Carmon Colangelo’s Fall 2014 Commencement Speech, “Accepting Leadership”

At the 2014 LSU College of Art & Design Commencement Ceremony, Carmon Colangelo, MFA 1983, Dean of the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts and the E. Desmond Lee Professor for Collaboration in the Arts, was awarded a Distinguished Alumni Award. He gave the following commencement speech as the keynote speaker for the ceremony.

Accepting Leadership

Wow, this is so cool. What a tremendous honor it is to be here with you today.

Thank you, Kimberly, for that nice introduction and for your kind words.

Thank you, Dean Tsolakis, for this amazing recognition and honor, and thank you, my fellow LSU graduates, for this incredible opportunity to speak to you on this momentous day.

Faculty, parents, families, and friends, it sure is amazing to be back with y’all in Baton Rouge on this very special occasion. And it has been a lot of fun to think about how I got up here today, and also how I got down here to LSU.

My acceptance to the MFA program came as a personal phone call from Kimberly Arp. Maybe a few of you experienced the same. I was totally surprised for two reasons—first, none of the other schools bothered with personal phone calls, and second, I had no idea that Kimberly was a man. In all fairness, he assumed that Carmon was a woman. Once past that awkward moment, I was delighted and excited to come to Baton Rouge, though I knew very little about it. And, of course, Kimberly’s personal touch is a lesson I have never forgotten.

carmon colangelo

Printmaking Professor Kimberly Arp (left) and Carmon Colangelo (MLA 1983), Dean of the Sam Fox School of Design

Growing up in Canada, I always thought that if I ever got the chance, I would find a warm climate, preferably near the beach. Looking at the map, I was excited to see Baton Rouge was close to the ocean. But, obviously, I missed that little geography lesson about the bayous; after all swamps were just places for ice skating in the winter where I grew up.

I remember the immigration officer’s reaction when I hit the border in Detroit. He looked at my visa papers and said, “Are you crazy, man? Why do you want to be down there with all those alligators, copperheads, and armadillos?” WHAT!?!

After driving 25 hours straight through the hot, sweaty, and humid Louisiana summer, I finally arrived—yes, looking like that Frank Zappa picture you have seen in the announcement.

lsu art alumni carmon colangelo

Colangelo as a graduate student of printmaking at LSU

Luckily, during the first week of registration, I met my wife to be, then Suzanne Berry. Even now, 31 years since our own graduation from LSU in printmaking, Susan will tell you how she helped me navigate the registration process and showed me how to get to the library. Oh, by the way, that’s “The Library” on Chimes Street where I had my first oyster po’boy!

A year after graduation, we were lucky enough to come back and teach for a semester during Kimberly’s sabbatical. While he worked in Scotland, I taught his classes, and we lived in his home. It is no exaggeration to say I would not be standing here today without the support of Kimberly Arp, who both recruited me as a graduate student and who, along with Professor James Burke, believed in me enough to allow me to return as a member of faculty at the tender age of 25. I am forever grateful to both of them—and to LSU for these opportunities.

Susan has indeed helped me navigate through this journey. We have had a wonderful collaborative and creative life together—including three talented and beautiful grown-up daughters, Jessica, Ashley and Chelsea. In fact, two are here today—our oldest, Jessica, and our youngest, Chelsea. And it all started right here at LSU.

In full disclosure, Susan and I did not attend our LSU graduation. Maybe as penance for missing my own graduation, I have—over the past three decades—attended more than 50 or so commencement events and led many recognition and graduation ceremonies in my various academic roles. So it will suffice to say I have gained some tremendous insights, heard a lot of inspiring stories, and been given lots of advice.

Looking back, I’ve learned that advice is a strange thing. It comes in two forms—right and not exactly right. And, sometimes, it’s the contrary advice that sticks with you the most. In fact, one of those pieces of advice came to me right here, from Professor Robert Warrens. He was one of my most influential teachers and is a prolific painter who pushed me to be a “real artist.” I was leaving Baton Rouge to start my first tenure-track teaching position as an assistant professor at West Virginia University. Professor Warrens was excited for me, and he proceeded to provide me with some thoughtful professorial advice about teaching and protecting my career as an artist. He advised me to lay low in all faculty meetings, warning me that speaking up would immediately lead to the unwanted result of many committee assignments.

As a result, the artistic life would surely be sucked out of me forever!

