Dr. Amundson’s convocation address to the students, staff and faculty of the School of Art, Design & Architecture on Friday, August 26, 2016
I find myself inspired by the focus this year in chapel on a study of Ecclesiastes. And surprisingly so: it’s not the book that many people would first look to in order to find optimistic inspiration to kick off a new year at college. It’s a book that expresses, or at least seems to express, significant frustration, almost nihilism, about inequities and injustice. Yet maybe this is exactly the book for this moment: I expect your social media feeds, like mine, are full of commentary on Black Lives Matter, reflections on the real meaning of today as the anniversary of the amendment that grants women the right to vote, criticism of French cities banning the burkini as well as of the French state prohibiting those bans, as well as endless arguments on immigration, especially in the midst of a presidential race that promises to only become more and more contentious.
My first response to counter this general somber, if not downright negative, mood was to look to John 16:33:
I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.
A life raft for troubled times, to be sure.
But on a second, and deeper, consideration, I find a sliver of hope in the book itself. Without trying to unpack the nuances of Ecclesiastes in ten minutes, I will suggest a few insights from the third and fifth chapters. In these, the author refers to work and the potential for satisfaction and enjoyment in work. To be “happy in this toil” is a “gift from God,” he writes (Eccles. 3:22).
At least in part, this appeals to me through its echoes in the nineteenth-century writings William Morris. Morris occupies a significant position in design history, in part for being a central proponent, in theory and practice, of the Arts and Crafts Movement (with interests in all the disciplines represented in our School, with the exception of film, and only because he did not live long enough to see moving image). But he has more to offer us than beautiful books, wallpaper, and furniture. His greater gift stems from what we now call social justice concerns, promoted by his early association with other students from Oxford University who commenced their studies in theology but who found their way to art as a means to more effectively bring about the social and cultural change they so desired for post-Industrial Revolution England.
In one essay from 1877, Morris wrote at length about the two great blessings of life being “fearless rest and hopeful work.” According to Morris, we are at rest when we are surrounded by simple and beautiful things; we find hope by freely pursuing “the work we were born to do,” the process of which ennobles and dignifies us, and the products of which enhance and improve the world.
What an opportunity we have to take part in what Morris outlined. Humanity is largely led by its eyes, and finds instruction, inspiration, peace, and dignity where artists, designers and architects have taken the time to plan, design, craft and build in such a way that feeds that primary sense, which leads to engagement of the other ones, as well as our mental faculties, and our hearts.
I find his words encouraging in the face of our need to come to terms with our place here in a world that we are called to be in but not of. Rather than reject the shortcomings of this world, we have a responsibility to do something about them. That’s a mission of every program across this campus, which is full of good people who want to use their chosen fields to make the world less of a mess and bend it toward the justice that Dr. King talked about.
We have a particular opportunity here the School of Art, Design & Architecture because of our gifts and talents. We in this room are wired in a special way that connects our hands to our heads and hearts: to shape, rearrange, propose and project a better vision of the physical world we live in—to bend it toward an image of the one to come. To fill it with things that people respond to with the powerful sense of vision through which most of us negotiate and understand the world primarily. We have a responsibility to use these gifts not just for our own whim and indulgence, but for the world, for the people of the world. I’m reminded here of Carl Sagan, whom I once heard talk about climate change. He implored individual potential and responsibly to address the issue, with some vigor and immediacy, rather than waiting on government intervention. His mandate was simple: “We have waited on the politicians, and their response has been inadequate.” I think we can say the same for the injustices we can identify in the world, our nation, our state, our city, our campus: to not wait on the people who hold office or bear titles to do something about it. This is all our work.
This is also our call to remember that we have each been given particular spheres of influence, to influence. Leadership is not the sole job and responsibility of people who occupy certain positions in a hierarchy; people with titles on their nametags. Overall I would love for all of us to replace that word, leadership, with influence. We are all better off when we intentionally act on our opportunities to encourage, ennoble, help and support the people whom God has put closest to us. The “priesthood of believers” needn’t wait for the leaders when we are all already in positions of influence.
Toward the end of Morris’ essay, he claims that the “end of education” is to learn how to gain both fearless rest and hopeful work. So let this be a year for all of us to come closer to that goal: to enjoy the fearless rest with which we are blessed, as well as to engage fully, with all our faculties, in that hopeful work that makes the world a more just and beautiful place: work that blesses us in the doing, and blesses others in its having been done.
Let me leave you with one final reflection from Morris, written late in his life, and which I think might inspire all of us, no matter how far down the path we have come or have yet to go:
With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on.
 William Morris, “The Lesser Arts of Life,” delivered before the Trades’ Guild of Learning, December 4, 1877; collected in Hopes and Fears for Art (London: 1882).
