2009 DTA Medal

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Michael Kelly

Distinguished Teacher 2009–10

Alumnus Michael Kelly (Communication Design ‘96) is an adjunct assistant professor, freelance designer, and writer, who has taught in Pratt’s Undergraduate Communications Design Department since 2002. He teaches Typography I-IV and is co-director of Pratt’s Design Corps, a studio class that enables students to gain professional experience while providing non-profit organizations with quality graphic design services at no cost.

Students regard Kelly as “a responsive, truly excellent teacher” whom they have “never feared to approach” and who is “always willing to take time out and meet with students.” One student recalls a time when Kelly joined her team on press for 20 hours to help them get the desired results for Pratt’s yearbook, Prattonia.

Kelly’s career as an educator began as a high school student in Long Island, where he taught after-school classes to grade-school pupils. The youngest of five children, he fell in love with the borough of Brooklyn while visiting an older brother who was studying sculpture in Manhattan and decided to pursue studies in design at Pratt on the advice of an art teacher who doubled as his guidance counselor.

While a student at Pratt, Kelly taught Saturday Art School and met his future wife, Brenda Varrasso, (Fashion, ‘98). Kelly later served as design director in Pratt’s Office of Publications for four years and felt so rewarded by the experience of directing student designers that he approached the Institute about teaching. He has since served as guest-critic for a cross-disciplinary graphic, interior, and industrial design class and would like to see more of such collaborations between his and other departments.

Kelly’s freelance work focuses primarily on identities, brochures, magazines, and posters for a wide range of clients, though he prefers to work with culturally or socially aware organizations. As a writer, Kelly is contributing 25 essays to The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design, which is slated for publication in fall 2009.  A runner for most of his life, Kelly has completed five marathons in three cities in the last eight years, and says the focus and preparation needed for these events have affected both his design and teaching philosophies.

Commencement Speech

Thank you, Peter. And thank you to the Senate, the Board, and of course the students, for conferring this honor. It’s truly humbling for someone who still feels as if he’s been mistakenly allowed to sit at the grown-up’s table. It is likewise humbling to follow in the footsteps of the previous Distinguished Teacher, Floyd Hughes, whose sweeping economic and social reform have redefined the power of the office to say the least. While I know that our luxurious setting does not automatically make this an awards show and that I am certainly not Judy Collins, I hope you will indulge me in a few more thank yous.

I would like to thank my wife Brenda Varrasso; a true widow of typography, often left quietly hanging while her husband is off kerning young minds. If I deserve to speak from this podium then for her patience and sacrifice she deserves to be thanked from it. So too does my family; an Irish stew of three brothers, one sister, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, close friends, and of course my mother Maureen Kelly.  All of them support me and most of them, finally-I believe-understand just what it is I do for a living. Graduates, I have no advice for you here. Your family will get it when they get it.

I would also like to thank my colleagues- both in Undergraduate Communications Design and throughout the Institute. I stand here on a foundation laid by so many that to name a few would exclude a legion. Instead I will stop at thanking my dear friend and outstanding chair Kathleen Creighton, who has championed me, motivated me and spurred me on through every trial and triumph of my career.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not credit two incredible men who in their absence fuel every class that I teach; Charles Goslin, who taught me- and so many others- how to be both a designer and an educator, and my father, Jack Kelly, who taught me how to be a man.

And so to the real reason I am here. To thank you, the soon-to-be alumni of Pratt Institute, this time on behalf of all the faculty. You are the giants on whose shoulders we stand. Every day that we teach. Your creativity,  your individuality, your passion, your humor, and even your tears inspire us to be better teachers. And in the product of your toil, we see the promise of new colleagues and the challenge of new competitors. Yet as many assembled here know, our impact is rarely inherent in the products we produce, but rather in the lives that we and they affect. So after you move that tassel from the right side to the left, know that when you look up, it won’t be your teachers standing on your shoulders anymore. It will be the world.

And it can be a thankless world, so take the thanks that we offer you now. It can be a cruel world and a world that has no idea what your talents mean, much less what they are worth. It’s a scarred world, etched with war and disease and recession and bitterness. But it’s a world you can teach and world you can heal. Some don’t understand that. They look at Design and Art and Architecture and Library Science and the Liberal Arts and wonder, “what can they do?” We at Pratt know. We’ve seen it. Healing can come with communication, with shelter, with inspiration, with shared joy and wonder. It can occur in Hong Kong or Stockholm, Chicago or Baltimore, Memphis or Gettysburg, Manhattan or Brooklyn. As you move from this stage to those, remember to serve this world so that so deserves your gifts. Take it willingly onto your capable shoulders. But do not, I repeat, do not be afraid now and then to reach up and tickle the world’s feat, just as you did your teacher’s. Because sometimes it needs that too.

I’m not going to lie to you, graduates. Even when you are having fun, filling that unforgiving minute with true effort and laughing while they pay you for it, it’s going to be a lot of work, just as it has been until now. So make it work of which we can all be proud. When I graduated from Pratt thirteen years ago, I was also asked to give a speech, and in that speech I implored my  cohorts to never go to sleep and to stop loving the honest fatigue. Now I’m not sure you- or we- have a choice. But for the next few days, I implore you; go home, drink some cocoa, and get some sleep.

You’re going to need it.

Thank you.