On the 150th anniversary of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, the idea of art as an inspiration was stressed Monday by speakers at Oberlin College’s commencement ceremony.
“Art brings us together as a family because it is an individual expression of universal human experience,” commencement speaker and legendary opera singer Jessye Norman told the Class of 2016. “It comes from that part of us that is without fear, prejudice, malice, or any of the other things we create to separate ourselves, one from the other.
Norman, a Grammy-winning soprano, urged students to “live artfully,” saying art isn’t confined to painters, dancers, or musicians. She said it’s a state of mind.
“Art makes all of us whole by insisting we use all of our senses, our heads, and our hearts,” said the 69-year-old Norman, who in 1997 became the youngest recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor. “These feelings of boundless joy, of peace, and serenity represent the very music of your soul — the art of your spirit.”
Norman in 2003 founded the Jessye Norman School of the Arts in her hometown of Augusta, Ga. It provides tuition-free education for needy middle school students.
College president Marvin Krislov encouraged students to have the same philanthropic commitment to the arts as Norman.
Unlike in Oberlin, Krislov said the arts are often inaccessible or not valued in many other communities. He said the arts bring people together and asked graduates to help make them accessible and free in the communities they move to.
“You can participate by going to arts events, supporting the arts, and encouraging others to join you,” he said. “That is the cause of art. That is the cause we embrace here at Oberlin. Class of 2016, I urge you to carry forth with passion that cause.”
Besides praising art, Norman also touched on the need for social justice, questioning how there can be homelessness and hunger in a wealthy country like the United States.
America ranked as the seventh richest nation in the world in a study last year by Global Finance Magazine. The analysis was based on per capita gross domestic product. GDP is the sum of all goods and services produced within a nation.
Norman asked students to be undaunted by “the terrible amounts of despair and struggle” in the world and to act locally. “Brighten the corner where you are,” she said, quoting from a Sunday school song she learned as a child.
Of the 702 graduates, 667 marched on a sunny morning before some 2,000 friends and relatives. They included 50 foreign students from 18 countries including Egypt, India, Kenya, Norway, and Pakistan.
Among the graduates was Kristine Chiu, a mathematics major from Sacramento, Calif., who plans to attend graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis. Chiu said she was bullied in high school and had few friends, but found the college welcoming and supportive.
“I’ve really enjoyed he relationships with my professors and friends,” she said.
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.