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“Artists Are Magicians”: Highlights from SVA’s 2020 Commencement and John Waters’ Keynote Speech
May 28, 2020 by Rodrigo Perez
A photo of a man in a tie and graduation gown, standing at a podium set in front of a green screen.

Celebrated filmmaker John Waters, who delivered the keynote address of SVA’s virtual 2020 commencement exercises.

Credit: Richard Chisolm

It was not your usual triumphant graduation ceremony, but these are unusual times, and under the extraordinary circumstances, it was triumphant nonetheless. The School of Visual Arts′ 45th annual commencement exercises—originally scheduled to be held earlier this month at Radio City Music Hall—took place online yesterday, May 27, via a video simulcast on SVA’s website and Facebook page that garnered, in total, over 12,000 views and more than 430 comments from people worldwide. COVID-19 has been the great disrupter of 2020, but thanks to the resilience and inventiveness of the commencement organizers; the can-do spirit of the SVA community; the irreverent optimism of celebrated filmmaker and keynote speaker John Waters; and the inspiring words of the ceremony’s various addresses, the College was still able to celebrate the achievements of the some 1,280 members of its latest graduating class.

“You have acquitted yourselves with distinction under unique and trying circumstances,” SVA President David Rhodes said in his address. “It would appear your future as teachers, artists and writers will be challenging, but rewarding.” He also offered words from the acting chairman of the SVA Board, designer and longtime faculty member Milton Glaser. “We share the opportunity to recreate our history,” Glaser wrote in his message to the graduates. “Our slate is clear; our only limitation is our imagination. We at SVA have all prepared for a life of learning and sharing. We are all in this together; the future is ours.”

SVA Provost Dr. Christopher Cyphers, who acted as the director of ceremonies, also addressed the pandemic in his remarks. “While the present circumstances prevent us all from being seated together at Radio City Music Hall, that in no way diminishes the significance of this day,” he said. “No matter where you are in the world right now, we are with you in spirit.”

BFA Computer Art, Computer Animation and Visual Effects graduate Daniela Dwek, one of the event’s two degree-candidate speakers, used her time at the podium to stress the importance of putting our current challenges aside and celebrating the graduates′ collective achievements, hard work and experiences instead. “No distance can come between what we have created,” she said. “Today is a testament to who we are as a school and as a community. No matter what comes our way, we find solutions, make it work, and never give up. Artists like you and me have the power to heal the world, and the world needs you right now.”


Ishita Jain (MFA 2020 Illustration as Visual Essay), the second degree-candidate speaker, struck a similar note. “Now, more than ever, I feel the importance of community. So we must try harder than ever to stay in touch,” she said. “Art does not exist in this world in isolation, and neither should we.”


The day’s highly anticipated keynote speaker, John Waters—the best-selling author, photographer, cult icon and filmmaker (Cry-Baby, Hairspray, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Polyester)—delivered an address that was as irreverent, hilarious and decidedly spicy as his reputation promised it would be, sending up everyone and everything in sight with many fiery bon mots. 


“You’ll never walk alone. Besides, you’re artists and there never were any real jobs awaiting you in the workforce anyway, were there?” he said. Addressing the graduating students as irrepressible “COVID-19 commandos,” Waters, following many audacious jests, eventually got serious, urging his audience to seize the day.


“Artists are magicians—you can see what others cannot,” he said. “You can change history with one ludicrous idea. While you’re still young, maybe it’s time to become a virus yourself—a good kind of virus, one fueled by the years of hard work you put in at the incubator known as the School of Visual Arts. Artists, you are the cure, too. The only people that can inspire the world to notice and then alter its destructive behavior.” 


Waters concluded in his resolutely colorful manner, warning of the challenges ahead and urging students to keep the fires of hope alive: “An asshole-ism apocalypse is just around the corner, but you have to light the first spark. Congratulations! And now it’s time for action.”


To learn more about the SVA 2020 Commencement, the virtual ceremony, how graduates can get their diplomas, and more, visit sva.edu/commencement. To watch Waters′ full keynote speech, click the video below.

John Waters, SVA Commencement Speech 2020

Writer, director, artist and cult icon John Waters encourages the class of 2020 to inspire others and spark change during these uncertain and absurd times: “Artists are magicians: you can see what others can not, have a secret language, the power to make others follow . . . and you can change history with one ludicrous idea.”

SVA Graduation 2020
Gaps and gowns photos by the 2020 graduating class of SVA.