her remarks, Pindell dispatched with soaring rhetoric in favor of practical advice for the students about setting up their artistic practice, staying engaged, documenting their ideas, preserving their work using the right archival materials and media, and protecting their creative legacy.

When it comes to loaning, consigning, and selling work, Pindell said put everything in writing. For those who want to teach, she suggested joining the College Art Association, adding that the organization is a resource for job listings and has an annual convention. She made reference to the book “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron and recommended “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards. Pindell also said, “Get the vaccine.”

Speaking about documentation, Pindell explained the importance of recording creative ideas in a visual journal and dating the pages. She proved the wisdom of her recommendation with a profound example.

“I just physicalized a project I had submitted as a performance art piece about lynching in the early 1970s. I presented my proposal to the membership of AIR Gallery, a white women’s cooperative in New York City. I was the only woman of color member in the gallery and had named the gallery AIR. They turned the proposal down,” Pindell said.

“It was finally created as a film that was shown at The Shed in New York City. It just closed on March 23, 2021. The show was up for six months and had over 5,000 visitors. It was 25 years between the original idea and the new version of it called ‘Rope, Fire, Water.'”

In her remarks, Howardena Pindell dispatched with soaring rhetoric in favor of practical advice for the students about setting up their artistic practice, documenting their ideas, and protecting their creative legacy.

Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch delivered virtual remarks at George Washington University’s 2021 commencement. | Screenshot from GWU Commencement Livestream


BUNCH, WHO SERVED as founding director of the the National Museum of African American History and Culture before being appointed to his leadership role at the Smithsonian, spoke virtually to the Class of 2021 at George Washington University (GW) on May 16.

GW is marking its bicentennial year. Ordinarily the university’s commencement is held on the grand lawn of the National Mall in the midst of the Smithsonian’s museums. Bunch said GW is the only school that stages its graduation in the public space and he has marveled annually at the preparation as hundreds of folding chairs are arranged. This year and last year were the exception.

Bunch noted he was speaking remotely because the students had the added challenge of navigating college in a global pandemic. It took a physical, emotional, and economic toll on everyone, he said.

“If the events of the past year have taught us anything, it’s that this world needs more people…who point themselves in the direction of doing good irrespective of personal cost. If you have that commitment to do good, you’ll be able to handle the adversity, you’ll be able to embrace the ambiguity and change that life is all about,” he said toward the end of is remarks.

“So let me end as I began by congratulating this wonderful class of 2021, but let me also urge you to use this education, these skills, this opportunity you’ve been afforded, as a chance to do good for others, to contribute to making America a better, kinder place, one that embodies its loftiest principles and lives up to its most cherished ideals.

Bunch added: “I wish you a life of joy, peace, surprise, and wonder, but most importantly, I wish you a life of purpose and doing good for others.”

A selection of artists and arts leaders participating in commencements this season follows:

Giving lively remarks that responded to the current moment, John Legend began his commencement address by recounting his first appearance at Duke University in 2004 when he performed with Kanye West. Back then, he said he played the piano, sang the hooks, and hoped people would notice him. Soon after, Legend released “Get Lifted,” his first album. Maybe his career took off because of Duke, he surmised. | Video by Duke University

John Legend
Singer-Songwriter, Producer, EGOT
Duke University, Durham, N.C | May 2

John Legend received an honorary degree and addressed Duke University graduates in person at an outdoor ceremony at Duke’s Wallace Wade Stadium. He said it was the first time he had been in front of a live audience since February 2020. He gave substantive, engaging, and uplifting remarks. He referenced “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together,” Heather McGhee’s new book, calling her a friend. He said voting rights and trans rights were under assault and nativism and authoritarianism are on the rise around the world. Legend said the students may be asking why was he trying to bring them down on their day of celebration. “I’ve been hearing calls to shut up and sing my entire career,” he said. “Well, as North Carolina native Nina Simone once said, it is an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.”

Legend continued: “And it’s also a banker’s duty, a lawyer’s duty, a doctor’s duty, a teacher’s duty, an engineer’s duty, an entrepreneur’s duty, a plumber’s duty, a nurse’s duty. A mom’s, a dad’s duty. Class of 2021, Duke has poured all kinds of tools and resources and experiences into you. I am asking you today to use them on behalf of our democracy. To remember just how interdependent each of us is on each other. To build communities that are healthier and safer for everyone, where everyone can live up to their full potential.”

That was in the first 11 minutes. In the next 15, he spoke about mass incarceration, the importance of being active in your local community, and the need to lead with love, even when dealing with political and public policy adversaries.

