Multimedia — Oct 03, 2012

2012 Convocation Address: David Shipley


David Shipley opens the 2012-2013 academic year with a Convocation Lecture on collaboration, creativity, and getting it done.

Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) opens its 2012-2013 academic year with a Convocation Lecture entitled, “Learning to Translate,” by David Shipley, Executive Editor of Bloomberg View.  Convocation, which derives from the Latin term for “calling together,” is an annual opportunity for the College’s community of students, faculty, staff, and board members to come together to mark the beginning of the new academic year. The annual Convocation address is one of PNCA’s four Cornerstone Lectures, which also include the College’s Homecoming Lecture during Alumni weekend, the Edelman lecture in March, and the Graduation Address given at Commencement in May.

David Shipley joined Bloomberg News as Executive Editor and leads Bloomberg View, an editorial page publishing columns and commentary across all Bloomberg platforms. Prior to joining Bloomberg, Mr. Shipley was Deputy Editorial Page Editor and Op-Ed Page Editor for The New York Times. Before taking over the Op-Ed page in 2003, he held several positions at The New York Times, including Op-Ed Page Editor, National Enterprise Editor and Senior Editor for The New York Times Magazine.

Mr. Shipley served in the Clinton Administration as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Presidential Speechwriter from 1995-1997. Before that, he was Executive Editor for The New Republic from 1993-1995 in Washington, D.C. and a staff editor at the Op-Ed Page at The New York Times. Mr. Shipley began his career as an assistant editor at Simon and Schuster.

Shipley is a co-author of SEND: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better. Mr. Shipley graduated from Williams College in 1985. He was the recipient of a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. He currently resides in New York City.

You can also read Shipley’s responses in our 3 QUESTIONS series. 3 QUESTIONS is series of brief, three-question interviews with PNCA’s visiting artists and lecturers. Each year, PNCA attracts innovative, thoughtful, and creative makers and thinkers who share our belief in the transformative power of creativity. In three short answers to three short questions, these artists offer perspectives on career, motivation, and transformation.

2012 Convocation: David Shipley, “Learning to Translate”

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2012 Convocation Lecture: “Learning to Translate” (Transcript)

David Shipley, Executive Editor of Bloomberg View

As I was thinking about what to say at the PNCA convocation, I got to thinking about karma, and how some of it might be coming back to bite me. The truth is, I don’t remember a lot about my convocation.

I do remember sweating. As an Oregon boy, it was my first encounter with East Coast humidity. I was also wearing a heavy Icelandic sweater that my Seattle-based girlfriend had knit for me before I left, and which I refused to take off out of love, devotion and some form of low-grade insanity.

My memory is that I was also wearing it under a black gown. With shorts. So I recall being really, really hot, and not remembering a word of what was said, and I wonder if those elements will come into play in some grotesque form today.

Actually, I remember far more about Arlene Schnitzer, the person Tom just talked about, than I do about my convocation. This may say something about convocations but it also says something about Arlene. And while many of you have probably never heard of her, it’s worth reflecting on her for just a minute.

I was born and grew up in Portland, and though it’s been 40 or so years, I have incredibly strong memories of the Fountain Gallery, which was one of Arlene’s early great creations.

In a quieter, damper time, when pre-Internet Portland was really an island, cut off from the rest of the U.S. When we dressed differently. Like in Icelandic sweaters. When we talked differently from everyone else, the Fountain was a remarkable, revolutionary place – a place where N.W. artists gathered and formed a collective identity.

I just want to share three memories of the Fountain, one of which has actual relevance to what I want to talk about. And remember – these are the recollections of a young, bell-bottomed, long-haired kid, someone who was dragged downtown, thrown in the wayback of a Volvo with his sister and brother by a mother who was perhaps at her wit’s end on a long, rainy winter afternoon.

Memory number one: a white, open space with creamy carpets. And a spare, elegant logo of a cast-iron fountain. You’re a visual crowd, I know, so it’s impossible to overstate this look and feel, which is pretty much the opposite of what Portland looked and felt like in the late 60’s and 70’s.

Keep in mind: This neighborhood, where we gather today in all its industrial coolness, wouldn’t see an espresso machine or a pair of Keen’s or a sealed concrete bench bordered by fir for another 15 or so years. The dominant style of the city was pretty much the interior of the Benson Hotel, or Jake’s.

Memory number two: cookies.

Memory three: And this is the one I’d like to talk about. There was a storeroom at the back of the gallery, filled with art. I remember, and again, I could be woefully wrong: thin, chickenwire stalls and inside those stalls, paintings.

