Elizabeth Robbins Turk ’83

"What is True in Permanent Change?"

May 15, 2011

Good morning. Thank you for your invitation, and congratulations.

Truly, what an honor to share today and this celebration. Yes, congratulations to all of you contributing to this moment: family, friends, faculty, trustees, and, above all, you—graduates. The class of 2011, you did it!

To be here, a graduate of Scripps, is not an accident for any of us, but the result of the dedication of many. For me, like most of you, the story is generational.

My grandmother was adamant my father, a local Ontario boy, would attend college.

Driving through these campuses at every opportunity, she dragged him to events at Little Bridges, Big Bridges, art exhibits at Padua Hills. In fact, I’m sure all her shopping routes ran through the different streets of these schools.

And, her strategy worked! My dad was the first in his family to achieve degrees, here at Pomona, and later at Stanford.

I know many of you have parallel stories about the love of learning, respect for education, and the devotion of those who love you and work hard to make it all happen.

Obviously, there was no doubt that attaining a degree from Scripps was in my future.

But, to stand here delivering a commencement address because of artistic merit—no, this would be a path no one (I mean no one) would have imagined or even dreamed could be a possibility.

Firstof all, as an international relations major, I took only one sculpture class. It was with Professor Casanova, and I had both legs in casts. Imagine that, a sculptor who could not stand up.

Second, I hardly spoke in class. I should say I neverspoke in class. In fact, I was so quiet, that I am sure when it was learned that Elizabeth Robbins was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, the faculty here scratched their heads and wondered if I truly had been their student.

Yes, I was that quiet. But, here I am, speaking; perhaps obstacles can be a sort of muse.

Yet I wish this robe were the skin of Ellen Degeneres and, suddenly, I could irreverently deliver honesty on the wind of your laughter. Because at this moment, this moment of your success, paradoxically I am going to speak of failure and obstacles. And, at this moment, when you have followed a straight path defined by others (you know, the one many of you started in pre-school), this path which has delivered the success it proclaimed, I am going to tell the story of a path that was anything but straight.

That’s it, a short speech… well, and a little bit about art.

I left Scripps armed with enthusiasm, energy, and a conviction that building a career was my next step. I struck out fresh, never returning to connections built with summer internships. Why I did not is still a mystery. Perhaps it was the same reason, Marissa Finn so beautifully articulated in her Scripps bulletin essay…. the source of inspiration had grown.

I boldly applied for training programs, yet found when it came to making money and actually having a job…I was failing. This period was a nightmare. Self-confidence drained away, and all recent feelings of accomplishment seemed a farce.

I jumped ship on what I envisioned as a career path, and simply got a job. In this period, the “do anything/ make money” period, I failed utterly in building the resume I had expected. Yet, I began to construct a stronger background.

I discovered I had tremendous resilience, a growing empathy for the misfortunes of others, and a greater respect for the structure upon which lives grow. In this period, I began to challenge my weaknesses.

The woman who could not talk made cold calls for State Farm during the dinner hour. Yes, one of those annoying voices invading your home. That was me. The person who was adamant about a career was building sandwiches at 5 a.m. for an office caterer. The person who wanted to become an ambassador took any job in domestic politics.

Eventually, I found myself in Dallas, working on the Republican platform committee, But there I had a defining moment. As I left the convention, my heart was dreaming of regaining a control I had voluntarily relinquished. I sought freedom. I wanted to control daily life, indulge ideas, and enjoy life’s moments, instead of waiting for one day far away in the future.

That sounds so lofty. While all that is true, what really happened is, when I had the gumption to leave a job I didn’t like, I happened to be in Dallas. On the flight home to California, there was a bomb scare. When the flight attendants finished with all the emergency procedures, they ran out of things to say. So, for about 20 minutes, I crouched in my emergency position thinking about… yes, all that stuff you always hear about in those kinds of moments. I’m sure my thoughts weren’t very original, but they were motivational.

Well, obviously, that was not to be my end. And, when I arrived home, I had decided.

Of course, my family said, “Yes, an artist—finally.” You see, I have the opposite artist’s story. I wanted the career; my family hoped I would do something creative.

I found my passion in art because I no longer cared about the career path.

Shouldering what I perceived as failure gave me the fortitude to pursue what was impossible to describe to others. I enjoy making things. I enjoy the solitude of reflection and reading. I enjoy pursuing life filled with curiosity and wonder. But these have always been the world of my refuge; not once in school did I think of these things as career paths or job options. Perhaps I took them as givens.

But also, I shied from indulging what I enjoyed because of fear, a fear masked by reason. I call these “rational” fears, and they were many—that of self-exposure, competence, and…. what about that big one, earning a living?

Becoming an artist was motivated, though, by the greatest of all fears: the fear of not trying, of not knowing, ever, what was the limit for my imagination, however intangible the pursuit. This period I call “just take a gulp, figure it out, and above all else persevere.”

In a world spare of heroes, one of mine, Nelson Mandela, speaks eloquently to the subject of fear. I am sure you have heard these words before, but they are worth repeating. He says: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” Beautiful sentences, aren’t they?