 William Morris, The Well at the World’s End (vol. 1)
Excerpts of the presentation by Dr. Amundson to the students, staff and faculty of the School of Art, Design & Architecture on Friday, September 11, 2015
I’ve used a number of travel metaphors here today; and the nature of that imagery keys into the final introductory idea that I wanted to communicate this afternoon. I’ve mentioned already that it’s a rare bird who knows from childhood exactly what her future profession will be, and takes a direct course to it. For Christians, the normal anxieties about taking one job, major, or class over another, oftentimes carry a special weight as we seek to be in God’s will. Indeed our language is heavy with metaphors of movement: our walk, His path, the Way. Too often, I think, these metaphors carry with them a sense of determined direction, which in American culture can be stridently redefined in terms of efficiency at the expense of other things. Surely it would be easier to live in a world where pillars of cloud and burning bushes showed us exactly what to do at times of indecision and opportunity. But that isn’t our world, and I think we limit ourselves, and God, if we look for that kind of certainty. The longer I live, and the more apparent diversions I take, the more I recognize that the way of God’s will is really broad. Had I let myself get too overwhelmed by deciding between architectural practice and architectural education, or between keeping my job at an established university in the south or taking a new position with a little Christian school in Illinois, or between keeping my fulltime teaching job or agreeing to be an interim dean, specifically to imagine that one or the other choice was the one God wanted me to make, I would be stuck, and ultimately devaluing some experience as an opportunity to serve the Kingdom. That’s why I have tried to cultivate this notion of the way of God being varied and vast. If it is a path or road, it is one with branches and forks, easy stretches and challenging spots, a wide shoulder where you can stop to take in the view or rest after falling. We can’t begin to fathom the ways of the Lord but we can seek to follow his guidance day by day: toward a goal, but with so many ways to get there.
And I would add that, when you meet a barrier, especially in the form of a voice—either external or inside your own head—telling you that it’s too narrow for many to pass, or lays beyond a gate that can only be opened by people who look, act, or speak differently than you—beware. The path of service to and in the Kingdom is a broad and open field; when we perceive of it as having strict boundaries, recognize that as a human artifact; a manmade interruption: a fence for you to dig under, cut down, or jump.
Getting around a fence can be hard work, especially if you go it alone. But with a friend to help with the shovel, or to give you a boost, it becomes easier. That is surely one of the great advantages of working and studying here, and it’s something that’s been on my mind not only in general as so many people have helped me get used to this new job, but specially today, which of course one of great solemnity and mourning. The Sept. 11 attacks happened just a few weeks into my first semester teaching here. Understandably, businesses and schools shut down across the country, some out of security concerns, others to let their people get home to their families. Judson did not close. I don’t think many people taught their lesson plan—but after some of us made a quick trip home to hug the people we had an uncontrollable urge to hug, we were back here. The President, who was on the road at the time, was patched in by phone to address us all in the chapel. Classes met for the rest of the day as scheduled, but with unscheduled discussions. It was a day of open questioning, prayer, discussion, anger, in community. It was a formative day for me here as a new faculty member and something I will never forget: that the impulse was not to scatter, but to hold tighter together, because we know we are better together, that we manage the hard parts of life better as one, just as when, on very different days, we have sweeter celebrations together.
So as you go on this road, take someone with you. You’ll need them for places where the quality of the pathway is uncertain, and a veil of fog obscures where it goes beyond a distance.
No matter what discipline or major or position they hold, all believers on this campus strive to pursue their academic and professional goals within God’s will as their primary goal: it is everyone’s first thing. In this School, we have an amazing opportunity to follow this course in a richly redemptive and fundamentally human way. Have you ever reflected on the fact that your discipline is borne of sin? Not just lower-case, garden-variety sin but THE sin from THE garden. Art, design, architecture, all of them appear after the Expulsion from Eden. This is not anything to be ashamed about; this is an amazing thing. Evolutionary biologists and anthropologists alike chart the development of humanity’s spiritual engagement—one of the key aspects of human culture—alongside their impulse to raise great stone monoliths and stencil images of their own hands on cave walls. With these efforts they exercised their understanding of the permanence of something bigger and greater than themselves: this prehistoric art and architecture is the earliest expression of human deference to a spirit world that they understood no better than we understand our otherwise mute ancestors.
Our engagement with that eternal world, and our negotiation within our temporal one, is different than that of our prehistoric forebears. But our impulse, and our responsibility, is the same, if we are brave enough to embrace it. Figuring out what that means every day and in every part of our day, is not a day’s work; it is a life’s journey. Figuring it out together—across desks and tables, classes and offices—makes the quest richer. We work and rest in the knowledge that God’s mercies are new every morning, which also means that every day we start afresh with the potential to work toward reconciliation in our relationships and in our world, through our work. We can help one another on this long path as we all seek what is most important. Those are our first things. All of us in this room will travel together a while, while we share this place for a time. Ideally when we reach the end, and by God’s grace, we can look back and see that we left the world more beautiful, and more just.
