A Commencement Address.
Vertis Hayes (1911-2000), The Pursuit of Happiness, 1937. Mural in the Harlem Hospital Center, New York, NY. Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections
Mid-May traditionally marks the period of college graduations. I include here an abridged version of a commencement speech I was invited to give in 2016 to the graduating class of the Kansas City Art Institute.
My late older brother, Luis Ignacio Helguera, was a writer. When he was eighteen, he wrote his first “book”: a self-published, typewritten, hand-made edition of one. It was a book full of idealistic essays with youthful statements and interrogations about life. In a short piece in that book he asked: When does a writer start?
So, in the spirit of commencement, this is the same question that I would like to pose today: where does an artist start?
There are multitudes of anecdotes that document the beginning of an artist’s career—that key moment when someone decides to undertake the practice for life. The decision can be sometimes the result of gradual personal experiences such as the ones of Sonia Delaunay who, as a child, spent her summers in Finland with her parents, looking at museums and galleries throughout Europe. Or the decision can be sudden, like Georgia O’Keefe, the daughter of dairy farmers, who decided to become an artist at age 10. Jacob Lawrence started making art as a child at an arts and crafts settlement house in Harlem named Utopia Children’s Center. His mother’s decision to keep him busy with after-school classes changed art history.
Joseph Cornell claimed to have a life changing epiphany on two occasions. The first was when he visited a pet shop with white walls, and the second when he supposedly saw the ghost of the 19th century ballet dancer Fanny Cerrito dancing on top of the Manhattan Storage Warehouse. I guess you never know when those moments are going to come or whether they will involve art, pets, or ballerinas.
For some artists, like Saul Steinberg, life into art was only an extension of childhood drawing activities. He said he had simply never stopped drawing. Grandma Moses, in contrast, started her art career at the age of 78.
For others yet, artistic fate came in the form of a tragic event. Frida Kahlo was on a bus when it crashed violently with a trolley and led her to a life of painful injuries. She began to paint when she was confined to a full body cast in her bed.
That feeling of being pulled to make art is usually unequivocal, and perhaps some of you have already experienced it. To quote a character in a novel, it feels a little something like:
“[being] mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars.”
Only that the quoted character is not an artist. It is a dog named Buck described by Jack London, in The Call of the Wild.
I am not trying to say that we artists are like St. Bernard dogs in the Yukon that suddenly respond to a primeval instinct to join the wolf pack. My point here, and by now you probably already know this, is that art making is much more than a profession. It is, first and foremost, a calling. This also means that becoming an artist is usually less of a career choice, and more an instinctive act of recognition. It chooses you, even if you think you chose it.
Where did it start for me? I don’t quite know the answer. I did have, in my own humble way, my own call of the wild, that moment of recognition at twelve years old. It happened when my grandmother took me to Guadalajara, Mexico, to see the giant murals by José Clemente Orozco in the Hospicio Cabañas, often described as the Sistine Chapel of Mexican muralism. I was so impressed by the grandiosity of those frescoes that were made by an artist who only had one arm. Orozco’s apocalyptic view of Western civilization, of technology, his harsh indictment on the arrogance of modernity, made the murals so powerful and present. I decided at that moment that I would be a muralist and returned home to make large drawings of muscular figures with indigenous features, in a struggle, just like Orozco’s murals.
I left to the US to study at the Art Institute of Chicago. I won’t sugarcoat what this process was like—it was brutal, difficult, painful, and disappointing at times. But my modest moments of progress inspired me so much, and my burning desire to make something important, to say something that I felt was within me, was more powerful than anything else.
Yet, I know that I will never be like Agnes Martin, who would work so obsessively every day that she wouldn't eat at times. I also hope also that my obsessiveness will not bring me to a tragic end like many Abstract Expressionists.
But what makes you an artist is, and will always be, your sense of purpose. Even when you must do things outside of your plan, the urge to make art will not and cannot abandon you. Of course, we want recognition, but that desire does not an artist make. What makes you an artist is the sense of urgency, the deep involvement in an activity, and a problem that you need to solve for yourself. The deep involvement in something both challenging and driving is what constitutes our version of happiness.
