“The ambitious, eager, confident, creative mind will not be short of work”
Internationally acclaimed author and illustrator David Macaulay was awarded the Honorary Degree, Doctor of Fine Arts from Watkins College of Art, Design & Film during ceremonies on May 18 at the Downtown Presbyterian Church. After the presentation by President Ellen L. Meyer, Mr. Macaulay delivered a Commencement address filled with encouragement, inspiration, surprise, and sly humor. President Meyer’s introductory remarks and Mr. Macaulay’s speech follow.
Pictured: Watkins board chair Samuel E. Stumpf, Jr., David Macaulay and Ellen L. Meyer
(photos by Tyler Blankenship)
Commencement Introductory Remarks
by President Ellen L. Meyer
“A visual storyteller whose illustrated books demystify the workings and origins of objects
as mundane as a stapler and as monumental as a cathedral.”
With these words, the renowned MacArthur Fellows Program described today’s honored speaker, David Macaulay, whom the Foundation awarded its highly coveted “Genius Grant” in 2006.
There are not many people you can truly call a genius. The word is overused, to be sure. Mr. Macaulay himself shuns the term. Yet in view of his monumental body of work, incorporating brilliantly executed drawings and a wry wit, I would suggest that David Macaulay is, in fact, a genius.
And what is a genius, after all? The ancient Romans used the word “genius” to describe a divine patron assigned to one at birth, a tutelary deity—in other words, a teaching spirit. Though more apt to describe himself as a student, David Macaulay is the embodiment of a teaching spirit, as epitomized in his seminal book, The Way Things Work. Here he guides readers to discover the inner workings of simple contrivances—for example, parking meters and zippers—and elaborate constructs, such as a robot or a nuclear reactor.
When it hit bookshelves in 1988, The Way Things Work was truly a revelation, and it became an international bestseller. Children and adults were delighted and informed by Mr. Macaulay’s highly detailed and often humorous drawings. Already the recipient of numerous book prizes including the Christopher Medal and the Caldecott Honor Award, Mr. Macaulay garnered even more prestigious honors—the Caldecott Medal and the Charles Frankel Prize from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
And humbly, he labored on, driven by an intense curiosity and an unrelenting desire to explain, to describe, to illuminate. To date, David Macaulay has penned no less than 25 books, selling more than three million copies worldwide. Among his latest is an ambitious project illustrating the workings of the human body, aptly named The Way We Work.
“I draw to understand things,” he says. “We’re surrounded by things it’s worth being curious about.” And this modest philosophy has fueled the production of an astonishing array of instructive works reaching at least as far back as his first book, Cathedral, published in 1973—and the first of his works to be adapted for public television. In 2007, his extensive work was the subject of a retrospective, The Art of Drawing Architecture, at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC.
Time magazine declared that David Macaulay “draws better than any other…illustrator in the world.” He has a remarkable mastery of perspective, which he can deliberately distort to create the effect of a pigeon’s-eye view or to convey the enormity of a soaring cathedral. And always, the spirit of the teacher is present. It’s “the illustrator’s responsibility,” he says, “to…position the reader to understand.”
A favorite book of mine, Motel of the Mysteries, captures Mr. Macaulay’s ability to conjure up scenarios that enchant and edify. Written nearly 20 years before The Way Things Work, archeologists in the year 4022 discover a twentieth century motel buried beneath the rubble of a major catastrophe. Their efforts to figure out the significance of the remnants lead to some amusing and thought-provoking conclusions. Assuming that a great culture would be revealed through lasting objects, they mistake a toilet seat, by example, for the sacred collar of a deity.
Revealing everyday objects in a new light is what David Macaulay does best. Spurred by his own curiosity, he challenges us to take a closer look at designs we take for granted,and he asks questions with characteristic drollness: What does Rome look like from the viewpoint of an upside-down pigeon? What is the science at work behind the breathalyzer test?
In his explorations, Macaulay does more than re-present or even re-imagine our practical inventions and systems. He exalts them, by revealing them in gorgeous detail and making them accessible to all—and therein lies his genius. For through his beautifully drawn illustrations, he highlights the splendor of utility. He not only teaches and inspires, but he creates something of cultural worth—and motivates us to do the same.
David Macaulay, for your inventive genius, for your commitment to truth and beauty, for your teaching spirit, for your pure love of drawing, and for the way you work, it is with honor that Watkins College of Art, Design & Film bestows upon you the degree, Doctor of Fine Arts.