And what was remarkable on the gallery’s part, and maybe even foolhardy, is that kids were allowed back there. We could go into that magical room and not just look at the art but actually touch it. Run a finger over the curved, rumbly edge of a sculpture or feel the heavy buildup of paint on a canvas, the layers upon layers. And it was hard to do this and not, on some level, wonder: what is this thing? What’s it for? What is it of?

OK. I’m not saying that I said it quite this way. At this point in my life, trying to follow an episode of Gilligan’s Island was my great intellectual undertaking. But you get the picture. And my guess is that you probably understand.

You all probably know from your own lives, from all the experiences that drew you to this place today, that made you want to come to PNCA, that art is just one more mode of communication.

It’s a way of translating your thoughts and feelings and vision of the world to others, to the realms beyond your own head.

I have a few ideas about how you might go about the work of continuing that conversation.

Let me tell you where I’m coming from. I want to start by showing you a few images – and a few different contexts. These were created for Bloomberg View, where I work, and pulled together by our art directors, Gary Fogelson and Phil Lubliner.

[A brief slideshow of images.]

So this form of art has been a big part of my life for a long time. I’ve spent the last couple decades in opinion journalism. One of the things I love most about this form of journalism is that it comes—with art.

Now this is a thumbnail description: but you traditionally do not have art with news stories. Their aim is to reflect as accurately as possible what happened in the world. They’re photographic. The aspiration is to be disinterested, objective. It’s a Xerox, not a translation.

Opinion journalism is different. It’s someone saying: this is how I see the world. How I make sense of it. It’s the world filtered through the prism of the writer’s sensibility.

Now in any publication—a place where you have both straight news and opinion—you want to signal to the reader that there’s a difference between the two and one way you do that is through art—you pile subjectivity atop more subjectivity.

So imagine the situation. Someone writes an article. It could be about anything. Infrastructure, Chinese currency. Dwarf cats. And I accept the article for publication.

So I call the art director—note that this person is an ART director, not an illustration director, not a design facilitator, but an art director—and give her, or him, the article. Which we’ll discuss.

I’ll tell her what I think it’s about. If I’m feeling particularly courageous, I’ll suggest an idea for how it might be rendered. Then, after the ridicule—the raised eyebrow, the indulgent, Williamsburg smile, if I’m lucky—she will go and interpret the article for herself. She’ll take it to a different place. And then she’ll call an artist, and basically have the same exchange.

The artist will then come back – it could be minutes, hours or days, given the deadline – with an interpretation, a translation of the piece. It could be a drawing. A sculpture. A collage. A photograph. It could be literal or figurative or metaphorical or allegorical. Whatever. The only rule being that it relate in some way to the article, that it be suitable for a family publication and that it not undercut the writer.

Allow me a brief digression for another issue of karma, the one about not undercutting the writer. The art we’re publishing can argue gently with the article, but it can’t fight. You never want to set someone up – accept their essay for publication and then put them in a position where you tell the world, through the art displayed alongside their piece, how stupid their piece is. I hope you realize that this concept has applications beyond the world of opinion journalism.

Anyway, I focus in detail on this process, and this is one I’ve gone through roughly once a day since 2003, so for roughly 9,000 pieces of art, for two reasons.

One, it’s what every one of my former and current art directors, all of whom I’m on speaking terms with, told me to focus on.

And two, because it’s important and has applications to all you are planning to do—whatever medium you choose.

Turning an opinion article into art is an extreme work of translation but the concept is not different from any form you will work with. The art exists on its own – but it also exists in context. Which is why I showed you those images both solo and in the editorial habitat. We’re speaking about points on a continuum—matters of degree.

Nothing exists in isolation. Now, you’re at a complicated moment when it comes to figuring out that balance. You’re here at PNCA to explore what you can do. To find and express your voice. To have the space and luxury to mine and stretch your own mind. All that is contained within you.

And yet YOU – are always connected to a greater history.

There’s a precedent. A referent. A touchstone. Everything you do hooks back to something else. Now you could be knocking down that something else, spraying graffiti all over it, venerating it, leaving it gold-plated and studded with rhinestones and covered in a cedar wood and balsamic infused syrup. But make no mistake: you are translating.

You are here to find a way to talk to the world. To learn to speak your own language but also be understood, or have the possibility of being understood, by others.

That’s what this place is: a language school. You’re at PNCA, but you’re also at Berlitz. Or Rosetta Stone, depending on your age.

It’s not always an easy thing to remember, the connectedness, especially when you may be defining yourself in opposition to others, say teachers. Think back to this presidential campaign. Remember President Obama’s comment about business creation and free enterprise from earlier this year? “You didn’t build that?” is part of what he said. Awkwardly phrased, perhaps. Fair game in a political year, absolutely.