“I’ve been hearing calls to shut up and sing my entire career. Well, as North Carolina native Nina Simone once said, it is an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.” — John Legend

A perennially inspiring commencement speaker, Bryan Stevenson, founding director of the Equal Justice Initiative, is addressing multiple university graduations this year. | Video by University of Michigan

Bryan Stevenson
Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Mich. | May 1
Howard University, Washington, D.C. | May 8
Morehouse College, Atlanta, Ga. | May 16
University of California, Berkeley Law School | May 21
Tufts University, Medford, Mass. | May 23

Bryan Stevenson leads the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Ala., with a mission toward ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment. He wrote a book about his life, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” that was made into a feature film starring Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan. He also created the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery.

Stevenson is a popular and inspiring commencement speaker and always delivers profound, insightful, and urgent messages about race, incarceration, and criminal justice in the United States. This year, his remarks at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley Law School were particularly resonant and meaningful. He also addressed HBUC graduates at Howard University and Morehouse University. He will also speak to 2021 graduates at Tufts University in a virtual address on May 23.


From left, Cranbrook Academy of Art and Art Museum Board Chair Jennifer Gilbert presents honorary MFA degree to renowned sculptor Artis Lane, with Susan R. Ewing, the Maxine and Stuart Frankel Director of Cranbrook Academy of Art | Photo Courtesy Cranbrook Academy of Art

Artist Artis Lane
Cranbrook Academy of Art, Bloomfield Hills, Mich. | May 14

Sculptor Artis Lane, 94, received an honorary Master of Fine Arts degree from Cranbrook Academy of Art during an in-person ceremony on campus. The first Black woman to enroll in the school, Lane studied at Cranbrook in 1951 and after a year went on to pursue her artistic practice. She makes paintings, prints, and sculptures exploring a variety of themes.

Over the course of seven decades, Lane has become best known for her sculptural portraits of historic subjects. She has depicted many public figures, including President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, Nelson Mandela, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Lane’s bust of Sojourner Truth is installed in Emancipation Hall in the U.S. Capitol. Since January, her bust of Rosa Parks is displayed in President Biden’s Oval Office, on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

After spending the majority or her career in Los Angeles, Canadian-born Lane has returned to Detroit, living in the city where she was based early in her practice. Upon receiving the honorary recognition, Lane addressed Cranbrook graduates. She said in part: “An artist’s life can go on for as long as you have the inspiration to pursue it. My sincere hope for all of you is that your careers will be as long and satisfying as my own continues to be.”


Ford Foundation President Darren Walker received an honorary doctor of humane letters from The New School, presented by Deva Woodley, associate professor of politics. You can watch the full commencement celebration here. (Walker’s tribute begins at 45:34). | Video by The New School

Darren Walker
President of the Ford Foundation
The New School, New York, N.Y. | May 14
Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), Savanannah, Ga. | May 28

Ford Foundation President Darren Walker was one of three honorary degree recipients at The New School, which includes the Parsons School of Design. The 85th commencement, a virtual event honoring 2021 graduates was presided over by Dwight A. McBride, the school’s first Black president. The Ford Foundation has invested in diversifying museums through initiatives focused on curator training and fellowships and representation deficits on museum boards. The foundation has also partnered with Agnes Gund on the Art for Justice Fund, which supports artists and advocates working together to address mass incarceration and reform the criminal justice system.

Walker “was honored for being a champion for inclusive justice and encouraging other leaders to work towards a future where social justice, equality, and inclusion prevail.” He was presented with an honorary doctor of humane letters by Deva Woodley, associate professor of politics at the The New School for Social Research.

On May 28, Walker will also receive an honorary degree from the Savannah College of Art and Design during the school’s virtual commencement for 2021 graduates.


Los Angeles artist Lauren Halsey addressed 2021 graduates at the Otis College of Art and Design here (Halsey is introduced at 44:39, her honorary degree is awarded at 48:32, and she gives remarks from 48:56-1:03:02.) | Video by Otis College of Art and Design

Artist Lauren Halsey
Otis College of Art and Design, Los Angeles | May 15

During a virtual commencement ceremony, Otis College of Art and Design conferred upon Lauren Halsey, a Doctor in Fine Arts degree. Halsey works at the intersection of art, architecture, and community, expressing herself in a range of mediums, including installations, sculpture, and mixed-media works. Her practice is centered around and pays homage to South Central Los Angeles, the community where she grew up and continues to call home.

Halsey participated in “Made in L.A. 2018” at the Hammer Museum, receiving the biennial’s coveted Mohn Award. In 2019, she founded Summaeverythang Community Center, a nonprofit designed to bring free arts programming to her neighborhood. During the pandemic, Summaeverythang became an invaluable resource, providing hundreds of healthy food boxes to families every Friday, an initiative that remains ongoing.