Samuel E. Stumpf, Jr. Ellen L. Meyer
Chair, Board of Trustees President
The following is a prepared text of the Commencement address delivered by David Macaulay on May 18, 2013
[click here for a .pdf version]
Commencement Address to the Class of 2013
Watkins College of Art, Design & Film
Thank you, President Meyer. Distinguished guests, members of the faculty, members of the Country Music Hall of Fame, proud families and, most of all, this year’s graduating class, it is a pleasure to be here this afternoon and an honor to have been entrusted with the duties of Commencement speaker. This is both a joyful and an auspicious occasion. So when I refer to the duties of Commencement speaker, I’m not exaggerating. There are undeniable expectations of the individual who stands behind this pulpit––in this wonderful building––and in front of this audience at this particular time.
With that in mind, it is hardly surprisingly that I read my job description carefully and several times. In short, this is what it said.
1. Assemble the appropriate number of words of encouragement, utility and inspiration and arrange them on a piece of paper in a meaningful and memorable way.
2. Say them out loud.
As it turns out, words of inspiration tend to be a little more expensive, so I’ve built most of this talk using words of utility (the least expensive) and encouragement (somewhere in the middle).
Anyone who has to give a commencement address, at some point inevitably looks back on his or her own graduation experiences for some kind of guidance. For me, that exercise was neither helpful nor reassuring. As I remember it, at the official moment when high school reached its dramatic conclusion, you would have found me squirming in a sea of identically clad, capped and bored classmates who only had to keep it together long enough to avoid any behavior that might nullify their still wet diplomas.
The individual entrusted with the task of offering encouragement and inspiration at that ceremony was the superintendent of schools. I have no idea what he said. This is hardly surprising. I was 17 and focused almost entirely on pealing that blue synthetic robe off my increasingly sticky body. And in all fairness, he wasn’t promoted for his rhetorical skills but rather for his ability to put out fires and run meetings––and of course to keep him out of the classroom.
My second graduation should have been more promising. It came after five truly transformative years at Rhode Island School of Design––so you’d think it would be a different story. But once again I have no idea what was said that Saturday morning in June of 1969 and this time I don’t even know who said it. In my defense, anything I might have remembered was quickly obliterated by the discovery that my name on my hand-lettered degree had been misspelled––an error my parents, who had footed most of the bill, found less amusing than I did. The point of dredging up these hazy recollections is to reassure you that while weather and wardrobe might linger in your thoughts, rarely has anyone in the entire history of graduation ceremonies actually remembered the words. And so it is in furtherance of this time-honored tradition that I stand before you today.
Okay, so if the graduation events in my life aren’t particularly helpful, what can I offer from my own post-graduation experiences that might perhaps prove useful to you? In many ways I suppose I’m a logical choice for Commencement speaker. After all, I am one of you––just a slightly older and supposedly wiser model. But when it comes to addressing the future––which is almost unavoidable given the nature of today’s gathering––I confess to being in the dark. I’m a worrier and not at all sure where we are going huddled together as we are in this hand basket. The truth is, I’m much more optimistic about the past. I’ve spent time there.
And yet, this is a day for clapping, not hand wringing. This is a day for Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” not Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe.” I realized I had no choice but to suppress my misgivings about the future, and instead to emphasize the very real good that can come from your much-needed emergence into this crazy world.
As I started to write, I increasingly felt the weight of the responsibility I had taken on and re-read parts your deluxe two-volume, boxed set [admissions] catalog––okay, actually I re-read the message from the president and studied the picture timeline. I was reminded that the institution that has evolved into Watkins College of Art, Design & Film has been at the heart of some kind of education here in Nashville for 128 years. In other words, it’s limestone solid. Which I interpreted to mean that nothing I say here today, even if some it were to be remembered, will in any significant way jeopardize this place or its future. With considerable relief and renewed enthusiasm, I continued to hammer out the illusion of useful content.
After more days of stumbling along with not much to show for it, I decided to put the work away until I’d had chance to visit the school and meet some of its faculty and students. That turned out to be a very smart move. I was truly inspired by those encounters, by the quality and ideas behind the work I saw, and by the intelligence of its creators. I realized I had no reason to panic about the future if this was the kind of energy coming from just one school, albeit one with extra-ordinary facilities, wonderful studios, great scale, lots of parking, and a lake. Finally the words came.
From the moment you committed yourself to art school, even if it was out of desperation, you displayed at least two notable traits. Courage and instability. This afternoon you exchange your official art student status for that of lifelong student of the arts and everything else. You have survived the crucible of creativity––the boot camp of visual and spatial literacy. For better and worse, you have been molded by the dreaded critique, strengthened by the all-nighter, and weakened by poor eating habits. During four years of hard labor with very little time off for mostly good behavior, you have experienced humiliation and either triumphed over it or at the very least developed a tougher skin. You have also enjoyed brief moments of clarity and reaffirmation, and perhaps once or twice you have even tasted success.
A multiple choice question: Which phrase better describes your current situation?
A.) You are ready for anything.
B.) You are a glutton for punishment.