Excerpts of the presentation by Dr. Amundson to the students, staff and faculty of the School of Art, Design & Architecture on Friday, September 11, 2015
I bet dollars to donuts that none of the talented and committed faculty of this School, when they students years ago, imagined their current job as faculty. We all started out as students aspiring to work in a creative profession—but somewhere along the way, we branched into teaching. Some of us have taken a further crook in the road from fulltime teaching to administrative positions. Taking this path requires really compelling reasons, since being a professor is one of the great jobs in the world. Giving that up, and engaging in something new and different is not easy…. We all have origins stories, and I want to share mine with you to explain how I ended up here—and why it matters to you.
The accompanying picture shows me in second grade, courtesy of an amazing primary document from my family archives. This is the scrapbook that my mother kept for me all through grade school and junior high. In addition to providing a generally interesting—maybe occasionally cringe-worthy— trip down memory lane, it gave a point to some things that, in my memory, had lost some of their sharpness. Every year starting in second grade, I took advantage of a blank line in the “what do you want to be when you grow up?” section to project an alternate future to more conventional suggestions made to girls growing up in the 1970s. Here in second grade I recorded my plans to become a “potter,” since I didn’t know the word “ceramicist.”
Thus began my life in art. Actually, I know it was a significant thing even earlier, since the first time I remember getting into real trouble in school—which didn’t happen often!— it was in Kindergarten, and it was because of art. I relished any and all programs in art offered right through high school, when I frustrated my guidance counselor who couldn’t understand why someone who tested well academically would want to take a course in graphic design rather than Latin grammar during the year she was applying to colleges. Once I got to college, I soaked up an even broader curriculum in art. I studied interior design and architecture and added as many electives in my university’s College of Fine and Applied Arts as I could fit. My final undergraduate semester was a wonderland that included classes in set design for theater, watercolor painting and metalsmithing. Even as I chose my academic specialty in grad school, courses in ceramics and photography snuggled in with the demands of the architecture curriculum; later, my vague interest in old movies became more focused on silent film that finally manifest itself in the pretty respectable representation of German Expressionist cinema in my home DVD collection.
By the time I concluded my architectural internship, another path had opened up; I received word that I passed the architecture registration exam quite literally as I was moving across the country to start a Ph.D. program in architectural history. And it wasn’t that I wanted to leave practice, but rather, history opened opportunities to thinking about architecture that I found more compelling. And perhaps I was always destined to be a teacher, and a writer, which I pursued first at a university in North Carolina before coming to Judson.
While these years of focus on history and theory were intellectually rich, they did take me away from that early impulse to make things, and it’s only recently that I have started finding my way back to the fun of making. One of the best things I did during my sabbatical last year was to take time away from writing to enroll in metalsmithing workshops. In the hours that I have spent since then, hammering hot iron on an anvil at the school, or slicing through copper on the jewelry bench we’ve set up in the basement, I remembered how great it is to make stuff with my hands. It was exactly during this period that I received my first phone call from President Crume about this position, and the rest fell into place slowly, but with a certain logic, for me to accept a position administering all these creative disciplines that I’ve engaged in, one way or another, my whole life.
It is always a challenge for someone who is a specialist in one thing to step into a role that oversees a lot of related things—in part, because it is human nature to categorize people with discrete labels. I deeply hope that with this address I can dispel any assumptions along these lines that might exist in this room—and, more importantly, live its aims during the next two years. While, in the most severe professional sense, I am an architectural historian, I am certainly not the architecture history dean, nor even the architecture dean. It’s my great privilege to actually, after diving deep in one pool, surface, and take in the broad ocean of art, design and architecture, and work among these many disciplines that I have sometimes practiced, or at least admired, from a close distance. I see my role as dean as a wonderful opportunity to facilitate and support work for which I have a great enthusiasm and affection, but because of the way modern professional life works, can’t fully engage in. If you’ll allow me the analogy that the School of Art, Design and Architecture is like a candy shop: architectural history may be my go-to Snickers bar, but that does not make the Twix and M&Ms any less delicious. I just can’t eat them all, all the time.
In this role I have the privilege to get to know more corners of the shop, which is really not just a desire, but a responsibility, and one of my first self-imposed jobs to address. Although I am familiar with Judson as a whole, I have taught a very narrow portion of our curriculum within the School. I recognize my need to re-learn this place; not only to see it with my own fresh eyes but through the eyes of everyone here. For that reason you may find me, in the coming months, lurking on the sidelines of your classes and on the fringes of your reviews as I strive to understand better what is going on all around our big house.