Artist Nick Cave Addresses Graduating PAFA Students at Commencement

I wish you all, all of the luck. Don’t give up, it’s hard but it’s fun, its fabulous. Be strong, be leaders, we need you more now than ever.

Nick Cave, 2018 PAFA Commencement Address

Tossing aside his prepared remarks, artist Nick Cave spontaneously took questions from PAFA’s newest alumni at this year's Commencement ceremony.

PAFA recognized 87 graduating students, including 14 Certificate program graduates; 20 Bachelor of Fine Arts graduates; 4 BFA/Certificate graduates; 10 PAFA/Penn BFA graduates; 7 Post-Baccalaureate graduates, and 32 Master of Fine Arts graduates.

Nick Cave is an American artist working between the visual and performing arts through a wide variety of mediums including sculpture, installation, performance, video, designed object, and fashion. He is well known for his Soundsuits, sculptural forms based on the scale of his body. He lives and works in Chicago, where he spearheads the graduate Fashion Design program at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago. He is represented by Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. His work is shown nationally and internationally, including at MASS MoCA, Cranbrook Art Museum, Saint Louis Art Museum, and ICA Boston.

PAFA recently acquired a mixed media sculpture by Cave that comprises a current exhibition of his work glorifying found ceramic dogs on thrones of discarded flea-market objects. Cave's Rescue was on view in the Morris Gallery of the Historic Landmark Building. This is the second Cave work in PAFA’s collection, complimenting his 2003-4 sculpture Soundsuit #26, acquired in 2006.

Below is an excerpt of Cave’s remarks, edited for flow and clarity.

  • Artist Nick Cave addresses students at PAFA's commencement ceremony.
    Artist Nick Cave addresses students at PAFA's commencement ceremony.

Take charge of your young career

Upon graduating from the Kansas City Art Institute, Cave was faced with two options. Either move back home to Columbia, Missouri or start making a life for himself, on his own.

“When my parents came to graduation they came with the truck and graduation happened and my mother said, ‘Should we pack up your things?’ and I’m thinking that I am not going back to Columbia, Missouri,” he said. “So I said, ‘I’m not going back to Columbia,’ and she told me I didn’t have a job and I said I need to figure it out.”

Figuring it out meant eventually moving to New York City and taking a job with Macy’s as a visual coordinator, connecting him to the fashion world and working on installations. After graduation Cave became part of a core group of artists who leaned on each other for support, advice, and a sense of community.

“When I’m looking at my graduate students I see that they’re sad because they have to leave but I have to pull the rug out from underneath them, it's just what we have to do,” he said. “I know that feeling of feeling lost and just being out there in the world and sort of not knowing what’s next. But there are ways to maintain a connection with your peers and it’s really, really important to build that network and keep the relationships going.”

Learn the hard lessons

Cave’s work is a part of museum collections around the country and he’s received numerous prestigious award, but he says rejection is a real part of his career.

“There was one time I went to the mailbox and there were three letters in the mail and they were all rejections,” he said. “I went upstairs and I just sat in silence, just to process and get my head around it. But the thing that’s important here is that we have rejections, it’s important for us to sort of know how to manage and handle our sort of emotions and put it into perspective.”

He said the hardest lesson for him has been getting back up and staying in the game.

“It’s important that we have rejections,” Cave said. “It’s important for us to sort of know how to manage and handle our emotions and put it into perspective.”

Keep making work

Most people know Cave as an artist but he considers himself a messenger first, then an artist.

“What makes me feel complete is when I’m working out in the community and being of service in that way and using art as a vehicle for change,” he said. “I have a platform but I can also get out of the way and allow those who don’t have the same platform experience what is possible.”

He points to a project he did in Shreveport, Louisiana, and how important it was for him to invest himself in the community.

“It’s about understanding why I’m here and what am I here to do.”

He calls on PAFA’s graduates to find their balance and truth.

Ignore the critics

“I sort of stopped reading anything about any of my projects probably about 20 years ago, I cannot let that get in the way of my development, so I’ve just stopped reading it,” Cave said. “It doesn’t matter because you have to do what you have to do. If you are persuaded or stunned by a critique, which is objective anyway, it can really be very harmful, so I don’t care.”

Continue to challenge yourself

For Cave, his work is rooted in what’s going on politically in the world. He wants his work to take people by the hands and go on a journey together.

“We are having a collective shared experience that perhaps is dark but it's not dark at the entry part of the work, it may be once you get into the work, it may become difficult,” he said, adding that he is always looking for an opportunity or project that allows him to dream.

“This whole thing has always been bigger than me so I always get back up again.”