Both answers, of course, are correct––you are art school graduates. You have abandoned the easy way in order to explore the uncharted terrain that is your place in this world. This should be no surprise. You’ve probably been aware from the very beginning of your education that you see things differently. You think about things differently. Being different is good. It is your salvation; it just may be ours. You are the exception because you question the rule. You have chosen a path that may not provide health insurance, a path unburdened by the myth of retirement. In other words, you’ve got nothing to lose. Well done.
Creativity is a powerful tool, but it isn’t kryptonite. Like any really good tool, it needs cleaning, honing, sharpening, that sort of thing. The more you use it, though, the stronger and more reliable it becomes. One very practical way of maintaining your creative edge is to procrastinate. That’s right, put things off and without guilt. Procrastination is underrated, even maligned in our society. But procrastination is critical if you hope to learn from your mistakes, to be able to absorb new ideas, to question everything, and of course simply to recharge. Trust me. You can afford the time. Looking at the big picture, the path you’ve chosen is not defined by the speed with which it is covered but by the quality of the experience it provides along the way. One word of warning though: procrastination can be abused. It is possible for a person to indulge in an endless search for new challenges precisely to avoid engaging in just one. So drop that brush, shut off the camera, and stop sniffing the rubber cement. It’s time for some perspective.
One of the most satisfying forms of procrastinating I know is called “walking the dog.” It combines observation and procrastination with socialization and sanitation. It’s called walking the dog because it involves a both a dog and walking. If you own a dog, you are already familiar with this strategy. If you don’t own a dog, then borrow one, but ask first. In either case, this is the easy part. Much more difficult is the following––do not bring your cell phone. The theory is simple: Be out of reach for a little while in order to reconnect with yourself and your surroundings.
The recommended procedure is as follows. With a firm grip on the leash, and a plastic bag discretely tucked in your pocket, abandon your place of work. Let the dog lead. They know where the good stuff is. Perhaps the only real interaction you’ll have with the dog is the one that involves the plastic bag. This is unavoidable since your trusty companion neither reads signs nor understands fines. For the most part, you’ll travel in silence.
For the pooch, the experience is almost entirely olfactory. But for you there is an infinite array of small surprises, a veritable piñata of possibilities and it hangs really low. In addition to fresh air or at least ‘different air,’ there is rich color hidden in the shadows, sirens and song fragments, unexpected encounters both literal and imagined, enticing glimpses through open doors, amusing juxtapositions––a whole world of possibilities right around the corner. Your only job, after the part with the plastic bag, is to relax and soak it all up. Before you know it, you’ll be back in the studio, re-energized and eager to get back to work, but now you will see things slightly differently. Suddenly that sketch, that footage, that model just doesn’t seem right or good enough. Perhaps you’ll recognize a possibility that’s been right in front of you the whole time, or maybe you’ll just decide to start all over again. In either case, check the dog’s water bowl and thank him or her for helping restore your critical objectivity and helping you spend time well wasted.
To strive for anything new in both our personal and professional lives, we must invite the possibility of failure.
Of course knowing what’s coming can be reassuring and even provide of degree of security. But security has an evil twin called complacency, and complacency is the enemy of creativity. Whether you become artists or simply use your artistic sensibilities in the pursuit of new and seemingly unrelated opportunities, you have demonstrated your need to keep creativity at the center of your life. My RISD degree proclaimed emphatically that I, or at least someone with a very similar name, had just spent half a decade studying architecture and would therefore become one. But that serendipitous blip in the calligrapher’s concentration turned out to be a reprieve, my very own call from the governor. The way I saw it, I had official permission right there on paper not to practice architecture.
From the end of my junior year, the prospect of making real buildings in an office full of grown ups and drafting tables just didn’t put a spring in my step. And somehow, I already sensed that if you don’t have a spring in your step more days than not, then something is wrong. On the other hand, I also knew that if you have a spring in your step every single day you are either an extraordinarily positive person or it might be time to cut back on the meds.
Having abandoned the prospect of building buildings, I worked as an interior designer, survived one very long year as a junior high school art teacher, and began taking whatever freelance illustration projects I could get––mostly newspaper ads and menu covers. In other words I did what ever I had to do to keep the wolf from the door as I tried to figure out where I wanted to go. But this can only be a temporary measure.
I grew increasingly bored with my work in the office, a condition that manifested itself in a couple of ways. First of all, I couldn’t decide whether to spec the Johns Manville roofing product 247 or the Kohler high-pressure urinals. Secondly, I kept falling asleep on my drawing board after lunch. These were subtle clues of course, but I was able to read them. We don’t have time for boredom. Occasional frustration is part of the job, but boredom is a sign that it is time to change paths.
