New York Academy of Art Commencement 2023

 “In my end is my beginning.” ~ T.S.Eliot

Thank you to The New York Academy of Art, to Eileen, David, Peter, to the faculty and guests.

We are where we are because of the roads we have taken. Graduates, you are at a cross roads. Robert Frost talked about two roads diverging and taking the one less travelled upon. I had a friend who said, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I sat down!” I’m here today to encourage you to keep moving.

When I was a kid growing up in Georgia, I’d wake up early in the morning and I’d walk out into my backyard on Spring days much like this. I’d go out in my shorts and bare feet and just stand in the grass.. the cool, dew-covered grass. And I’d feel the moisture on my feet. I’d listen to the birds in the trees and look up at the morning sun streaming through the cherry laurels. I was fully alive in the moment. My family didn’t know much about Art. It was a traditional Southern Baptist upbringing. I’d sit in church on Sundays and draw the stories being told by the preacher. I loved to draw and actually considered being a preacher for a while until I realized that there were too many things I wanted to do. And I didn’t want to be a hypocrite.

But in the South we have a strong story-telling tradition. Here is one story that I remember well from those early days. I’ve even done paintings about it. It’s the story of Jonah.


Jonah is just a normal guy, like any of us. He lives in Joppa and one day he's thumped on the head by the divine who tells him to go to Nineveh and preach because Nineveh is a city that's in turmoil and needs to be saved. Like any of us who might have such an experience, he didn't want to do it, so he gets on a boat and starts going in the opposite direction.. toward Tarsius. Of course, in the Biblical story, God always provides so he provides a big storm that roughs the seas, and the sailors discover Jonah down as a stowaway underneath the boat. They assume that he is the cause for the storm and want to hang him or make him walk the plank.. but he decides voluntarily to sacrifice himself and jump out of the boat.

Jonah jumps over into the sea and instantly the water calms, and so all the guys in the boat were like, “Yeah, he was our problem”, and Jonah sinks down to the bottom of the Mediterranean, and then, as always, God provides. A whale comes along trolling for krill and its baleen is opening up and the krill are going through, and then all of a sudden, he opens his mouth real wide and sucks Jonah into his throat or belly or something. He sort of gets stuck in there.


The second chapter of Jonah is where he is in the whale. He's not lamenting at that point. He's not saying, “Why me?” or anything, he's doing a prayer of praise or thanksgiving.. “Thanks, I had a great life” and “Thanks for everything”, and then at that moment, God provides the gag reflex in the whale. The Whale yaks him up onto the shore onto the beach, so he's like a wet dog standing on the beach, shaking the whale yak off of him and then he says, “Well, I guess I’ll go to Nineveh now”. That may be the part of the story that you are familiar with.. Jonah is called, and he goes.. but this is when the story starts to get really interesting.


Jonah does as he says. He goes to Nineveh. He stands on the street corner sort of like a homeless guy, and he's standing out there with nothing, still covered in dried whale yak and he's saying, “Change your ways!”. He doesn’t really know what to say, he's just a normal person. He yells, “Put on sackcloth! Stop being lewd!”. He’s saying this stuff, and then all of a sudden the Mayor of Nineveh is going by in a little carried carriage, a litter, and she stops and opens the velvet teal curtain and she hears this guy out there saying, “Change your ways, Nineveh needs to change, and put on sackcloth, and fast and be nice to your neighbor!”, and she thinks, “these are good ideas - this is what we need to do!”, so she sends out a decree for everybody to be nice to thy neighbor, to fast, change their ways, and to stop being rude and lewd. Everybody got along with the program and wore the same burlap sack, and they fasted and prayed, and were nice to one another, and suddenly, the city was changed, just like that. Saved. The city was saved, Jonah had done his job.


Jonah goes out to the outer edge of the city, and he's sitting out there, and he's thinking, “Okay, I did my job, the city is saved”. The sun starts to beat down on his head and he starts to get hot, and he starts to think “Wait a second.. I came all this way.. I did this job I was supposed to do.. What's in this for me?”. All of a sudden, God provides an elephant tree plant, growing faster than kudzu to quickly grow up like Jack and the beanstalk over his head, and provide some shade. Jonah thinks, “ah, that's better”. Then he lays down in the shade, and then God provides a little caterpillar to climb up and start eating holes in the kudzu elephant tree foliage that was shading him from the sun. The sun starts beating through those little wormholes onto his head, and again, he becomes hot, and he's miserable, it's midday, and he stands up like Cool Hand Luke, looks up at the sky, and he says, “Why me? I did what I was supposed to do. Why? Why am I so miserable?”. God speaks to him for the second time, and says, “this didn't have anything to do with you. It never had anything to do with you. I just wanted to save the city”.

The story is about the whole. Growing into a more holistic way of thinking, so we grow out of our egos. We act almost all the time out of our ego. “What's in this for us, what's in this for me?” but the story's about overcoming that. It’s about thinking more holistically, about asking, “What can we do to save the whole system?” and letting that direct every action that we take.

Joseph Campbell said “Artists are the prophets.” We are. And it comes with responsibility.

Travel.. As of today, you will have your artistic license. You will be able to travel... to begin your artistic journey. Sometimes you’ll have to make difficult decisions about whether to do this or that, whether to go this way or that, whether to move here or there, whether to paint this or that. These are hard decisions that can have an impact on you and your work for the rest of your life. It’s important to not get stymied. It’s important to keep moving. There is no right of wrong in Art. It’s all good. I like to keep a Quarter in my pocket. Sometimes, if I’m faced with a difficult decision, I’ll just flip a coin. Sometimes, it's not the decision we make, it's the conviction we move forward with once we’ve made a decision. My instructor, at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Morris Blackburn, said, “Art is like life. It is like taking a trip. You have to know where you’re going and know where to get there.” Too often, many of us don’t know where we are and don’t know where we stand. We’ve come to rely on Google or Siri to get us where we need to go. Some of us have a better sense of direction than others. Birds have gyroscopes in their brains which help guide them in migration and on their return home.