After sharing her own, unfolding journey, Halsey encouraged the graduates to be authentic and embrace their agency. “Any path you take after this moment will be your practice, informed by your interest in reporting life as you know it,” Halsey said.

“Any kind of practice, art included, is really just the endurance to do what you want to do and to do it with whoever you make your people—your family, your friends, your peers. So lean on your mentors, lean on your friends. Find a way, whatever way, to make your work. And if art, after this, is no longer your work, know that’s okay too.”


The School of the Art Institute of Chicago held a virtual commencement on May 15. Senga Nengudi is introduced at 24:50 and speaks briefly at 26:52. Pindell is introduced at 28:54 and gives her commencement address from 31:18 to 42:11. | Video by SAIC

Artists Howardena Pindell, Senga Nengudi
School of the Art Institute of Chicago | May 15

Artists Howardena Pindell, Senga Nengudi, and Trevor Paglen received honorary doctorates from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). Pindell gave the commencement address to SAIC’s 2021 graduates.

Upon accepting her degree, Nengudi said the recognition was particularly meaningful because she was born in Chicago and her family resided on the South Side. Her conceptual practice blends sculpture, performance, and dance. Primarily concerned with race and gender issues, she is best known for abstract, biomorphic works made with pantyhose.

“Art for me is a verb,” Nengudi said in her brief remarks. “There are verbs I constantly stay mindful of. Emerge, release, discover, want, give, defend, define, balance, stop, go, help, circle, focus, and embrace.” She concluded: “I would say to you stay the course. Stay committed. Share your power. Share your voice. Share your vision that is unique to you. You are a chronicler of our time.”

“I would say to you stay the course. Stay committed. Share your power. Share your voice. Share your vision that is unique to you. You are a chronicler of our time.” — Senga Nengudi

Artist Sonya Clark delivered the commencement address at Maine College of Art. (Clark is introduced at 28:02 and gives remarks at 31:50-55:35.) | Video by MECA

Artist Sonya Clark
Maine College of Art, Portland, Maine | May 16

Artist, activist, and educator Sonya Clark was the keynote speaker at the Maine College of Art (MECA) commencement. The graduation ceremony took place at Cross Insurance Arena. Clark spoke from her home and received an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts.

A professor of art at Amherst College in Amherst, Mass., she previously served as chair of Craft/Material Studies Department at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, from 2006 to 2017. She has also been a visiting professor at MECA. “Sonya Clark: Tatter, Bristle, and Mend,” the first survey of her 25-year career, is currently on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.

“Being an artist is a privilege and it’s a responsibility,” Clark said. “We have proof that coming together, being together, thinking together, standing together, creating together, doing what we do, making what we make, all of this has the capacity to create community, address thorny issues head on, and facilitate change.”


Speaking virtually to George Washington University graduates on May 16, Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch said: “I wish you a life of purpose and doing good for others.” (Bunch is introduced at 33:50 and gives remarks from 35:45-42:55.) | Video by GWU

Lonnie G. Bunch III
Secretary of the Smithsonian
George Washington University, Washington, D.C. | May 16

Lonnie Bunch spoke at George Washington University’s virtual commencement celebration, noting his connections to the school where he was a museum studies and history professor for a decade, from 1990 to 2000. The invitation to address GW graduates included an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters. Bunch requested that the university confer the honor when its customary in-person ceremony is able to be held on the National Mall.


Artists Valerie Maynard and Amy Sherald. | Photos, from left, by Dena Fisher and JJ Geiger. Courtesy MICA

Artists Valerie Maynard, Amy Sherald
Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), Baltimore | May 22



Valerie Maynard and Amy Sherald are both serving as keynote speakers at MICA’s 2021 commencement ceremony, a virtual event on May 22.

Harlem-born Maynard is a Baltimore-based sculptor and printmaker, who makes personal and political work addressing issues such as inequality and civil rights. Active in the Black Arts Movement, she was an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem (1969-74) and participated in FESTAC ’77 in Lagos, Nigeria. The Baltimore Museum of Art recently staged “Valerie Maynard: Lost and Found,” a retrospective of the artist’s six-decade career.

Recognized for her portraits, Sherald was selected to paint First Lady Michelle Obama’s portrait after winning the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition in 2016. She is the first woman and first Black artist to win the prize from the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Sherald’s portrait of Breonna Taylor is currently featured in “Promise, Witness, Remembrance,” curated by Allison Glenn at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky. The painting first appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair and has since been jointly acquired the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Speed Art Museum. “Amy Sherald: The Great American Fact” is on view at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles through June 6.


