Commencement 2014: Address by James Denison ’14

Class of 1868 Prize winner James Denison ’14 delivered the address “The Bowdoin Quilt” at Bowdoin’s 209th Commencement exercise May 24, 2014. 

President Mills, Members of the College and Guests,

When my great-aunt died about two years ago, my Dad drove out to her house in Indiana and brought back a carful of family heirlooms. Among the boxes filled with books, letters, photographs, and other sundries he returned with, there lay a large pile of quilts that my great-grandmother had once made. I had never seen them before. When he heaped the slightly musty bundle onto my bed I remember being rather impressed by them.

James Denison ’14

James Denison '14

James Denison says there are two places at Bowdoin that have particular significance for him: the Greason Pool and the Museum of Art. As a member of the water polo team, James says he made incredible friends and developed as an athlete. As an assistant curator at the museum, he deepened his professional interests in art history and museum work.

Denison is from Alexandria, Virginia, and is an art history and French major. He is the recipient the Art History department’s junior- and senior-year prizes and the Eaton B. Leith French prize. His honors research was supported by a Grua/O’Connell Research Award.

After graduation, Denison plans to work at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., doing curatorial research for exhibitions of modern and contemporary American art. Eventually, he plans to earn his doctorate in American art.

What interested me was that each quilt was its own creation, its own entity, made up of countless squares and rectangles and hexagons and stars, locked together into a single, coherent whole. All of these subsections were realms unto themselves as well – each had a particular color, and pattern, and texture, and role within the greater visual scheme of the quilt, which set it apart as different from all the others. This moment of reflection didn’t last long – after giving the quilts a cursory glance, I picked up the heap, threw it rather unceremoniously into the room next door, and left it there, out of sight and out of mind.

When, a few months ago, I returned home for Spring Break, I found that that mound of quilts had, for some reason or another, made its way back into my room again in my absence. With only a handful of weeks left in my time at Bowdoin, a place that has grown quite dear to me over the past four years, I felt, at that moment, as I sat down on my bed, rather introspective and sentimental, and as I thumbed the pink and green stars of one of my great-grandmother’s quilts sitting next to me, I began to think about my time at Bowdoin, and what it has meant to me and the others that I have met here.

When discussing the bonds that tie together large groups of people, many are fond of evoking the concept of the “fabric” of a community. The idea is, I suppose, that each member of the community is a thread in that fabric – each person lacing over and under and around the others until their interactions eventually weave a sturdy textile borne of their shared histories and memories. This seems like a perfectly reasonable and apt analogy. However, as I sat on my bed that day, I began to think of the groups that I was a part of not as fabrics, but as quilts.

When the 500 or so of us arrived here in August of 2010, we were nothing more than a mismatched group of individuals – a collection of swatches, if you will. Each of us had their own colors, their own patterns, which distinguished their particular band of cloth. Our parents dropped us off in a big pile and it was up to us to figure out how we would all fit together with one another and with everyone else whose square, or hexagon, or star already fit into Bowdoin’s quilt. Slowly, over time, each of our shapes was stitched into that greater design, and as they were each of us discovered in the shapes around us new tints and patterns that changed how we perceived both ourselves and the role we played within the greater Bowdoin community. We made new friendships, tried new things, learned new theories and formulas and methods. As the saying goes, we “lost ourselves in generous enthusiasms.” We evolved, and as we did so, too did Bowdoin itself. Each of us has played a role in the community that everyone else here over the past four years has experienced, and collectively the Class of 2014 portion of the Bowdoin quilt has colored thousands of the squares that have surrounded us during our four years here.

However, something else struck me even more strongly about those quilts that day as I lay on my bed and fed their smooth stitched cloth between my fingers. Each of my great-grandmother’s quilts was, as a whole, a thing of beauty, but was also made up of smaller components, each of which was beautiful in its own right. For many of us, our time at Bowdoin has been a beautiful thing – a period in our lives, which has been characterized by uncommonly joyful experiences. Some of the pulchritude we have borne witness to has been found in relatively familiar or predictable places – in the stunning sight of our handsome quad in springtime, or the winsome smile of a certain classmate. But even more beauty has been discovered elsewhere – in the satisfaction of a burgeoning friendship, in the exertion of newly-discovered intellectual powers, in a ball snapping satisfyingly into the back of a net. We have each discovered beauty here at Bowdoin individually, but we have also done so together, in constant concert with one another, as teammates, and classmates, and friends. Each square of our quilt may be beautiful, but so, too is its greater design, the collective sum of our experiences here.

The idea of collective and personal experiences of beauty, demonstrated by the metaphor of a quilt and embodied in the millions of experiences we have undergone here over the past four years, is an important one. In fact, one might even call it an analogy for human responsibility. We owe it to each other to try to create beauty in one another’s lives – to be selfless, or, as the Offer of the College suggests, “to cooperate with others for common ends.” But we also owe it to ourselves to foster beauty and joy in our own lives. As Voltaire suggested, each of us must “cultivate our garden.” Just as each square in a quilt simultaneously testifies to its own beauty and contributes to the balance and harmony of a grander design, so too must each of us, as we leave this place, continue to strike a balance between individual and communal goals, between selfishness and altruism. We owe it to ourselves, and to one another, to create and celebrate personal and collective beauty and accomplishment, just as we do today and have ever since arriving at Bowdoin some 45 months ago.

These four years at Bowdoin have been a time of change for all of us. We are very different now than we were that day when we moved into our freshman dorm rooms four years ago. We all knew then, as now, that, as ancient Persian Sufi poets, and Solomon, of Jewish folklore, and Abraham Lincoln and countless others have all said before, “this too shall pass.” And it has. Our time here, at the very least as a collective entity, a single, united Class of 2014, creating and experiencing and sharing beauty with one another, is over. After this weekend, the 500 or so of us will never be together again. This is the cruel reality of graduation – it is unequivocally final. College is only ever intended to be a temporary affair – four years to learn and prepare ourselves for whatever it is that we want to do with the decades of time, which lie before us. It is, ultimately, only a stepping-stone, albeit one that many of us would rather never leap off from.

However, although our time at Bowdoin has now passed, the words of Anton Chekhov also ring true: “Nothing passes.” Even though we will go forth and lose ourselves in novel enthusiasms, will find new jobs, and new pursuits, and new friends, what has happened here will not cease to be important to any of us, or to those who preceded us here, or to those whom we leave behind. Today our squares are cut out of the Bowdoin quilt, but that does not mean that our relationship with Bowdoin, or Bowdoin’s relationship with each and every one of us, is over. Our legacies have already been reflected in all of the people we have met and grown to know and all of the things we have accomplished while here. But Bowdoin has also left an indelible mark on who each of us is. No matter where we go or what we do, no matter what quilts we are a part of in the years that await us, a corner of each of our squares, or rectangles, or hexagons, or stars will always be devoted to what we have shared here, as a part of this community. We may also be mothers and fathers, or doctors, or lawyers, or scholars, or anything, but we will all always be Polar Bears, and the incontrovertible reality of our friendships and accomplishments over these past four years is, and will forever be, in my humble opinion, a thing of great beauty.

Thank you.

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