Congratulations MIT Faculty of Creative Arts graduates!

I was asked to be the guest speaker at the Manukau Institute of Technology Faculty of Creative Arts 2011 Graduation. A massive privilege… I thought back to my own graduation in 2006. And feel grateful for the loving support of my parents.

This was my speech:

Ni sa bula vinaka,

I feel most privileged to have the opportunity to address you on this prestigious occasion. I don’t remember the keynote speaker at my own graduation because I was so overwhelmed on the day; my family had travelled from Fiji and I was surrounded by the same excited and anxious energy emanating from all the graduating students around me. I have since then supported many of my friends at their graduations, listened intently to the speakers and shared that moment of complete satisfaction. No matter your struggles and challenges in your years of study, getting through, getting here, to this point, is all that matters.

Tonight we celebrate your achievement. I want to take this opportunity to congratulate you all on the small things that have got you to this day. Small as they seem, it’s the baby steps which count. Congratulations for waking up on time. For attending class. Congratulations for thinking, responding and investing in your mind, and congratulations for taking the bold step of making art, wanting to be an artist, and energising your innate creative ability.

There are things we learn on our tertiary journeys that only become truly valuable when we enter the world and the workforce after art school. You have learnt how to meet deadlines, to develop, implement and review projects. You have learnt skills in research and analysis, and you have developed and honed your voice. To be taught and to learn are skills that will enrich your life. Art school is a wonderful mix of personalities and perhaps unconsciously, you have developed in small ways your communication skills, open mindedness and tolerance.

It’s important to know that qualifications alone will not open doors to dream jobs. A qualification can demonstrate commitment and a specific skill set, but doors open for people with plans. I encourage you all to think about where this qualification sits in your big picture. What would you be doing in this life if money wasn’t an issue – what makes you happy?

If a qualification in creative arts is a step in the right direction, what else needs to be done to get you to where you want to be. Think big, write it down, create goals and put your head down and work. Before you know it, your plan will be manifesting before your eyes. There will be highs and lows on your journey, but for every failure there is momentary pain and long-term learning. Believe me, this is true.

When you have a plan, getting through the day, facing challenges and braving the unknown become manageable. Everything you do becomes part of a focused trajectory. You will work harder, invest yourself fully and emanate an air of drive and determination and THIS is what opens doors.

The reality is that jobs in the creative sector are few and far between. This is why it is crucial to acknowledge that your tertiary training isn’t ‘teaching you how to be an artist’, but teaching you how to hone your creativity, empower your voice and practice universal skills applicable to the workforce. Your challenge after art school is to turn your skills and creativity into currency.

Innovation and innovative thinking is in hot demand in many industries. Creative minds are curious and have the potential to think about problem solving in new and valuable ways. The key to making a creative arts qualification work for you is to find ways that your creative thinking can be applied to money-making or career-building opportunities. We only hone our abilities by experience, and opportunities to do this come in all forms.

Within the context of your big picture plan, I encourage you to maximise on every opportunity that crosses your path. By building our experience – personal, professional and artistic – we learn what we’re good at and what we’re not!

Jobs may be scarce – we often have to simply do what we can. If a 9 to 5 job isn’t feeding your creative soul, invest your personal time in projects that develop your creative practice. Exhibit as much as possible, keep drawing, writing, blogging and performing. Attend openings and events and hone your networking skills. If you don’t have a blog, start one immediately! Document your practice, your experiences, your influences, engage people with your creative journey. Remember, opportunities to develop your creative practice aren’t always formal, or in the case of visual arts, in galleries – church banners count! Illustrations in zines count! Online exhibitions count! Document it all and grow a community of appreciators around you.

From one graduate to another, let me assure you that when the IRD start taking your student loan payments out of your pay, it stings. When you’re working 9 to 5 and having a significant part of your wages automatically deducted to pay for that qualification, you think a lot about art school. Take it from me, after 6 years of paying off my student loan, art school is not a time to mess around. I feel old saying “We didn’t have Facebook in my day”, but it’s the truth and I acknowledge the new modes of procrastination can be seriously addictive.

Don’t waste this time. You can fall in love, be heartbroken, party hard, experience loss and pain, but don’t waste time. You’re at school to learn, not to socialise. You’re at school to increase your opportunities in life, to give hope to your family. And art school is a privilege.

We live in a country where artists can apply for public funds to make art; exhibitions and arts events happen almost every day of the year, much of which is free. We’re a small country with a big reputation on the world stage and opportunities to travel, engage, participate, show and develop your creative practice are abundant. But the competition is fierce.

Getting an arts education in South Auckland is a double-edged sword; on one hand, we are geographically and socially dislocated from the wider creative sector. On the other hand, we have a competitive advantage – what we make and develop in relative isolation is bold and innovative, informed often unconsciously by our unique socio-political and cultural context.

Armed with your qualification and a foundation in thinking creatively, I challenge you to treat tomorrow as Day 1 of the next chapter of your creative career. Write down your goals, dream big and reflect on what makes you happy. Be open to advice and opportunities. Be confident. Be nice – the art world is small, reputations often precede you. And perhaps most importantly, be hungry – hungry to get to where you want to be, hungry to be heard, hungry to keep developing and learning. Know that wherever you go, in whatever field, your creativity is within you, and has enormous potential. Remember South Auckland, remember Z Block – and don’t be a stranger.

Good luck and go well,

Vinaka vakalevu.