The reason to travel is to get somewhere, to get to your destination. We don’t learn to drive to just drive around the block showing off how well we learned to drive, waving at our mothers on the front porch every time we pass the house, “Hey mom!”. We learn to drive so we can go somewhere. Your teachers may say, “It’s about process.” And this is true, to a point, but it is not just about process. It’s not just about driving; it’s about getting to your destination.

We are here today because we kept moving forward. Perseverance is the key. You have to have Short Term Goals and Long Term Goals. The Short Term Goals have to take you in the direction of your Long Term Goals. A long term goal may be a solo museum exhibition. It won’t happen right away. You have to get out of school, you have to set up a studio. These are Short Term Goals. Get a show in a popup, experimental space, or local coffee shop. Then build a body of work for a gallery show. Get into a gallery. All short term goals. Then, eventually, work toward the Long Term Goals: a museum show, or financial independence. Aim high, because gravity is going to pull it down.

Advice.. Three pieces of advice.. The best advice I can give you is to be nice. The first gallery I showed with in NY, PPOW told me after I’d been showing with them for a few years that they took me on because I was nice. I won a PEW Fellowship in Philadelphia and later I asked one of the judges about the process, they told me they awarded it to me because I was nice in my application.. I “Thanked” PEW for giving out the fellowship. Many of the applications were excellent, but being thankful, tipped the scale. Secondly, mind your business. Literally. One time I was painting in my studio in Pennsylvania, the phone rang, it was Producer Mike Nichols, he said, “I’m riding in the back of a limo with Steve Martin and he tells me I should get one of your paintings. I’d like to buy one.” To which I responded “OK!” And I promptly hung up and went back to painting. I never sold him a painting. Follow up! Return that call! Answer that email! It’s not that hard. And Thirdly, mind your daily habits. I give my students a list of “The Ten Do’s”. It’s like the Ten Commandments, but instead of “thou shalt nots,” it's a list of daily practices. Let’s call them rules for the road..

“Ten Do’s”

1. Hydrate. Drink a gallon of pure water a day

2. Eat right. Eat three well balanced meals a day

3. Be physical. Exercise walk, or play a sport regularly

4. Study. Learn all you can about your primary interests

5. Make some money. Work, be responsible and not greedy. You have to work and pay the rent.

6. Make art. Believe in it, develop it, and enjoy it.

7. Meditate or pray. Find and practice a spiritual discipline.

8. Sleep. 8 hours a night to recharge and dream.

9. Love. Develop a few close, honest relationships. My friend Andrew Wyeth said “Your art goes as deep as your love goes.”

10. Know thyself. “Be clear. Write. Decide when an issue is yours or when it’s someone else’s.” - Rosa Lee Smith

You have to believe in yourself. No one else will believe in you until you first believe in yourself. The only way to believe in yourself is to do the work. It is a cause and effect world. You will receive what you deserve.

Sir Joshua Reynolds said, “Nothing is denied to well directed labor and nothing is to be achieved without it.”

To believe in yourself, you must embrace your entire self. Your strengths, your weaknesses, your vulnerabilities. Robertson Davies wrote, “Let your Root feed your Crown.” This means, let everything you are, your DNA, your heritage, your experiences, flow through you like nutrition to a tree, from your root, through your trunk, to your foliage, your fruit, to your crown. Let where you are from and all that you are, be the thing that you show to the world, be the thing that you make manifest in the world. Just by being yourself, you are original. A kid growing up in the fields in Georgia, watching the grass sway in the afternoon sunlight, is going to have a very different worldview and temperament than a kid growing up in the Bronx watching graffiti pass through the windows of a train. Both are equally worthy, one story no better or valid than the other. The important thing is telling your story, clearly, succinctly, honestly. Goethe said, “Begin it now!” This is the beginning of your journey. Decide where you’re going and decide how to get there. Work toward it, manifest it, believe in it, short term and long term goals.

In the end, the real purpose of art is to wake us up. The real long term goal of art is to serve something greater than ourselves. One can define that however they choose. But, on a holistic level, we must find a reason to make art other than for our own ego and legacy. We must find a reason which serves the whole, the whole system. My friend, Suzi Gablik, wrote about the re-enchantment of art, about finding an art that is not about making art for art’s sake, just producing product for the biggest mega gallery. Gablik wrote about Julia Butterfly who sat atop redwoods to keep them from being cut down.

Art must serve something larger than ourselves. Joseph Campbell asked, “Who does the grail serve?” Here are the questions.. to ask ourselves.. What do we really want? In our wildest imagination? What does the world need? What do we want to see? What does the world need to see? What do we need to express? What can we do for the whole system? How can we serve? What does it mean to be free? What does it mean to be Open? What is truth in these times? What is real? This is the challenge.

Art must wake us up, wake us up to ourselves and one another. And when we awaken, may we find that we are standing barefoot in our own backyards. The dew of the grass wet on our feet, and we stand fully alive, awake and at home. Andrew Wyeth’s last words to me were, “Keep yourself free!”

Today, you are at a crossroads. Two roads diverge. Where are you going? Don’t sit down. Where are you headed? Flip a coin, and go.

By the power invested in me, by the NY Academy, I hereby bestow upon you, your artistic license. You have Your freedom! Now go and use it!