Student Speech

Student Commencement Speech by Jennifer Harmon

Good Morning parents, friends, faculty, staff, and administration. We thank you for joining us in honoring our graduating class of 1995!

While a student here at Wellesley College, I've discovered many astounding things. But the greatest among them came while taking my first sculpture class Sophomore year. I discovered my hands and the radical potential for creativity they hold. I began to spend many late hours in the studio, sculpting in clay, plaster, and bronze. The process of translating the intangible universe of ideas into tangibility fascinated me! It instilled in me a kind of lustful desire to create and create. Thus I entered into the highly romanticized and controversial world of art. I found that art, though, is really an arduous process; that despite my persistent spirit, my hands often became tired and felt cramped. Consider your hands for a moment. In fact, I'd like you to join me in the studio so you can use them. Here, we're creating a work of art. You've been here before. There lies the clay before you. You've been working on this same lump of clay for a good time now. You've stayed up late, sweating over the image that increasingly becomes better defined. You've used your hands to shape it, your palms to push it and your fingers to pinch the clay into a desired form. How meticulous you are in smoothing out the surface and sprinkling the clay when it becomes neglected and dry! Now you step back and look at it. No, it's just not good enough yet. You're dissatisfied and ready to go home for the night. But you'll return. The dissatisfaction feeds your progress so that when you leave, your eyes shine with the possibilities. Alice Walker writes about this radiance- her mother has it whenever she works in the garden. She becomes a Creator, that is, with a capital "C". "She is involved in work her soul must have"-- a work which causes her to radiate an intense glow of creative power.

Graduating Seniors, when I look out at you today, I am blinded by your radiance. You are Creators with a capital "C". You've been Creating yourselves in the Wellesley studio for years now and are here today to reveal in some manner, the final product. Final? Of course not. In case it's still a secret, life does not end after Wellesley and we have many opportunities to shape and form our lives afterwards. I'm certainly not satisfied with my life. It's simply not a work of art yet.

Now look at your hands, the ones you've been using so well these years in the studio. No, not your real hands, but those inside you, that is, your minds, hearts, bodies, your sense of good judgment, your faculties of every kind. These are your tools for completing the work of art which is your life. Just like your real hands, they have muscles too which must be exercised and used or they will become useless.

Now I literally use my hands to create my life. I exercise my hands by creating physical art objects with them. Someday I hope to support myself with my hands. But you are artists in a more liberal sense, Creating in many diverse forms. Earlier this semester, I was surfing through Bulletin with my friend. She paused at a certain message to let me read. It was a call to order for all people to protest the "'Contract With America." Students here at Wellesley had their hands deep in the organization of the protests and petition-gathering which later ensued. This activism is a way in which we punch at and mold the clay -- but this time, our creative, political forces are not centered on our own individual sculptures. This kind of creativity stretches our hands out, so we end up using them not only for the improvement of our own lives, but those of others as well.

Our hands relate to that abstract force within each of us which drives us to better ourselves. Did you ever think that by using our symbolic hands, we also insure our eternal existence? As a beginning, think of all the pages of essays and lab reports you've written these past years -- slavery and back-breaking labor! Yes, writing, as we all know, is not easy. Ask any thesis student. Extracting our thoughts into a coherent written argument can sometimes border close on our emotional grounds. But, seniors, think how valuable all the pain and effort is. Above all, how priceless is the written proof of our thoughts. Now let's take our writing one step further. I sincerely believe that writing is one of the creative acts which ensure that we exist forever. Not very surprisingly, Shakespeare also believed in the eternal power of writing. He said, "my love shall in my verse ever live young." Whether or not you think your thesis and paper assignments are your eternal verse, the essence of your existence will reside in what you've written -- yes, perhaps forever. They are your permanent hand print on the world. In my family and in my church, it is a tradition to write in personal journals and record our own histories. These serve as reminders of our existence to our children and descendants. We hope that all our successes and mistakes will help them in their lives. This is exactly why I treasure my personal diaries, journals, and sketchbooks. Something of me has become a part of eternity.

In case you haven't noticed, I love sculpture with all my heart and hands. I'm an artist and I'm also an idealist. These things may count as strikes against me in this day and age, but they are invaluable traits to have. Having both these qualities has taught me that the ultimate artistic creativity lies in living. Nothing is going to happen unless we see the despair and pain in the world and then plug in all the optimistic artistic energy we can. Professor Sternberg of Yale's Psychology Department co-wrote an article with one of his students which concerns the ways we can encourage creativity. They write, "In most creative endeavors, there is a period of time during which an individual is groping -- -trying to figure out what the pieces of the puzzle are .... Creative individuals need to be able to tolerate such ambiguity and to wait for the pieces to fall into place.... Unless one can learn to face adversity and conquer it, one is unlikely to make a creative contribution" to the world. These may be ambiguous times for many of us. Some may not have jobs yet. Others may be grappling with personal beliefs or just trying to have a little fun. Well, one lesson learned from making art is that you can do whatever you want, as long as you believe in it and prove it to your professor. And ambiguity is a big opportunity to do just that.

So it's time to wet the clay and begin molding it again with our hands. We have a lot of work to do. As long as we live, it will never end. Earlier this semester, I saw a poster advertising a show of artwork done by Wellesley graduates entitled, "Is There Art After Wellesley?" The show had been organized as encouragement for us that there are artists who work creatively after Wellesley. Someone, obviously discouraged, had scratched out one word, changing the question to this: "Is There Art at Wellesley?" Let me answer the anonymous hand which asked this question: Yes, THERE IS! And ever after!

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1995 Pinanski Prize for Excellence in Teaching