Makoto Fujimura, founder of the International Arts Movement (IAM) and the Fujimura Institute, speaks about the significance of seizing small, life-changing moments to the final class of Centennial graduates on May 17, 2014.
Although now an internationally celebrated painter and advocate for the arts, commencement speaker Makoto Fujimura (H’14) began his address with a flashback to his 13-year-old self.
After spending his childhood in Japan, Fujimura and his family moved back to the States when he was in eighth grade. Although born in America, Fujimura’s English was very poor. Rather than requiring him to sit through “an almost incomprehensible class,” a compassionate English teacher allowed him to create a bulletin board about the unit’s topic, instead.
“She gave me a pack of Magic Markers and asked me to copy… Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware,” Fujimura recalled. “I discovered that the painting had visual features that I could not capture with Magic Markers… but I must have done a fairly decent job of it, because Mrs. S brought in other teachers to see it.”
“One day, she brought a friend who was a substitute teacher and showed off my work to her. I had never met this substitute teacher, and I do not recall ever meeting her again. After examining the work, she turned to me and said: “You can’t waste God’s gift, can you?’”
This simple statement, Fujimura said, shaped the direction of his life. “You will be given many opportunities in your life to reshape someone else’s life,” he pointed out to graduates. “Do not take those moments for granted. Use the gift that God gave you to the fullest.”
In addition to the teacher’s comment, the painting itself was a turning point in Fujimura’s life: “By drawing this painting, I did not realize I would be literally drawing out my life’s calling.”
Although he had sensed that art was his “calling” as a young child, the bulletin board project taught him that “copying a master work is one of the best ways to learn to paint and learn to see.” It also introduced him to the idea of art as storytelling: “I knew, copying the painting, that I was depicting a fictionalized re-telling. Art does not capture reality as a whole, but carefully selects and re-tells and re-presents… Paint can reveal a story through the limitation of the medium, and it is in understanding how to create within the boundaries of those limitations that a masterpiece is made.”
What’s more, while representing the U.S. on the National Council of the Arts from 2003-2009, Fujimura discovered interesting parallels between himself and Leutze. “Leutze painted this image as a bicultural artist,” Mako explained, describing the German artist’s childhood in the U.S. and return to Germany. In 1848, revolutions had spread throughout Europe, including an attempt by liberal factions to create a unified German nation. They failed, but the context inspired Leutze to paint this tribute to the spirit of independence.
The river, Fujimura pointed out, looks nothing like the Delaware. Instead, Leutze had depicted the River Rhine. “Notice who is in the boat: two figures wearing buckskin trousers and moccasins… an African American… a man in a Scottish bonnet… and many suspect that the person in red rowing the boat is a woman.”
“The painting was never meant to be simply a historical account… but to capture the very essence and ideal of democracy itself.”
Like our talents, our American heritage of freedom and leadership “is still a gift,” Mako explains. “We, too, face similar oppression and imposition of an old system,” which he describes as an approach to schooling which ”constructs the point of education only to be to train us to survive in a materialist universe, as if the future is predetermined by our limited resources.”
However, he charged, “it is your dreams and your art that can break open the thick, stubborn ice of utilitarian pragmatism and the cynical naysayers of our time clogging up the river of joy-filled progress.”
“You can’t waste God’s gift.”
The ceremony also included the awarding of Fujimura’s third honorary doctorate: a degree in Sacred Theology from Cairn University. He is also a recipient of Doctor of Arts degrees from Belhaven University (2011) and Biola University (2012).
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Fujimura’s address was delivered to 129 Cairn graduates, representing 24 different academic programs. The commencement ceremony included the acknowledgement of the University’s six Faculty Emeriti, all of whom were present for the final event of the year-long Centennial celebration.
Also announced was the appointment of new deans for the Schools of Music and Education: Dr. Benjamin Harding ’02 and Dr. Paula Gossard, respectively. Dr. Gossard, now promoted to the rank of full professor of natural sciences, was also awarded the Faculty Member of the Year Award for excellence in teaching and exceptional service to her colleagues.
Watch Fujimura’s commencement address below, or read a transcript at makotofujimura.com.