The Impact of the Great Artist and Educator Terry Adkins
As one of the core faculty at the University of Pennsylvania’s MFA program, Terry Adkins was a stylish silhouette cutting through the campus and into our studios and classrooms. He always had an opinion, he loved to provoke discussions, and he always recognized each student as an individual artist beyond the realm of an academic program.
Terry was a true believer in all of us being pushed into a new realm of discomfort in our graduate school practice. He encouraged one student to literally break her painting into pieces, saying “that’s the best thing you’ve done here.” We cheekily repeated this phrase whenever we saw a scrap of artwork discarded on the studio floor or in a garbage can. As humorous as the saying became, because of Terry, our work dramatically changed in ways that left us absolutely blown away by our new and unexpected discoveries.
He saw us as individuals with great potential. One student struggled through difficult critiques from the faculty for two years, an experience that could have crippled most sensitive artists. In her last semester, she presented a series of iPods made out of wood and paint, a cultural obsession that she simply could not afford. It was during our final critiques that Terry presented her with a real iPod, flooring everyone in the room with his gracious gesture. It was a tremendous moment that again showed his true belief in our lives as artists.
Terry could put push your buttons, sometimes falling asleep in a critique or complimenting the physical beauty of your mother. He somehow always gave us good stories to tell. One of my favorite Terry moments was the acquisition of project materials for one of his projects. Boxes began arriving frequently, and amassed in the studio-building hallway we all occupied. This accumulating collection came from all over the country, bought from various sources on the Internet. The contents of the boxes were mysterious animals, taxidermied and part of an assemblage sculpture series. However interesting the contents were, the quality of taxidermy was questionable and soon students were complaining of the smells coming from the boxes. Not willing to move them into his own studio, Terry found a solution, no doubt at the urging of the administration. One day a student opened her studio’s industrial freezer (in which she created her earth art ice sculptures) and found a dead peacock occupying the entirety of the cold space.
Beyond the stories that now make us laugh out loud, he was an advocate for the students. In my time at Penn, Terry initiated and found funding for an exchange program with the Frank Mohr Institute in Groningen, Holland. Another classmate and myself were the guinea pigs on the inaugural the exchange program, and we couldn’t have been more thrilled to have the opportunity. Terry loved the Netherlands and was proud to be able to share his knowledge and experiences with us.
When we finished our degrees, Terry opened his arms and welcomed us into his life as colleagues and peers, not just as former students. He continued to engage with us individually as our careers began, and his truly took off—this year alone he closed a solo exhibition at Salon 94 in the Bowery, is an artist in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, and an exhibited at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Terry truly was a remarkable artist, thinker, provoker and mentor. His impact on our creative lives will never be forgotten.