It was midway through the 1985-86 school year when Dawn Baillie graduated from Otis College with her BFA degree. She had finished all her required credits and couldn’t afford to stay an extra semester to graduate with the rest of her classmates in the Spring (however, she would return for the commencement ceremony). The world at the time looked very different, but no less stressful, than now. The Cold War with Russia (then the U.S.S.R.), and the threat of nuclear war, was real. Baillie had lost friends to drug use and AIDS—a health crisis that then-President Ronald Reagan was non-responsive to for years.
It feels so far away to think of now, but personal computers weren’t in regular use back then—and certainly not at Otis. For job interviews, Baillie would lug around actual canvases and hand-painted posters in her portfolio because she didn’t have enough money to have her work photographed.
She felt unsettled and without a plan.
Baillie tapped back into those feelings when she was asked to collaborate on a gift to the Class of 2020 by Hazel Mandujano (BFA ’03, MFA ’10), Director of Alumni Relations. As one of the founding partners of BLT Communications, a creative agency specializing in entertainment marketing (movie posters for Silence of the Lambs and Birdman are just some of the company’s iconic work), Baillie was pitched an idea to make a “movie poster” for Otis graduates, one that acknowledged their extraordinary circumstance of graduating virtually after their last semester moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Baillie was up to the challenge posed by Mandujano.
“‘Meaningful’ is the word that kept coming back to me,” Baillie says of commencing on the project. “Making a fun, movie-themed poster seemed to not feel right to me, though that is my day job. What can I give of myself to this design assignment? It struck me that all I really can give is a little piece of my own personal experience. It might skew a little too personal, but I felt like it might be more relatable.”
After comping several different ideas that included Otis’s architecture, or students in graduation robes, Baillie kept thinking back to a “dreaded” color theory assignment she had completed for a Foundation class by Peter Lodato, one in which she was tasked with mixing a series of complementary colors into each other in equal increments to make a gray chart. “It was a ‘graduation’ of grays,” Baillie says. “2020 isn’t going as planned. With this fraught and emotional interruption I keep thinking about how our lives don’t often go the way of our expectations. I thought, ‘Yes, that is a graduation as well.’ The incremental steps of change, one thing into another, one thought into another, one life into another, one color into another. This was it.”
Baillie pulled out the painting chart, which she keeps “as a badge of honor” in a drawer, and photographed it with her cell phone to test it as a movie poster comp. She added a quote—Joseph Campbell’s “We must be willing to get rid of the life we planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us” seemed to speak to the moment perfectly—and sent it off to Mandujano for input, which was resoundingly positive. The finished version of the movie poster gift to the class of 2020 also includes a heartfelt, emotional letter from Baillie to the graduates. “I put the letter on a photo of the back of the canvas to convey this is the backstory,” she says.
“Dawn inherently knew that the gift would be special, and what she designed was sincere and thoughtful,” says Mandujano. “The class of 2020 is facing unprecedented adversity and has rallied us all at Otis to look inward and recognize ways we can improve supporting and guiding them towards a better future. Dawn’s focus on encouragement is what stands out the most to me because, while we all continue to work towards positive change, in the meantime, what we can do wholeheartedly is encourage each other.”
“Dawn is amazing,” says Patrick Mahany, Vice-President of Institutional Advancement. “She is already a generous donor and great friend to the College. Her Otis story is both her own, yet familiar. She often points out how Otis changed her life, and we are tremendously grateful that she established the Dawn Baillie Scholarship Fund years ago to help others have the same experience. She also regularly employs Otis alumni at her firm, and she’s a wonderfully engaged alumna who has spoken on alumni panels. Otis College is proud to have Dawn in our community, and we are grateful.”
Both Mandujano and Mahany stress the importance of maintaining strong ties and meaningful partnerships between alumni, students, and recent graduates. “I would love for students to see alumni as a support system that they can go to with any questions they have about their artwork, practice, and career trajectories,” Mandujano says.
Says Baillie: “My own adversities when I graduated were dealing with a total fear of failure, fear of being shown that art school was the wrong decision, fear that I didn’t learn enough in college to make it as an artist. I was dealing with a lack of financial resources, food insecurity, and being taken seriously. With this gift, I wanted to convey to the graduates that, we may think we know what we want when we become graduates, but life often has its own plans—please be open and trust that your education will make itself known exactly when you need it. You will know how to convey to a client an idea because you can reference very quickly something from art history. You will know how to add balance to a messy layout. You will select fonts based on their merits. You will draw your ideas with clarity because your hand-skills were developed. You have what it takes. You’ve done the work, and I congratulate you wholeheartedly.”
Class of 2020 graduates started receiving Baillie’s movie poster gift with their formal diplomas, which were sent out this month.
All images courtesy of Dawn Baillie.