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Class of 2018 Valedictorian: Dante Finn

Dante Finn, Academy of Art University valedictorian from the School of Game Development (GAM), always knew he wanted to be an artist – in fact, he preferred art to his own family.

“When I was four years old, my mom, who is here today, told me that my sister was going to have a daughter and that I was going to be an uncle,” he told the audience during his speech at the May 9 afternoon commencement ceremony at Bill Graham Auditorium. “I replied, ‘I don’t want to be an uncle. I want to be an artist!’”

And on his graduation day, Finn beamed as he accepted his diploma as an M.F.A. game development student with a focus in environment modeling, grateful for the confidence that the Academy has given him to help overcome doubt and inhibition. He referred to filmmaker Don Hahn, who once said, “No one gives you permission to be an artist.”

“For the longest time, I was waiting for a diploma to say that I am an artist,” he said. “But I was already an artist before I got here – the Academy just helped facilitate me to excel as an artist.”

Originally from Massachusetts, Finn previously enrolled in Massachusetts College of Art and Design to study animation before transferring to the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University for a degree in illustration. At some point after, however, Finn said he stopped making art. Instead, doubt came calling.

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Dante Finn delivers his valedictorian speech during commencement on May 9. Photo by Mateo Tayamen.

“Doubt is something I think most artists, even the most talented among us, live with,” he told his fellow graduates. “We doubt our abilities, or our drive to finish what we’ve begun. We second guess the decisions we’ve made and are rarely ever satisfied with our work.”

But Finn didn’t want to give up on being an artist, he just needed some direction. A chance vacation to San Francisco to attend the 2014 Game Developers Conference, Finn came across the Academy booth and learned about the school’s specialized programs.

Finding that specificity, not just that he wanted to work in games or in animation, but that he especially loved building worlds and environments “proved to be the difference” and a chance to “walk the tightrope between expression as an artist, but also making sure it’s viable to put a roof over [his] head.” Finn found his niche, now, he just had to carve it.

Backed by a community of passionate teachers and classmates, Finn’s work ethic took a turn as well.

He was determined to have his teachers “remember me for the right reasons,” always aiming to do twice as much work as required of him. In his grad speech, he remembered his dad, who died of cancer in 2009, and how he instilled into Finn “a boundless love for learning, and a matching drive to create.”

Through the Academy, Finn said he was able to combat his initial self-doubt. His peers and instructors – including David “Rez” Graham, Jason Weesner and Michael Buffington – in GAM quickly became his friends and community, one that he hopes carries over to his next chapter as an Infinity Ward Studio environment artist.

“Having a relationship with teachers beyond the classroom really set the tone for me,” he said. “It wasn’t just doing the assignments, getting feedback, getting the occasional industry story; it was really about building relationships and that’s defined my time here.”

To conclude his speech, Finn left his fellow grads with the same ideal that carried him through the three years at the Academy. “Before you passed your thesis or received your diploma, you were an artist; a designer, an animator, a composer, a storyteller, and you’ll continue to be one tomorrow, even when the assignments have ceased. No one gives you that permission, but yourself.”