Campus News

Remarks made by Abelardo Morell, '71 upon receiving an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree at Bowdoin's 192nd Commencement May 24, 1997

Story posted May 24, 1997

Today I want to tell you what made me an artist.

I'm not recommending this, and this is by no means a requirement, but exile helps.

I left Cuba with my parents and my sister wnen I was 14 in 1962. This break with the place where I grew up is probabIy still stirring at the bottom of much of what I do in art now. Somehow the conflicts of cultures, languages and places that I felt didn't just scare me,these things also gave me a sense of exhilaration, a feeling that things out there were wild and surreal.

My parents' wonderful courage and hope in the midst of starting a new life from scratch, I know now, gave me the security to look at the strangeness all around me from a somewhat safe place.

Because I didn't speak English when I first came, looking and seeing became a way to get to know and make impressions of my new country. I arrived in Brunswick at a time when Bowdoin was actively reaching out to diversify its student population. I was recruited out of a Manhattan technical high school. I knew back then that Bowdoin was taking a chance on me.

I thought I was going to be an electrical engineer but after one week in John McKee's photography class, I knew I wanted to be an artist. One teacher's lessons in how art could be a way of seeing and at the same time, a way to discover oneself, are lessons that have stayed with me to this day.

Photography was so perfectly suited to my sensibiIity and situation, it gave me a voice, a kind of crazy, out-of-whack voice, at the beginning, but a voice. I could finally put into images bottled up feelings of absurdity and alienation -and also joy and delight.

Being married to Lisa and having my son Brady and my daughter Laura have had the deepest effect on my continuing to be an artist. Without them and their support, even when things were not going well, I think I would have kept making other people's pictures - probably nothing to write home about. Being in a family taught my eyes to pay attention to the things close to me, to things close to my heart . The pictures I made around the house when I first became a father have influenced much of the work that I do today-from looking at a book with the curiosity of a child to turning ordinary rooms into giant cameras.

I finally got the point that art is about playing. Thankfully, I'm not the only artist that Bowdoin has helped educate. Many dancers, painters, musicians and photographers like me got their start at this college and now show their work all over the world. Learning what pictures are about in the context of a liberal arts education had a powerful effect on my life. The importance of locating art within life and its many disciplines is something lasting that I got out of my time here. I urge Bowdoin to continue its support and dedication to the teaching of the arts at the college.

Standing here in line with the Moulton Union, where I made my first photographs in the old college darkroom almost thirty years ago, and the Museum of Art in back of me where today, they have kindly hung one of my most recent pictures, I feel like I am in some kind of special alignment. Rarely does one see such clear shape and direction in one's life, especially if you are a graduating senior and the territory ahead may not be so defined. In my case, I think that maybe perseverance, being in love with something for the long run had a lot to do with why I'm here today.

Standing between these two buildings, which are like bookends to the story of my life so far, reminds me of the promise and power of art to make us believe in the possibilities and openness of life, at least for a moment, like this moment now.

Thank you very much.

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