On Saturday, May 15, Los Angeles-born and based artist Lauren Halsey received an honorary degree from Otis College and delivered the 2021 commencement address to the BFA and MFA graduating classes in a virtual ceremony that was streamed on YouTube Live and Zoom (you can watch a recording of the event, including Halsey’s speech, here).
In her address, Halsey—who originally aspired to be a professional basketball player before taking architecture and printmaking classes at El Camino College, transferring to California Institute of the Arts, and later getting her MFA from Yale—talked about her own struggles in finding her voice as an artist, saying, “If I’m being honest with you at all, I almost didn’t accept this assignment and I almost called to cancel a dozen times. I wasn’t sure what advice I could give when I’m struggling myself, when I don’t know where my path will take me…. [CalArts instructor] Charles [Gaines] told me early on, it doesn’t matter where you do it, it could be your bedroom, your kitchen table, or your backyard, but no matter what, you have to figure out a way to make your work. That just completely stuck. It wasn’t until I had a residency at The Studio Museum in Harlem that I called myself an artist.”
Halsey also talked about how she came to found Summaeverythang Community Center next to the studio she created in her grandmother’s garage. What started as a daily creativity practice with her young cousins when they’d get home from school evolved into the community center it is today, which, throughout 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic, gave out hundreds of organic produce boxes and healthy hot meals to people in Watts and South Central Los Angeles. “I’ve been leading a studio in the neighborhood I grew up in, where I coauthor my sculptures and installations with my friends and my community, only working alongside people I admire, love, and respect,” she said. “So though I didn’t become [a WNBA star like] Lisa Leslie or Dawn Staley, though I didn’t become an architect with a capital A, though I didn’t become an honorary member of Parliament-Funkadelic, I’m pretty shocked every day that I figured out a way to live a life where I can be present, I can give back, and build structures—whether it’s considered architecture, art, or not.”
Halsey summoned the words of Toni Morrison and a speech the writer and poet delivered at Portland State University in 1975 that had a profound impact on her: “The artist’s role is to bear witness, to contribute to the record—the real record of life as they know it…. Art is work. It is hard work, and it’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”
In addition to advising Otis graduates to rest—“Go to the beach, take a bike ride, read a book, eat something, something you like, ponder”—and to set boundaries with their art practice, Halsey was encouraging. “Figure out how to make your work,” she said. “Figure out ways to engage the creative process at any scale, with your particular skills and with whatever supplies, with whatever space you can find, and you have access to. Any place can be an art studio. It doesn't matter where so much, just get to work.”
Halsey was conferred a Doctorate in Fine Arts by Otis College President Charles Hirschhorn, who, in his address to the 2021 graduates, spoke to the challenges surmounted the past year. “Resilience is a skill no one wants to teach or learn, but it’s an invaluable quality that will serve you well. This past year has taught you resilience,” he said. “Your world is spinning at a slightly different angle than it was a year ago. Take advantage of this change to explore new opportunities. Disruption on a global scale does not come often and I’m excited to see what you make of it in your future.”