In the course of being artists, we find ourselves seeing, observing the world. You may already know that it can be a very lonely place, something you will need to grow accustomed to. There is no way around the fact that you will always, essentially be alone. You will have lifetime friends and journey companions, but the fact is that your journey as an artist will include experiences that are incommunicable even to those with whom you are closest. As artists we don't have the capacity to talk about these experiences because our abilities in communication happen through our art making. The beauty and hard truth about art as communication is that you never know who will be on the receiving end of your message or when.
Guy de Maupassant best expressed this solitude in his novel By the Sea, where he says: just as we remain alone despite all our efforts, we remain free despite all ties. This is what it means to be an artist.
So, as I stand here today, I will not offer you a pep talk about the wonders of the art world, the glamour of openings and vernissages, of magazine covers and art fair brunches, benefits in cold New York and in sweltering Miami. I will not be telling you that it will be fun to try to rent an apartment in Berlin and become someone’s studio assistant there. I will not say that the artist life is a luxurious tour around the world. The fact is that it is never ending waits in airports, flying to obscure cities, staying in economy hostels to participate in low-budget exhibitions, worrying about finances and deadlines.
I will most definitely not be telling you to sit down and wait for inspiration, something that I believe is earned through hard work rather than being a passive recipient. I will not be telling you that you should embark in an inward journey to find your genius when the journey requires entering the world, deeply engaging in it, and talking to thousands of people. The journey includes that traveling around the world, taking serious risks, embracing discomfort, and going to the places that no one else has explored. None of this is easy, and you will find the strange sense that the more public you are, the more you exist in front of an audience, engage in conversation and debates with your colleagues and in the world, the more isolated your place will feel. The more you are surrounded with people, the stronger the loneliness becomes. This is the solitude that has defined our profession for centuries, and it is inescapable.
I am not telling you this to discourage you. This is simply a condition of the journey, a defining aspect of the profession. The loneliness only hurts when you seek meaning in art making through money or material satisfaction. Fulfillment is born from the making of art itself. It is the process that requires thinking and engaging with the world and making art that brings the personal satisfaction.
To return to my brother's youthful text: he posed the question asking where a writer starts, and in the end, he didn't arrive at an answer. Yet he wrote a line that to this very day still strikes me to be true: “We might not know when a writer starts, but we can be sure that a writer never ends.”
And I do think this is very true. For the longest time, and particularly in art school, we think of art in an episodic form: graduation, a first break, gallery representation, awards, and so on. The fact is that art is not about obsessing about future accolades, but about focusing on the present. When you make art, you are producing a statement that is both a portrait and a commentary of your time. In ways that you might not entirely realize that statement will summarize things that might not be clear until much later or that clarity may might only be present in the generations that will follow us. You will not be the interpreter of your own history, but the author of primary sources. And we are active participants of our beginnings, we live writing the beginning of our book, but if what we have written has any value it will continue being lived by others in the future, thanks to, or despite, ourselves.
I welcome you to this crucial moment of your lives when you are beginning to write the script of your lifetime in art. You don’t always need to understand what you are doing; at times it might be better not to know. Be skeptical of conventions. Question every expectation. Don’t contradict just for the sake of being a contrarian, but with the purpose of understanding and questioning the status quo. Don’t be afraid of power, don’t let yourself be infantilized or told that you don’t belong in a particular place. Remember that one day you will be the adult and those who treated you like a child will become old, and child-like. Don’t think that being human excludes you from holding your ground in what you believe. Don’t see art as a decorative distraction, but as the force that is more real than life. Give yourself up to your own era of manifestations, explore your eccentricities, but then step out and put yourself in the shoes of your public, of your community. Learn to listen, to teach, to help others, and learn to truly be humble, invisible, and generous. Become a spy, a leader, a co-conspirator, and a lover, then close the door to decode what you have seen and respond to it.
And fulfillment will come in the ability to work and to enjoy the intellectual stimulation of making art. This is the very same moment we also experience when we see art of the past. Those artists were people just like us, regular human beings who possessed a special talent and at some point in their lives made something that transcended that moment. Sooner or later, we are given that wonderful opportunity, to make that work which will transcend us, which will transcend our time, our moment, ourselves and reach out to others. This is the journey that now commences for you all. I congratulate you for taking it on.