Commencement Address to the Pacific Northwest College of Art
Sunday May 23, 2004
Just like many of you, my parents were enthusiastic when I displayed artistic talent as a child. However, they had no idea that later it would become so difficult to explain what I do. One of the things that you have been called to do during art school is to explain and defend your viewpoint. It’s inescapable throughout your life – you will need to be able to talk about what you do. You will use your self-reflective skills to explore ideas and to justify your choices. I am often asked to speak about my work, but I’m cautious in order to protect the experience of the audience. However, this afternoon I will make an effort to be more specific about myself and my art.
When I was six years old my parents took a decisive step to encourage what they perceived as my budding talent in the visual arts by enrolling me in a weekly class offered at the art museum in our hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania. As far as I know there weren’t a lot of examples, other than the drawings I’d done in the years prior, some of which my mother proudly glued into scrapbooks. One depicts a merry-go-round. It looks like it was drawn by a four year old. But it does have an exuberant note written onto it by mother, pointing out that I’d rendered it with primitive perspective, the carousel animals in the back being smaller than those in the front.
Being the first born, while their experience of parenting was still new, I had my parents’ full attention in a way that my three siblings never would. Perhaps later, my sisters and brother would also dabble in perspective, without receiving parental hyperbole.
At the conclusion of the Erie Art Museum class, my parents sat me down with a couple little paperback art books, one a survey of European paintings, the other of American. They had told me from the outset that when the class was finished, I would pick out a picture, they’d get a print of it, have it framed, it would hang in the living room and it would be mine when I grew up. I chose Edward Hicks’ “Peaceable Kingdom” and it hangs in my house now. As a child I knew this picture would be with me into adulthood. Looking back from here, I see the continuity. Having it in my childhood home reinforced every urge I had to find a voice of my own and have it heard. I already felt I was different from other people – maybe everyone feels this way – but from that early age I needed to put my mark on things. If I was going to invest myself in something, I wanted it to be of my own making. I know that my parents’ hopes and encouragements were to see me develop a set of more traditional skills as a draftsman or painter. That was not to be.
Years passed. After a couple false starts at a small college and then a large university, I moved to Boston because a number of friends were living there. I worked a few different jobs and then went to Massachusetts College of Art, where I earned a BFA in painting. Going to school as a painter, with a desire to be an artist, I was not trained for existing jobs. Schools teach the techniques of a given discipline. They can encourage you to find your own voice, which is given the true test in the working world. Shifting priorities can narrow the opportunity to find a place for your artistic expression. But not everyone can find a unique voice. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Artistry and craftsmanship need not be infused with iconoclasm to be worthy endeavors. There can be richness in works that do not present a unique vision. The world needs craftsmanship as much as it needs art; the functional and the poetic are equally important. The critical and aesthetic skills honed in art school have a vital place throughout the whole of society. Artists’ sensibilities, applied in circumstances ranging from corporate to comunity, are essential for making the world a better place.
Artists, in whatever medium they work, from printmakers to folk singers, function within a hierarchy that starts at a local level and continues outwards to the international. The local arena is essential, and it is from there that one can step up the ladder. But the importance of creative people working locally can not be overstated. There would be no regional, national and international without local. Being a part of a community, not an arts community, but a true community where the efforts of all contribute to make a compelling and varied whole, is a rich and worthy experience.
When I graduated from college it was incumbent on me to figure out how to make a living. But first I took a cross-country road trip. No better way to start a project than to avoid it altogether. I visited my grandmother in Palm Springs, where she and her older sister would spend the winters. This visit was notable because of time I spent with her neighbor – Herb Feitler. Herb and Hannah Feitler had been my grandmother’s childhood friends in Chicago. Herb and I made several excursions into the surrounding desert communities, mostly stopping at flea markets. I was in my mid-twenties. To me, hanging out and driving around with a guy in his late seventies was the height of exotica. He wore one of those cloth fishing hats that I associate with Jack Klugman, Norman Lear or Woody Allen. He was authentically who he was and that connected with me.
After I returned home to Boston, Herb and I stayed in touch with occasional letters and postcards. Mainly I brought home a clear desire to meet other old people. Though I didn’t recognize it at the time, what was so striking to me about meeting Herb was that he was the first old person I formed a relationship with who was not in my family.