So, the woman who had finally made it to DC was now welding in a studio in the shadow of Capitol Hill. The woman who left the rich environment of Scripps art educators was now scrapping together funds to hire models and crashing art courses.

Following a passion brought longer hours, but I guess that’s how it works. In this period, I loved the moments of my days, the details, and found a paradigm shift. Obstacles became invigorating challenges. They tested my abilities and, as a result, life grew in depth.

This was a time when people brought surprising rewards.

When looking for a job in DC, I moved in with Claire and Richard Bridge. (Yes, the same Claire Bridge who is in your President’s Office.)

Imagine that, the only connection we had was this school, Scripps. We did not know each other. This was not an intended living situation. Simply, it was their generosity.

At that time, they gave me sculpting wax. As a result, for years my fridge was packed with modeled body parts. In fact, more body parts than food, usually. All those years while working in DC, I had continued to use that sculpting wax. So, this was the start, quite unexpectedly.

Later, when looking for an Master’s of Fine Art, I interviewed with a woman who positioned herself in a regal chair, high above me. What an interviewing technique for an educator, right? She told me I was not ready for a graduate degree in art. In fact, she said, I would never be ready for a graduate degree in art. She was from Maryland Institute. I decided that was where I would receive a graduate degree in art—and the one sculpture class from Scripps would get me in! Thank you, Professor Casanova, it did… eventually.

So, it’s simple: enjoy the details of whatever you choose, revelin unexpected friendships and don’t ever give up.

No one can take away what you have just achieved—your education. And, no one can take away your dreams without your consent.

Yet, you will have to make room for yourselves—the world is very full. In the words of Isaac Stern, “You will have to walk out onto the stage and say: Stop, listen, this is important.”

Because, your perspective is significant. The arts and humanitiesare important.

They build the context into which we place facts, the events of our lives. They help us interpret nuance and negate fear. In this, we must be vigilant and encourage thoughtful interpretation. When public dialog is reduced to ranting, there is little space for the complexity of life to be acknowledged.

As Gabby Giffords challenged this community two years ago, and I repeat:

“The safety of the world, in some sense, depends on your saying no to inhumane ideas.

A supreme value of education is the understanding that the group consensus is not always right, in fact, that it can be totally wrong and must be subject to thoughtful challenge and questioning. It is my hope for this graduating class that you will be among those self-assured enough to make personal sacrifices for what is right.”

An amazing challenge, isn’t it? Strong, courageous words representing ideas for which she has made a most significant personal sacrifice. Hers are among the footsteps you follow.

In this dialog of the humanities, the artist contributes a magical alphabet. Art is not historically, geographically, or culturally specific. It reminds us of what we have in common, even when highlighting individuality. And, when successful, even a fragment will be powerful.

Everyone feels the iconic mystery of Egyptian sculpture. There is a pair of yellow, jasper lips at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, probably carved by a slave with whom I would have so little in common. Yet, those Egyptian lips, only a piece of what once was, I simply love. They are gorgeous. In fact, I use them as a measure of success.

Intellectual understanding comes second for me. Simply said, that fragment inspires me.

I recognize excellence in them and the direct mark of an ancient hand. There is something human I don’t want to describe with words because words would reduce the experience.

In art, comprehension is not simply a mental exercise. It is also the emotional experience that is important. Because here, artists can speak to the truthful co-existence of opposing views. That is, they can share many sides of one truth simultaneously.

In my work, I turn aggression into patience and the weight of stone into the lightness of being. When I look at marble, I see what is not there. When I carve, it is the empty space which defines everything. This is why my sister says, “I turn nothing into something.”

In context, there is another level for paradox. I love the title the artists of this graduating class chose: “Temporary Ground.” A word combination that resonates.

Recognizing today’s rapidly changing environments and negotiating a personal path with change and flexibility is not negative. It is not “flip-flopping.” But, instead, an honest assessment of contemporary life.

In 1988, when most of you were born, the human genome project was just getting underway, the US was quietly aiding Saddam Hussein as the Iran-Iraq war wound down, and most astonishingly, we were celebrating with Osama bin Laden the demise of Soviet troops in Afghanistan.

So, if it is not flexible, how can a life be truthful when perspectives change this swiftly?

As you graduate today, you are already on your way.

Preparing this speech, I wanted to get to know you, so I spoke with professors and students. This is what I heard:

You are good students who enjoy the opportunity to philosophize deeply.
You already know how to collaborate.
You seek responsibility and hope to solve problems.
You search for a life with meaning greater than yourselves.
Let me add… You are impressive.

Now, it is up to you to edit future events appropriately, frame pertinent questions, and construct authentic lives. Don’t forget, it is the process of navigating life, relying not only on rational thought, but honing gut instincts, which leads to an incredible journey.

Yes, visualize where you want to go; in fact, visualize many places, but never be afraid to follow the seemingly foolish thought and change direction.

Shouldering the wrong idea may bring unseen richness. This might even give you space to recognize opportunity and the chance to accept a dream too big to have been dreamt.

That is what we all wish for you: magnanimous dreams and expansive friendships.

As my dad loved to say, “Live life awake.”

Congratulations.

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