So, for the parents who begged, borrowed and--who knows?--stole the scratch necessary to put their kids through the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, the school’s president was eternally grateful at the commencement ceremony last week for the class of 2009. He was so grateful that he felt compelled to almost apologize for the sorry state of the economy, acknowledging that the odds were long for many of the school’s talented graduates finding a paycheck for what they’ve trained to do.
The point was underscored by the class of 2009’s valedictorian (yes, art schools have them) in her touching, funny speech in which she noted that “we’re all sitting out there hoping Applebee’s calls back about that waiter job.”
If the school’s president and valedictorian didn’t make the parents queasy enough, the ceremony’s keynote speaker, Tony- and Pulitzer-winning director and librettist James Lapine, dogpiled on the theme by reciting a little “play” he wrote for the commencement that was a simple dialogue between Sen. Dianne Feinstein and her son, who tells his nonplussed mom that he wants to go to the University of the Arts instead of Berkeley or UCLA. When mom objects, the son castigates her for failing to vote for an amendment to the stimulus package that would have raised arts funding in the country from a sad $170 million or so to an only slightly less pathetic $220 million, still less than Italy’s figure after that country drastically reduced its funding during the current recession. In the second and final scene of the play, the son has two years under his belt at UArts and informs the senator that he’s writing a play about her. His sly smile suggests it won’t be a valentine.
Keynote speaker James Lapine decries the lack of arts funding.
So my son, Nick, one of about 15 graduating sculpture majors, faces not only a crappy job market but a crappy job market in a country that has systematically marginalized arts funding, nearly abolishing the NEA a few years back. He does, however, have an in at Applebee’s in Philly—not as a waiter but as a frequent competitor in the restaurant’s weekly karaoke night. Whether that should be listed as an accomplishment on his resume, which will feature his receipt of several awards and scholarships, is doubtful. But if a spot should open up for a singing sculptor, Nick’s your man.
As his proud parents, Anne and I aren’t stunned by the challenges he faces in trying to apply his talent toward a paycheck. Artists have never had it easy in the workplace. Lapine, who trained as a photographer and graphic designer, reminded us that, before he reached his pinnacle, he held several pay-the-rent jobs, including waiter. In fact, the waiter jobs proved invaluable to his development as a playwright, he recalled, because “I got to meet lots of people, listen to the way they talk, and witness the human condition up close.”
Nick, a talented illustrator with dollops of photography and video-making thrown in, picked sculpture as his emphasis not because he believes he is the next Rodin but because it is a medium that would develop the skill set he needed to become a special-effects artist for the movies. Granted, there are, at best, probably only a couple of thousand practitioners worldwide. Having said that, Nick also doesn’t face thousands of competing graduates in that rarefied field—and he has employed himself for the last several years making his own movies that feature one of his severed limbs, blood-spurting wounds, or the odd decapitated head. He’s particularly proud of his own recipe for fake blood, batches of which he has sold to film majors at UArts for use in their projects.
In the Sunday New York Times I read an article about director Sam Raimi, who got his start in the film biz making ultra-low-budget horror films now known as the “Evil Dead” series. His love of “Spider-Man” comics got him his biggest break as director of the three “Spider-Man” blockbusters, with a fourth on the way. Nick is a big Raimi fan, both for his horror-flick roots and as a fellow “Spider-Man” aficionado. As a kid, Raimi got his parents to hire an artist to paint a “Spider-Man” mural on his bedroom wall. In high school, Nick himself precisely painted the skull logo of another of his comic-book heroes, “The Punisher,” on his closet doors.
One of the main points of the article about Raimi is that he recently returned to the horror genre with an upcoming tale of a young female banker who turns down an old woman for a mortgage refinance. The old woman puts a curse on the banker that puts her through a gory ordeal involving lots of goo and glop on the way to Hell. Given the country’s attitude toward bankers right now, it sounds like Raimi has a hit on his hands. Too bad Nick hadn’t graduated a couple of years sooner to be in on the making of the goo and glop.
Nick may not know it now but his parents are going to be instrumental in helping him produce a promotional package to send to various special-effects shops. His plan for the summer is to stay in Philly, work on a video project and bronze one of his sculptures, and figure out how to make his $200/month piece of the rent in a small apartment he’s sharing with two friends. In the past year, he discovered UPenn’s medical school and its research projects that pay fairly well for various medical studies that don’t involve anything risky. But those studies won’t likely allow him to save the money he needs to make a trek out to California on a serious search for employment. As his older brother, Noel, a film graduate who has been in L.A. since January, will tell him, finding work--any work at all--in La-La Land is easier said than done right now.
James Lapine’s appeal in his address for the government to keep in mind not just the well-being of our financial system but also the well-being of our souls left the audience feeling a little wistful, if not downright depressed. But UArts was prepared. After the graduates walked across the stage to receive their diplomas, we heard a whistle off stage. Despite the sobering reality of today’s economy, the even worse uncertainty of pursuing a career as a professional artist, the school’s president nevertheless exhorted the graduates on this day of accomplishment to “go out and party!” With that out marched a Brazilian conga band, with dancers dressed for the Carnival and about 20 percussionists, leading the faculty and graduates out onto Broad Street and down to the University’s Hamilton Hall for dancing in the bright, hopeful sunshine.
The conga band leads the graduates out to a street party.
Fun stuff--but if anyone out there needs a fake severed arm or a quart of homemade blood, I can hook you up.
What proud parents of a sculpture graduate look like.