I remember coming home one day after work and telling my first wife that I had quit my interior design job, the one with the regular salary, and was now going to put all my energy into freelance illustration. She looked at me as if I was mad. She was particularly worried about the “free” part in freelance. I had no training whatsoever in illustration or graphic design or writing, but I did have a couple of small projects on the drawing board and several sketchbooks full of mediocre ideas. Her disbelief turned to panic. “How will we survive?” she asked nervously. To which I replied, “Supposing I were hit by a truck tomorrow? You’d figure it out.”
Not an altogether reassuring response, I suppose, but the lack of an easy comeback bought me a little time. In the end, things worked out as they usually do if you just believe in yourself. But the idea of going down a path where you just didn’t know what is going to happen next was so liberating that it never felt like the wrong choice. For one thing, I could feel that spring in my step.
Thirty years later––that is roughly 11 years ago––I began working on a book about the human body. Having occupied one for 55 years or so I realized I didn’t know much about it even at a basic level. I knew I had a pancreas, for instance, but I hadn’t a clue where it was. I knew it wasn’t far, but that just didn’t seem to cut it in the self-awareness department. For a guy who makes a point of telling people to pay attention to what’s going on around them, to notice things, I was embarrassed by how little I knew about my body and how it worked.
Like so many things in life, if nothing goes wrong or catches fire or divorces you, you tend to take things for granted. Our bodies are among the most remarkable and efficient collections of systems we will ever encounter. They are the antithesis of government. Their complexity is a marvel as is the relative infrequency with which they need our attention. Most incredible of all perhaps is the fact that we are each given one, free––the ultimate door prize.
Anyway, after six years of a do-it-yourself, full-time, non-degree-granting medical education that included anatomy, physiology, molecular biology and even a little chemistry, combined with hours of reading, lab time, sketching and more than one missed deadline, I got the book done––and even more satisfying, actually knew something about what was going on inside me.
Six years is a long time to work on a book, at least in my experience. And hardly surprising is the fact that as my energy slowly and steadily dissipated so did our bank account. And this is where the MacArthur Foundation took pity on the boy genius and saved the day.
Just in case you’re not familiar with the facts about a MacArthur Fellowship, here they are. Someone you don’t know calls you up some time in September and says congratulations, we like you. We have decided to give you half a million dollars. It will just appear in your bank account quarterly for the next five years. Would that be okay? Oh, and by the way, do what you want with it.
Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition and no one can count on receiving a MacArthur Fellowship, or any other award for that matter, and yet these things happen. Surprises big and small, good and bad come our way. But we don’t sit around waiting for them; we don’t have time. We are much too busy pursuing what we believe in and what will ultimately bring far deeper happiness than any award possibly could. Having said, it is fun to win stuff. Just don’t take it too seriously.
I was reminded in my brief encounters with those five students yesterday just how different everyone’s life experiences are and how they might affect college life and beyond. Every member of the class of 2013 is unique and where that individuality will take you is at this point a wonderful mystery. Your uniqueness is reflected symbolically in the fact that out of this entire class, I was only able to find only one first name repeated. Only Mary appears twice on the list of graduates as far as I can tell. Mary Rose and Mary Elizabeth. Mary Rose, as you know, is the name of Henry VIII’s flagship which keeled over one day and unceremoniously sank (or sunk, I’m not sure). And the other name, Mary Elizabeth, combines the names of both of Henry VIII’s daughters. (A Tudor theme, you might say.) Except for the fact that the two Marys will have to duke it out at the close of the ceremony, I offer this otherwise irrelevant factoid as a reminder that surprises happen and their impact or lack thereof cannot be predicted.
In closing, let me reassure you about the future. No, actually let me reassure myself about the future. Regardless of what it says on your degrees and certificates, you are now, as recognized by the State of Tennessee, licensed problem solvers. But that’s not all. Your unique personal traits and your experiences here at Watkins also make you problem designers. It is simply not in your nature to accept the problems confronting you without question. And this is good because in fact you won’t always be given problems that are neatly defined and ready to solve. During your time here you have learned to extract problems from chaos. It’s what you do whether in a studio, in a classroom, on a sound stage, editing booth, or in a design office.
This may not be the greatest economy to graduate into, but rest assured there is plenty of chaos to deal with. The ambitious, eager, confident, creative mind will not be short of work. Every day is another design problem. It’s what you’ve been training for. Take risks and, from time to time, tackle things that at first seem overwhelming. Just break them down into manageable pieces and reassemble your creative responses. You’ll be amazed at how much you can accomplish and how much you can survive. Remain vigilant in your quest for happiness and look for it both in your personal and professional lives. Live both fully, but if you have to give one a slight edge, I’d go with the personal, even if it takes a while and a few mistakes to find it. You have time; this is not a race. So enjoy it and feel that spring in your step.
This is all I know.
May 18, 2013
David Macaulay with President Ellen Meyer, who surprised him
with a commissioned watercolor by Graphic Design student Holly Carden
(featuring 40 Nashville landmarks)