Without getting into the details of my experiences, you may be able to guess—from my current title as dean—I did exactly the opposite. I didn’t choose the opposite path because the advice I received was wrong; I just realized that it was not exactly right for me. Instead, I found myself speaking up at faculty meetings. I volunteered and was ready and willing to do what was needed to build the print program, then the grad program, next the department, followed by a school, and finally a college. Professor Warrens was right about a few things. Each time I spoke up I got more responsibility and work. And along with that responsibility and work came greater rewards and more opportunities (maybe even a little bit more stress)—I was definitely stretched way beyond my comfort zone. Each new challenge came with the risk of failure and often involved lots of fear and lots of mistakes along the way.

Carmon Colangelo, NOW: Colangelo is dean of the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts and the E. Desmond Lee Professor for Collaboration in the Arts.

Colangelo is dean of the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts and the E. Desmond Lee Professor for Collaboration in the Arts.

But here’s where Professor Warrens wasn’t exactly right—I never gave up making art! In fact, my work as a teacher and my role in academic leadership has opened doors and has made me a much better artist. It has certainly afforded me many unexpected opportunities to collaborate with designers and scholars of many disciplines, engaging in the development of ideas that have been woven and synthesized into all aspects of my work and creative process. In my position, continuing to make art allows me to be an empathetic and more effective leader. In turn, I’m able to build trust and respect among my colleagues.

carmon colangelo post-storm series

Fall 2014 Commencement Token, Post-Storm Series, 2014, by Carmon Colangelo

But let me be clear—I don’t mean to sugarcoat it. The number one question I always get is, “How are you able to continue to make art in your position?” My only reply is that you have to make the time. And there is no doubt that making time is challenging. A sustainable practice requires, most of all, discipline and stamina. It is a little like exercise: it has to be part of your normal routine, and the impact is accumulative.

My hope for you is that you will not only continue to practice and do great things as artists, designers, or architects, but also that you will never have to give up anything in your life in order to pursue your work. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t have it both ways. 

I have a good colleague, Dean Bruce Lindsey, who likes to say, “Your environment affects you.” This simple truism can be a profound and powerful guide to why you should accept unfamiliar challenges. Nine years ago when I accepted my current position as dean of the Sam Fox School, I was given the charge of unifying two schools—art and architecture—with the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, and to build a culture of collaboration through a curriculum of interdisciplinary education. In order to be successful, I had to gain a deeper understanding of the most pervasive challenges and issues in the fields of architecture, urban design, landscape architecture, interaction design, and information design. Immersing myself in each of those areas vastly expanded my thinking and my practice, leading me to explore more deeply the issues that were shared with my colleagues in the humanities, sciences, engineering, medicine, business, and law. As a result, we found points of collaboration on issues related to rapid urbanization, sustainability and resiliency, climate change, social entrepreneurship, and many emergent practices.

As an artist, I continue to think about the forces and changes that are informing our fields. Through my work I have been exploring the notions of remote sensing and psychogeographies. How do we understand, visualize, and navigate this globalized world in an era of satellites and big data? While a deeper look at these topics may be best left for another time, I will leave you with this thought: big data is to photography what photography was to painting.

The next expediential shift for artists and designers is to grapple with the complex and massive amounts of information that will continue to have a profound impact on our daily lives. I predict big data will be the driver of new forms of art and design and will lead us to reexamine our existence, identity, privacy, and ultimately, our humanity.

I believe, now more than ever, the role of artists, architects, and designers is necessary in our society. And I am, indeed, very honored to be here with you all at a time when your voices are so essential and critical to the conversation, especially in these turbulent times of social unrest. With the recent events in Ferguson, a community that is close to my own home, it is hard to avoid reflecting on the issues of disparity, prejudice, poverty, and violence. In a way, these current events share some affinity to the lessons learned post-Katrina. We must work together to address the biggest environmental and social problems of our time.

As graduates of LSU College of Art & Design, you are enlightened artists, architects, designers, and potential leaders. I encourage you to seek the truth and truly make art that matters—art that speaks both potently and poetically to the human condition. I challenge you to design a more livable, interesting, accessible, and just world. As you find your path, I hope you will seek to change and expand the traditional definitions of these fields in critical and relevant ways through sustained creative practice. I hope that you will seek to add new knowledge to your field and address the big challenges of the day. And I encourage you to accept leadership opportunities and defy any boundaries or limitations that others project onto you.

Simply said, I hope each of you will design and make art to change the world.

I know you are well prepared to respond—but, of course, totally reject this advice if it is not exactly right for you.

Geaux Tigers.

carmon colangelo

Dean Tsolakis (left) and Carmon Colangelo at the LSU College of Art & Design Dean’s Office