I wasn’t sure what I could do, but I needed a job and I wanted to act on this new desire. I thought maybe I could teach painting to old people. A fellow Mass Art graduate was the activities director at a nursing home and wanted to cut back to part time. I applied and got the job. From the start I found not only a rich pool of potential friends, but also a recognition of something in myself – a longstanding interest in capturing, through the written word, the character of a person. Within a month I started a little publication called The Duplex Planet, devoted to my conversations with the residents. I also made a very conscious decision to stop painting. I set aside the brushes and canvas but not my desire to communicate something of the world as I saw it. I felt that I needed to stop painting so that this new endeavor would be my sole artistic outlet, wherever it might lead.
What I found in that nursing home was my voice, something that fit me as whole person. It encompassed more of my interests, instincts, and feelings. Everything from conceptual art and surrealism to simple human interactions now had a focus.
One day, early in my employment at the nursing home, a resident by the name of Larry Green came to me, and with all the urgency he could muster, said, “Dave, no one came to get my Dad’s tray.” The tray part I understood – the lunchtime meals were distributed on trays to each resident. The Dad part I couldn’t fathom, as Larry’s father had long since died. At any rate, I followed him out of the activity and dining room. Larry never walked very fast, but he always did so with a great deal of purpose to his steps that barely left the floor. He led me to a room which was shared by two residents, one of whom was Walter McGeorge. And there sat Walter, with his finished lunch tray in front of him on his little table. “Hi Dad, ” Larry said to Walter. Walter seemed to be smiling two different smiles. One was directed at Larry as an acknowledgement; the other was aimed at me, and seemed to be saying, “It’s all right, we’ll just let him think I’m his father, it’s no bother at all.”
Larry was in a remarkable state in which he thought anyone he encountered was an old friend. He’d remembered his life into something far easier than it actually had been. He’d worked on a coal wharf, had six children, and never enough money. However, he’d say he had two children. He wasn’t really forgetting any – if you’d name them, he’d acknowledge them as his. But the math always came out to be two for him. It was just easier that way. The easy, sauntering pace he was living life at now, became, in his mind, the way it had always been.
I learned from Larry, and from Walter and from many others, that anything was as real as anyone said it was or believed it to be. The days of big adventures were basically over and now old adventures were getting bigger or simply being accidentally invented. So the best thing was to accept them as real, because that was the most direct line to getting to know the person who lived – or thought they lived – it.
I’m attracted to odd turns of phrase, to the obviously skewed story. I listen for elements that reflect the individual. I don’t invent the person, they are authentic, but I shape the character that lives on the page. I never saw the residents as windows on their past. Oral history has a valuable place in our culture, but that isn’t what I am looking for.
I worked at that nursing home for a couple years, but it set me on a course I’ve been on now for half my life. What started as, and continues to be, a little self-published periodical, has subsequently been collected into books, adapted into comics, been the subject of documentaries, and the basis for monologues.
My allegiance is to the underlying ideas rather than to a particular medium. Twenty-five years ago it would never have occurred to me that my work would include delivering monologues derived from conversations with nursing home residents, while musicians play an accompanying score. Painting hadn’t been a wrong direction for me. It led me to understand how to approach a new medium.
Since I’m here as a working artist, I think I should tell you a few fundamentals of my life. I’m turning fifty in a few weeks. I have a daughter who is graduating high school next year. We live in a small New York town near the Vermont border, within four hours of Boston, New York City or Montreal. Living where we do allows us a way of life and a house we would not be able to afford in a larger city. My wife and I are both self-employed. I perform shows of the Duplex Planet material. The nature of that work, with its underlying themes of aging, have brought me speaking engagements in addition to writing and consulting work. I am a commentator and music reviewer for All Things Considered on National Public Radio, as well as for various magazines. I design CD covers and packages.
I’ve worked for other people and I’ve worked for myself. There are advantages and disadvantages to each, but when it comes down to it, I’m glad that, most of the time, I’m doing what I want to do. I believe in my work as an artist, I have found ways to nurture and sustain it over the decades. Nothing I have done is extraordinary. This is just the way I see the world. My art addresses an omission in our culture. I stand by what is important to me. I adapt wherever I feel I can and hold on to the ideals that feel immutable for me.
I’d like to leave you with some of the most important things I’ve learned as an artist. Dispel the myth of suffering for art. Redefine terminology. Doubt, failure, passion, authenticity are all fuel for the process. Self-scrutiny and sacrifice are at the core of the work. Making choices, balancing career, family, and quality of life are part of the whole equation. You have an open window in your life right now – take in as much as possible, absorb as much culture as you can. This is the gathering phase for a potential artist. And that is what you have now – potential. Apply your creativity not just to your art, but also to the way you interact with and find your way through the world. And don’t underestimate the importance of waking up in the middle of the night and thinking that everything you’re doing is wrong – it’s that sense of fear and panic that can push you to breakthroughs.
– David Greenberger