But his point as I understood it wasn’t that businesspeople didn’t create things themselves, that hard work and ingenuity and entrepreneurialism didn’t pay off or shouldn’t be valorized. It was that it would be a lot harder to create things, to start a business, if people hadn’t come before you – in this case if they hadn’t come before you to build roads and power plants, created schools that would in turn produce educated workers and consumers.

And I imagine it’s harder for those of you who have chosen this tough path – to be artists, to do something where society expects you to be wholly separate even when that’s simply not possible.

Learning that balance is going to be the challenge while you’re here. Same with coming to terms with the idea that what you are learning to do here is in fact work, even though it should never feel like work, which is different from saying it shouldn’t be hard.

One artist I’ve always loved working with is Maira Kalman. You’ll see her drawings a lot on the cover of the New Yorker. She wrote a wonderful book called The Principles of Uncertainty. Anyway, I asked Maira what I should say today, and she gave me a few words of advice, which I’m going to pass along.

First is this: “The good news is you can say whatever you please to artists. How are they going to know if it is wrong or right?”

You might imagine that this came as a relief.

She also said:

“I was thinking the other day that if we did not have the word artist, and we just were told we were makers of some things, some kind of pressure would be removed. 
But some magic might disappear as well. I don’t know.”

And then she said:

“Making art is about a search for the truth that manifests itself in many ways and the process is elusive and complicated. But in the ideal world, the artist will find a way to be themselves, through their work, and to express the truth about themselves and life.”

I know how grateful I’ve been when a work has done that. A waterfall installation along the East River in New York that made me see the city in a wholly new way. A drawing, an infographic, a collage, a photograph in a magazine or newspaper or web site that added a whole new dimension to a writer’s words. A painting in a chicken-wire rack a long time ago. Different eras, same continuum.

Before we all start sweating, I want to leave you with a few quick thoughts.

In contemplating what to say today, I asked my art director friends for advice. To a person, they all said that I should tell you to “get stuff done.” Actually, they used another word for “stuff,” but it’s probably inappropriate given the gravity of this moment.

But it’s true. Get it done. And know that getting it done requires being connected – the transmission is rarely improved if things go just one way. Editing and translation are all part of this process. They will remain so.

Case in point. Tom asked me for a title for this talk, and I sent him something. You might be surprised to hear this, but some members of your highly exacting faculty actually objected to the title, suggested alternatives. In truth, I wasn’t crazy about their suggestions, but their ideas led me to another idea and then a better title.

That’s the process you have to embrace. Just like the one I was talking about: Writer to editor to art director to writer and back again. Creativity can have a chain. And you have to do your best to trust every person at every link. Especially if you do it every day. On deadline. And with the knowledge that some days will be better than others.

Another thing: learn lots of languages. Especially written English. I’m serious. You might be the best illustrator in the room but if you can’t express yourself clearly, and properly, and typo-free, you’re going to diminish yourself and your possibilities.

And by the way, if you’re here to write, learn to draw, animate, carve, weld, code. Once upon a time, it was assumed that educated people could do a fantastic range of things.

A related point: you are here to get better at what you do well, but try to at least master or learn something that doesn’t come easily. My greatest educational regret – aside from sweating through convocation – is that I wimped out in college. I didn’t take enough classes in areas I knew nothing about, classes where I would have struggled and floundered and probably not done very well. I’m poorer for that choice.

And finally: a word about Portland, even – or maybe especially – for those of you who are from here. Gathering in this space today connects you to PNCA. But PNCA is part of the Pearl, which is part of Portland.

The city needs you. My great fear for Portland is that it will become a hologram of itself. That it will rest on its laurels. But people forget that those laurels came from seeds that were planted by Oregonians who came before us. The urban growth boundary, light rail, the idea that there could be an art school where we are today – these things didn’t happen by accident.

They happened because of people like Arlene, people like my late mother, who loved this school and the Museum of Contemporary Craft, and my father, a former board member, who is with us here today, people who never dreamed of having their names on buildings – who just cared enough as citizens of the city to shape it toward better ends, put in the work. Got stuff done.

They had a conversation with this city. They listened to what it needed. They argued with it and told it where it had to go. They translated their internal idea of Portland into something external and real that everyone could understand and benefit from. I hope you’ll pick up where they left off.

In the meantime, I wish you failure and success, dead-ends and breakthroughs. Portland is my home. I come back here a lot. And I can’t wait to see what you dream up.

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