College of Fine Arts Commencement address from Terry Adkins
From left, Tony Crowley, director of the School of Art; alumnus Terry Adkins; and James Major, dean of the College of Fine Arts.
Alumnus Terry Adkins, who earned his master’s degree in art from Illinois State in 1977, was inducted into the College of Fine Arts Hall of Fame on May 11.
Later that evening, Adkins gave an inspiring address to the graduates at the College of Fine Arts Commencement ceremony. Below is the full text of his remarks:
“President Bowman, Dean Major, distinguished guests, alumni, faculty, family, friends and graduating students. I am deeply touched by the distinguished capacity of being honored as the 154th commencement alumni guest speaker for the College of Fine Arts class of 2013. It is for me a great cardinal homecoming, teeming as it is with sentiments of the highest regard and with the perennial flourish of ceremony, grandeur and celebration that mark the transitional magnitude of this most auspicious occasion. I first arrived at campus in the winter of 1975, having driven a rental van from my alma mater Fisk University in Nashville northward through ice, snow and frigid temperatures so severe that I quickly discovered what the survival tactics of thermal underwear and layering were all about. I return today forever grateful for the excellent educational experiences that I received at this Midwestern oasis that is Illinois State University. She sharpened my mind, honed my gifts, opened my eyes and tuned my heart to the humbling measure of responsibility that accompanies the great privilege of joining the ranks of an international consortium of young emerging professionals in the arts. Tonight I stand before you straddling fond memories of the past with a projected vision of hope for the future as you, our alumni to be, are now about to embark upon one of the most fascinating journeys of your life. Congratulations to the College of Fine Arts class of 2013.
Congratulations are in order too for the other members of this eager-eyed assembly of heightened anticipation. Here’s to the duly proud loved ones – parents, siblings extended family, friends and faculty gathered tonight in your honor. Their sacrifice of unwavering support for your creative endeavors springs from deep-seated faith and the promising certainty that you will indeed realize the fullest potential of your respective vocations in the years to come. What an ardent and reaffirming faith it is too, practiced most lovingly by your parents, whose devout and steadfast belief in the enduring value of an education in the arts transcends the practical concerns of their better judgment. They have stood by you in united gallantry, ignoring the harsh realities of the slim possibility that you might somehow make a decent living from your chosen calling. And yet, we must boldly face and firmly address the menacing questions that hover in the shadows of this joyful event. How will you survive with a higher education in the arts? How can your learning be meaningful or fulfilling in a turbulent world beset by catastrophe in every conceivable sphere of human experience? When I posed these questions in 1977 after being flung into the real world as you are about to be, the options were few; the circumstances dire. We had to resign ourselves to but two options –to either pursue an extended career in higher education through teaching or to make risky pilgrimage to thriving art centers to put our talents and ideals to the test against all odds in search of fame and fortune. Needless to say, extremely few of us emerged from the narrow end of the funneling tide with our career laden dreams still intact.
Today the issues surrounding these questions and their rejoined consequences have become even more pervasive, complex and exaggerated. The stakes have been raised; survival for young professional artists, composers, musicians, playwrights and actors seems to be an even more insurmountable undertaking than it was 36 years ago when I was in your shoes. The sign of the times in reign of quantity that presently engulfs us has shaped an age characterized by the stutter and mounting brevity of time collapsed into space, wherein quantity overwhelms quality; information is more valued than knowledge; image veils a lack of substance; success is equated with wealth; mediocrity is propped up as genius; the billionaire is the hero of modern life; even the intrinsic value of the arts are constantly threatened by the encroachment of monetary rank, merited by the degree to which they are usurped and regurgitated by the gigantic. But fear not. Fortunately, the alarming rise of these monstrous deviations has coincided with the advancement of promising alternatives that hopefully signal the dawning of our recovery from them.
The expanded fields of the arts have openly embraced an interdisciplinary ideal, dissolving longstanding boundaries and incorporating the underlying principles and strategies from other bodies of knowledge as never before. Under the banner of creative research, one commonly finds imaginative arts practitioners employing methodologies normally ascribed to immersive studies in science, history, architecture, politics, design, archeology, literature, activism, and sociology, among others. These tendencies coupled with redefining developments in platforms for global communication have revolutionized the flow of information, transformed the matrix for the exchange of creative ideas, and given access to burgeoning audiences for the arts. Mind you, these virtual conveniences are only tools, prospects for asserting your voice in the world. There is no substitute for the discipline, rigor and devotion to craft that must fuel your quest for aspiring to attain the standards of excellence embodied in the timeless masterworks of our artistic heritage.
Nor does the facile access to massive amounts of information come without a charge of vital responsibility. The limitless palette of life can never be truly grasped through the envelope of a computer screen. Data is merely compiled material that must be filtered through the sieve of unquantifiable human experience in order to be transformed into discerning critical knowledge. Accordingly equipped, you can help to pry the arts away from their being reduced to dangling modifiers of societal excess to once again becoming urgent spiritual necessities for all, driven by the purpose of reflecting upon the myriad dimensions of what it means to be human today. Walt Whitman (1819-1892) beautifully encapsulates the transcendent universals that comprise what he calls this “vast similitude” in his poem On the Beach at Night Alone:
On the beach at night alone,
As the old mother sways her to and fro singing her husky song,
As I watch the bright stars shining, I think a thought of the clef of the universes
and of the future.
A vast similitude interlocks all,
All spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns moons, planets,
All distances of place however wide,
All distances of time, all inanimate forms,
All souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different, or in different worlds,
All gaseous, watery, vegetable, mineral processes, the fishes, the brutes,
All nations, colors, barbarisms, civilizations, languages,
All identities that have existed or may exist on this globe, or any globe,
All lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future,
This vast similitude spans them, and always has spann’d,
And shall forever span them and compactly hold and enclose them.
Our questions yet remain. How will you survive with an education in the arts? In most any way that you choose. How can a career in the arts be meaningful and fulfilling in a turbulent world? However you see fit to make it so. We need to hear from the talented and struggling voices of your generation. We want to see what happens when your creative imaginations clash with the realities of our existence. We want to know what you critically think and how you passionately feel about contemporary life on this small planet. The degrees that will soon be conferred upon you are not only important milestones in your gifted young lives. They are also an urgent call to arms.
Go forth from this place emboldened by your accomplishments to state your dream and stake your claim to the promising future that awaits you.
Imagine it. Harness it. Realize it with integrity.
Its authorship is in your hands; the choices are all up to you.
Keep the faith.