When the Rhode Island School of Design offered iconic filmmaker John Waters an honorary degree, he was surprised. After all, he got thrown out of every school he ever went to.
Known for quirky films that push the boundaries of good taste, including 1972’s outrageous cult classic “Pink Flamingos,” Waters is the keynote speaker at the prestigious art school’s commencement this next weekend.
Waters will also receive an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree; recipients are chosen by the RISD community, and nominations are reviewed by a committee of students, faculty and staff.
“I don’t even know if I got a high school diploma. It’s very peculiar. I feel very flattered,” said Waters, who attended New York University briefly in the 1960s before getting kicked out for smoking marijuana on campus. “I feel like the scarecrow in the ‘Wizard of Oz’ when they give him a brain.”
RISD’s 2015 Honorary Degree Committee cited Waters’ body of films as an “enduring inspiration for RISD students seeking to break boundaries, challenge conventions, and define an expressive style,” said RISD President Rosanne Somerson.
“In the words of one nominator, he ‘embodies the RISD ‘tude galore’,” Somerson said.
Waters will share a stage with three members of the band Talking Heads — two are RISD alumni — and New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik.
Waters has written and directed more than a dozen films over his decades-long career, many of them low-budget movies featuring a cadre of unconventional characters, including drag queen Divine, Waters’ longtime friend and muse. Waters saw mainstream success with 1988’s “Hairspray,” another cult classic that was adapted into a Broadway musical in 2002. He is also a published author and photographer.
“I shouldn’t have been in school. You go to school to figure out what you wanted to do. I knew what I wanted to do,” Waters said. “I wish I had gone to RISD. They would have encouraged my ideas. I could have made ‘Pink Flamingos.””
Waters does more writing these days than filmmaking: The paperback of his 2014 memoir “Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America” debuts this month. Waters said he was inspired to hitchhike from his native Baltimore to San Francisco because his life is so scheduled and controlled.
“My inspiration has always been the same, which is human behavior I can’t understand, which is always my interest, always has been,” Waters said.
The filmmaker is looking forward to accepting his honorary degree, “Without irony, for one of the few times in my life.”