Acclaimed contemporary artist Theaster Gates told Colby seniors to use their brains and hands to make the invisible visible, create an abundance worth sharing, and change the world for the better.
In a complicated world, Gates said, students should find their sense of clarity and purpose. From there, we are able to “dig deep, examine ourselves, and find ourselves squarely contributing our practices against this mean old world,” he said.
Gates delivered the address May 26 in Lorimer Chapel for Colby’s 197th baccalaureate.
The noted Chicago artist—and incoming director of artist initiatives at Colby’s Lunder Institute for American Art—recalled spending his summers as a child on his uncle’s Mississippi farm, learning how to reap a harvest in hot, dry times.
“I think this mean old world is kind of droughtful at the moment,” he said, adding that the sensation of being around Colby students is an antidote to this feeling, one akin to feeling the rain.
“Whatever the truth is of this moment, it is made better because of your graduation. And if we take this charge seriously, to see the invisible and make it visible … there would be a yield, more abundant than we have a need for. An excess,” he said. “It would be so great to have generations of people who understand how to produce an abundance and then have the capacity to share it.”
Prior to Gates’s remarks, President David A. Greene recalled highlights from the time he spent with the Class of 2018, the first class he’s been with for a full four years.
“I want to reflect on what we learn from one another and how those moments of discovery and growth can be planned or serendipitous,” he said. “How the chance encounter or the sustained relationship can offer new insights.”
He expressed appreciation for lessons learned from students. “That progress is derived from generosity of spirit and a willingness to really, really listen to others, even, and most importantly, when you disagree,” he said. “How grace and compassion in getting off our Hill, whether literal or metaphorical, are life-enriching.” And lastly, “That curiosity is a form of generosity, and that serious, deep questions are a sign of respect.”
Greene told the students that Gates “sees possibilities where others see constraints. And I hope, too, that’s something you will hold with you.”
Gates, in turn, was heartened to hear that student Molly Wu ’18, who spoke earlier during the ceremony, is joining AmeriCorps after Colby. “That there are solutions, in fact. That they’re not just dreams, that we have the ability to pull these things out of the world of the invisible and snatch them into this world. That we might change this world forever.”
Baccalaureate brings seniors and faculty together for a final, private moment in Lorimer Chapel, where they first convened in August 2014 at the start of the students’ academic careers. Readings by students and professors, music from a dynamic group of student performers, and a benediction from Colby’s Muslim advisor rounded out the event.
Gates is among three recipients of honorary doctorate degrees at Colby’s 197th Commencement May 27, along with Rebecca Corbett ’74, P’09 of the New York Times, and Gregory Powell P’15, chairman of the Harold Alfond Foundation. The commencement speaker is U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who received an honorary degree in 2014.
“Unstoppable” by Lianne La Havas, as performed by Ava Baker ’18, Josua Chad V. Lutian ’18, Stephanie Ng ’18, and Julia Warnock ’19 during the baccalaureate ceremony.