Feb 18, 2014

Remembering Terry Adkins

by: Anonymous

On February 7, artist and educator Terry Adkins passed away in New York City from heart failure. An accomplished visual artist and musician, Terry’s influence looms large in the art world, and in a particular way with artist Ernel Martinez. Below is an excerpt from an interview with Martinez, one of Terry’s mentees and a respected painter and muralist in his own right.

Martinez was installing work at a museum when a former classmate called to give him the shocking news.

How did you and Terry first meet?
I was living in Harrisburg at the time, working for a restoration company. I had applied to PennDesign [University of Pennsylvania’s MFA program] and was awaiting a response. I got a phone call from a professor by the name of Terry Adkins. I didn’t know much about his work before we spoke but he had reviewed my application. On that call, he basically said, ‘hey man, if you want to be an artist, you need to come study with me’.

The smartest thing I’ve ever done was take him up on that generous offer and study at Penn.
And after that call, I learned a lot more about Terry’s work.

What were your first experiences with Terry like?
I took his sculpture seminar twice. He was incredible. We studied visual art practices, obviously, but he also focused conversations on writing, poetry, and other creative subjects. It was as much an intellectual experience as an art experience.

We spent a lot of time socializing at school and would regularly meet up and talk. Since I graduated [in 2004], we’ve spent a lot of time together. Over the last 10 years, we became very close friends. I’ve learned a lot about making art from knowing Terry. The relationship was very much a mentor-mentee experience but it was also like family.

What were some of Terry’s greatest assets?
He was incredibly funny; he had an amazing sense of humor and a big, boisterous laugh that you could hear down the hallway. He would always remind me that I wouldn’t be where I was without him. (laugh) The Morgan Building [on Penn’s campus] will never be the same without him.

Like I said, we became close over the past decade. We’ve had thousands of conversations about many things. Terry was really, really close to his oldest son Titus, who now attends Penn, and his daughter Turiya. Their relationship influences how I try to raise my sons, in terms of creating a strong bond and giving them space to grow into themselves.

As a matter of fact, Terry gave my kids pieces of his work when they were born. Now, they have a connection to him, too.

Towards the end of his life, his career skyrocketed. He finally got the acknowledgement and appreciation he deserved. The art world has lost a tremendous mind and talent. His legacy will live on in the lives of young artists and the people he has influenced.

What is one of Terry’s most memorable works of art?
Terry spoke four languages, was an avid reader, and a true modern Black intellectual. He was a musician and artist and one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. This all translated into incredible insight in his creative endeavors.

I was in a couple of Terry’s performances, including an exhibition called Black Beethoven, which explored what it would mean if the composer had African heritage. It was multimedia with sculpture, sound equipment, and other items, and I played the role of Beethoven. There was an animated image that would transition from Beethoven’s face to mine. Sherman Fleming, another artist in Philadelphia, also participated. It was a great piece.

What is important for people to know about Terry?
His consciousness was very profound and he always made a point to emphasize the contributions of Black artists to the American landscape. He’s on the Mt. Rushmore of Black artists and intellectuals who have contributed to our culture. And he was quick to recognize the works of diverse artists of all interests that supported the growth of our art.

Also, Terry never lost his humanity or his Southern-style upbringing while navigating the complex art world as an African-American artist or when being recognized for his many accomplishments.

When he walked in a room, his presence dominated any space.
His personality was bigger than life.


Photo by Luca Nostri

Last updated: Jan 27, 2016

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