Tutus, pink umbrellas, platform boots, cheetah-print lapelled suede jackets, and other forms of self-expression decorated the student body at the California Institute of the Arts graduation ceremony on Friday.
The traditionally untraditional ceremony seemed to be letting out all of the pent-up anticipation collected in the three years since it was last held in person, according to the students, faculty, and staff in attendance.
Denice Nelson, senior director of communications at CalArts, said that every facet of the event was an avenue for students to express themselves.
“It’s completely nontraditional, and no cap and gown. They can wear whatever they want to wear,” said Nelson. “It’s completely designed by the students, from the sets, to the programs, to everything. The music, the whole thing is student-designed.”
Nelson acknowledged some of the many hijinks and performances that occurred at previous graduations but said that aspect is all worked into the fabric of this event, for it to be completely different than a typical commencement.
“You’ll see a lot of animals walk the stage with the people, there’ll be a lot of music, there’ll be a lot of dancing and absolutely there could be a theater skit… they’ll walk across with a bottle of champagne,” said Nelson. “Anything goes. You could already smell it.”
The ceremony began with the procession of students, led by the African Music and Dance Ensemble, which was followed by an invocation with song and sage-burning given by Tataviam Elder Dennis Garcia.
“Each and every one of you is an artist,” said Garcia. “Whether it’s in the… stroke of a brush, the step of a dance, spoken word, the lyrics of a song, or a photograph. All of you are storytellers.”
The invocation was followed by a welcome address from Provost Tracie Costantino, the conferment of an honorary degree to jazz musician Wayne Shorter, and an address from Tim Disney, former chairman of the board of trustees.
“Some people will have very strong and fixed ideas about what they want to do and how they want to do it and that is great. Other people are sure, but change their mind radically and frequently, that is also OK. Some people never have any idea, and that is also OK,” said Disney. “It doesn’t matter, it just doesn’t make any difference. What matters is that whatever you’re doing…that you do it with love and humor, with care and rigor. The ‘what’ of what you’re doing matters much less, if at all.”
One of the loudest reactions from the audience came as Isha Khanzode, president of the Student Union, and Jordyn Ross, student trustee, took the stage to the sound of popping champagne bottles.
After their speech Ross and Khanzode said although the pandemic created a series of challenges, it couldn’t stand in the way of students studying and creating art.
“One of the things about [CalArts] is its ability to adapt,” said Khanzode. “Even in person, we have to go through really crazy circumstances sometimes where our art making has to transition to different things very quickly… we’re a pretty open art-making community, so when it came to online, we just kind of had to devise ways as a community to make it work. And it was beautiful.”
Each student was given their own “walk-up song” as they received their degree. If students did not have a predetermined song, they would walk to the default song, which was “Africa” by Toto. Some students from the School of Dance did a short routine as they walked.
All of the students, many of whom had a primarily online college experience, seemed exuberant to be able to celebrate their achievements, free of social distancing, with their friends and family.
“It’s very emotional. It’s ethereal in a way because…we had the whole pandemic and we’re the first people [to] graduate with that, we’re the first class to graduate after a global pandemic. I’m proud of us. It was hard,” said Aaron Wilson, a graduate from CalArts’ School of Dance.
“It’s been so restorative to have in-person classes again,” said Louisa Arseneau, a graduate from the School of Film Video. “But as soon as we were back, it felt like the community really wanted to get back, very enthusiastically.”
CalArts conferred more than 370 degrees from all of its schools for the class of 2022. In addition to Shorter, honorary degrees were given to jazz musicians Charles Lloyd and Esperanza Spalding.