Artist Theaster Gates. | Photo by John R. Boehm, Courtesy MassArt

Artist Theaster Gates
Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Boston | May 22



Chicago artist Theaster Gates has developed a visionary, multidisciplinary practice focused on preservation, restoration, and archiving. He revitalizes communities by transforming abandoned buildings into vibrant cultural spaces and produces artworks that explore race, representation, and social history. In 2009, Gates established the Rebuild Foundation. This week, he was selected to design the 2022 Serpentine Pavilion. He is the first non-architect to win the commission. Gates will address 2021 graduates of Massachusetts College of Art and Design and receive an honorary doctor of fine arts degree during a virtual commencement ceremony on May 22.

Artist Dread ScottPratt Institute, Brooklyn, N.Y. | May 22

Artist and activist Dread Scott will deliver the commencement address and receive an honorary degree at Pratt Institute’s virtual graduation ceremony. In his artist statement, Scott explains his work: “I make revolutionary art to propel history forward. I look towards an era without exploitation or oppression. I don’t accept the political structures, economic foundation, social relations and governing ideas of America.” Scott works in a variety of mediums, including performance. In 2019, he staged a Slave Rebellion Reenactment near New Orleans.


In a video tribute, Yale University President Peter Salovey confers honorary degrees on nine recipients, including Ava Duvernay (starts at 2:00) and Robert Farris Thompson (4:00). | Video by Yale

Filmmaker Ava DuVernay
Art Historian Robert Farris Thompson

Yale University, New Haven, Conn. | May 24

For Commencement 2021, Yale University held graduation ceremonies on multiple days, both in-person and virtual events. Yale President Peter Salovey conferred nine honorary degrees via a video tribute. Recipients included prolific filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts. A producer, director, and writer, in less than a decade, DuVernay has been a transformative figure in film and television, creating and supporting projects that bring awareness to social justice issues, center Black stories and women’s narratives, and employ women and people of color in acting roles and production positions. Robert Farris Thompson received an honorary Doctor of Humanities. A professor emeritus of African American studies and the former Colonel John Trumbull Professor of the History of Art at Yale, he dedicated his scholarly career to the study of art history, dance, and music of the Afro-Atlantic world. Thompson authored the seminal volume “Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy.”


Virgil Abloh. | Photo by Katrina Wittkamp, Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art

Artist/Designer Virgil Abloh
Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, R.I. | June 2



Virgil Abloh is creative director and founder of Off-White and men’s artistic director at Louis Vuitton. In 2019, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago organized “Virgil Abloh: “Figures of Speech,” a traveling survey and the artist’s first museum exhibition. Abloh is giving the commencement address at Rhode Island School of Design’s 2021 graduation and will also receive an honorary degree. The hybrid event will feature live-streamed virtual remarks with students receiving their degrees during an in-person processional.


Fulton Leroy Washington (aka Mr. Wash) is giving the 2021 commencement address at the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture. | Photo Courtesy UCLA

Artist Fulton Leroy Washington
UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture, Los Angeles | June 12



Fulton Leroy Washington (Mr. Wash) is giving the keynote address at the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture virtual commencement ceremony. Washington’s formidable artistic practice focuses on photorealistic portraiture. His work is currently featured in “Made in L.A. 2020” at the Hammer Museum at UCLA and The Huntington. CT


UPDATE (05/25/21): Added mentions of Artis Lane, Ava DuVernay, and Robert Farris Thompson


Made in L.A. 2020: A Version was published to accompany the current biennial featuring Fulton Leroy Washington (Mr. Wash). “Made in L.A. 2018” includes Lauren Halsey’s work and “Lauren Halsey: Mohn Award 2018” was published to document her biennial prize. “Howardena Pindell: What Remains To Be Seen” was published on the occasion of the artist’s five-decade retrospective. “Howardena Pindell: Rope/Fire/Water” is forthcoming in July.
“A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump” by Lonnie Bunch takes readers behind the scenes as he chronicles his more than decade-long journey creating and opening the long-awaited museum. “Sonya Clark: Monumental Cloth, The Flag We Should Know” was recently published. “Theaster Gates” from Phaidon is described as the artist’s first monograph. Also consider “Theaster Gates: Black Madonna” and “Theaster Gates: Black Archive.”
Also consider “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” a powerful volume recently published by Nicole R. Fleetwood. Bryan Stevenson authored the memoir “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” which was made into a feature film starring Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan. “The Obama Portraits” explores the making and the meaning of Kehinde Wiley’s Presidential portrait and Amy Sherald’s portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama. The volume also features exclusive photographs, insights from the artists, and scholar essays, including a contribution from Richard Powell.


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