"Working Your Dreams" – UNM College of Fine Arts Convocation Address (Spring 2012)

On the evening of Saturday, May 12, 2012, I was honored to be the invited “Faculty Speaker” at the UNM College of Fine Arts’ Convocation and Awards Ceremony. The following is a transcript of my remarks.

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Thank you so much.

And congratulations to the class of 2012. Congratulations to the graduates especially, but also to your families, your friends, your assorted beloveds. You did it. And that’s a big deal.

And thank you too for the opportunity to speak today. After a number of years teaching here at UNM, tonight’s ceremony also marks my own commencement in a way, as I – like you – prepare to leave the now familiar landscape of UNM to embark upon a new journey, a journey of incredible excitement and serious uncertainty. Which makes tonight additionally poignant for me as I stand here, reflecting upon this ending that is also a beginning.

One of the things that happens when you receive the invitation to speak at an event like this is – without even meaning to – you start rummaging through your mental file of “inspirational quotes.” I  mean, it’s a total cliché, but that’s what I found myself doing a couple months back when this invitation first came to me. I found myself asking myself: do I have any “inspirational” sayings that I think would be appropriate?

In answer, I was surprised to actually hear the voice of one of this evening’s graduates. I heard his voice in my head singing one of my all time favorite lyrics – a single lyric from a show I’ve loved most of my life.

The show might well have been on my mind because the UNM Department of Theatre and Dance staged this show last fall. The show was The Rocky Horror Show (the stage musical that was the basis for the move-slash-cult-phenomenon The Rocky Horror Picture Show). In our production, Gilbert Sanchez – who is graduating tonight…with Honors – Gilbert portrayed the lead character Dr. Frank-N-Furter.

Now, I’m not going to go into the plot of the musical here because the narrative particulars of The Rocky Horror Show are – um – complicated, in ways that are perhaps not entirely appropriate to an august proceeding such as this. But there is this song that comes right at the moment in the show when all the crazy Rocky Horror drama is reaching its highest pitch and everything’s about to change forever and that’s when Gilbert’s character Dr Frank-N-Furter Sings five words over and over again. A sung recitation that I’ve come to think of as a spectacularly surreal yet somehow spiritual meditation.

The five words are: Don’t dream it; be it. Don’t dream it; be it. Over and over again… Those five words – don’t dream it be it – have long served as an important admonition for me. And as I contemplated what it means to graduate from the College of Fine Arts at the University of New Mexico, Gilbert’s voice singing these words came clearly to mind.

Indeed, these five words – don’t dream it be it – seem an especially apt reminder for us all – graduates as well as family, faculty and friends – as we gather to celebrate these artists as they move from the university and into the big bad world.

Because one of the things I love about these five words – don’t dream it be it – is how these words complicate the idea of what it means to dream. Think about it. In our contemporary society, and indeed for hundreds of years, one of the most pernicious cultural stereotypes of the artist is that artists are “merely” or “mostly” dreamers. Someone with their head in the clouds – perhaps brilliant, but dazed, confused and disinclined to “real work.” And one of the ways our contemporary society often misjudges artists Is by viewing artists simply as dreamers.

Now all of us here today know that that’s only part of the story, because more than almost anyone else, everyone here – graduates, family, faculty, friends – knows full well that a dream is not near enough for success in the arts. And perhaps more precisely, we all know that none of these graduates got here tonight by merely or mostly dreaming.

Yes – they had the vision to pursue this path. But they didn’t wait for the dream to come true. Nobody here just sat around and said “I think I want to play that sonata” and then waited for that sonata to just flow out of their fingers. Nobody here tonight said “I wanna make that painting or that sculpture or that dance or that movie or that play” and then assumed it would manifest in some Hogwartsian way. That’s not the dreaming and visioning artists do.

Indeed, artists know – perhaps more clearly than anyone else – that you don’t get there by merely or mostly dreaming it. You have to follow through on that dream with work. Work that is hard. Work that obliges discipline and technique. And work that requires your willingness to grow into the challenges of the dream you’ve selected for yourself.

Your achievement in being graduates tonight is that you have manifested your vision not by dreaming it but by working (often really hard) to bring your vision into reality, and dealing with obstacles, difficulties and discoveries along the way.

That is what it means to dream as an artist.

Everyone here – family, faculty, friends – knows this. We know this because we’ve watched you graduates do it.

And commencement ceremonies like this? They are not only celebrations of your working your dreams into reality, but commencement ceremonies like this also herald your obligation to yourself to select some new dreams to now work into future reality.

In the coming months, you graduates (along with your families and friends) will likely encounter someone who says something like, “Congratulations! You’re a graduate! What’s your degree in?” And you say, “Interdisciplinary Film and Digital Media.” And they say, “What’re you gonna do with that?”

That tediously familiar “Whaddaygonnadowiththat” question is in some ways going to be your opportunity. Your opportunity to say, “What I’m going to do is work toward my vision.” Because, now more than ever, you need to remind yourself of what you already know: a dream is your creative spirit telling you that you’ve got work to do.

And now you have the opportunity to work your dream into reality your own way. Without faculty mentors, degree requirements and capstone projects to structure the process. You now have the opportunity – indeed, the obligation – to chart your own course. Now’s your time to dream your vision for your future as you draw upon the techniques, discipline, mentorship, communities and collaborations you’ve developed during your degree program.

As you work toward that vision, now is your opportunity. To not just dream it but also to be it.

Because you can do it. That’s what this ceremony celebrates – your capacity both to dream big and your demonstrated ability to work with creativity, tenacity and technique to bring that vision to reality.

Yes, you dream. And, yes, you do it because you love it. But, perhaps more importantly, you worked hard. Let this ceremony be your reminder that you do know how to do the work to bring your dreams into reality.

I know you can. Everyone gathered here knows you can. Our presence here celebrates and testifies to your ability to work your dreams into reality. And for the future of the arts, for the future of our world, we are depending upon you do to exactly that…

It does mean a lot to me be here to mark this occasion with you…to (in a fashion) commence alongside all of you. So I’ll conclude with a challenge. To you. To me. To everyone gathered here tonight.

Remember.

A dream is your creative spirit telling you that you’ve got work to do.

So don’t just dream it.

Be it.

Thank you…and congratulations!

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