Among many other things, Terry Adkins collected memory jugs, traditional funerary objects originating in Southern African American communities. Comprised of small objects aggregated onto the surfaces of vessels with clay or other binding media, they sometimes included favorite belongings of the departed to accompany them into the next life.
Terry passed away suddenly on February 8th of heart failure. He was loved by many and is survived by his wife, Merele Williams-Adkins; and children, Turiya Hamlet Adkins and Titus Hamilton Adkins. As his former student in the University of Pennsylvania’s MFA Program, I wanted to find a way to celebrate him and so I have reached out to the creative community that surrounded Terry to let this essay serve as a container for their memories; revealing their perspectives of his life as an artist, mentor, and collaborator.
When I think of it, memory jugs seem like the perfect metaphor that encompassed many aspects of Terry. Most notably, he was good at bringing things together. This usually involved the people around him and under-recognized African American historical figures, all of whom he would draw into collaborations.
Terry’s work slipped between assemblage sculpture, sound, text, and video. He was a founding member of the Lone Wolf Recital Corps and the Sacred Order of Twilight Brothers, both of which were established to enable multimedia performances. When asked about why Terry liked to work this way, his collaborator and former student, Demetrius Oliver explained, “He was really invested in the ‘we’ aspect of (community). So, it was important for him to work with people who had different strengths that could be brought to the table.”
Terry continually sought to benefit those around him. “He was very interested in raising the profiles of people he thought were not fully represented particularly for minority artists, because he thought that they had a certain weight of under-representation,” said friend and collaborator Charles Gaines. “The way that he facilitated artists who were under-recognized was to make them part of the Terry Adkins family.”
When asked how he thought Terry Adkins defined himself, Sanford Biggers replied, “In some ways he was a model of how to be in this world. Especially as an African American male artist dealing with subject matter that most people in the art world had either no knowledge of—and maybe not any interest in—aspects of history that have purposely been occluded and marginalized. He was just like all the subjects that he covered. In fact, if he were not receiving so much attention right now, he very well could be like a black explorer traveling to the North Pole that no one knows about until years later. He stuck to his guns the entire time. And my second answer to that is: style, baby, style!”
In fact, even if you only met Terry briefly, his style and charisma were impossible to overlook. Penn colleague, Jackie Tileston, described him as having a larger-than-life personality, “He was louder, laughed more, and was funnier and sharper than anyone in the room. And those shoes! Pony skin, blue suede, silver slippers… no one will fill them.”
Terry took on ambitious projects, such as Thunderbolt Special, at Project Row Houses in Houston’s Third Ward. Friend and Row Houses founder Rick Lowe, recalled how Terry utilized all available facilities to bring recognition to the blues musician Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins: “He pulled together his Twilight Brothers to perform in the old El Dorado Ballroom where Lightnin’ Hopkins was known to perform from time to time. One motivation was to establish a historical marker for him within the neighborhood, which became one of the first historical markers dedicated to a musician in Texas.”
Valerie Cassel Oliver, the senior curator the of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, elaborated further, “Terry’s commitment to bring to the fore cultural icons lost to history was remarkable. He created the most extraordinary objects—reliquaries with which he often performed in an effort to reinsert these individuals back into the societal consciousness. Terry believed in the ability of art to change the world and he did so.”
Jeanne Greenberg-Rohatyn, his dealer, presented a perspective on how Terry worked, “I think the approach that Terry took to art was a unique kind of practice of very, very intense research, which allowed him to approach the making of the work intuitively.”
And then there was the other side of how Terry worked that you might not observe unless you were affiliated with Penn’s MFA Program. In the words of his collaborator and former student, Jamal Cyrus, “If you were around the Morgan building, you would always see him getting stuff. That was his research process. It was not just based in text; it was also based in objects and material.”
Testaments to Terry’s importance in fostering the growth of younger artists are abundant. Thomas Lax, a curatorial assistant at the Studio Museum in Harlem, explained how he first became aware of Terry’s significance, “As a young curator, in my own relationships with artists of my generation, many have mentioned the influence of Terry on their work.”
Although Terry won prestigious awards such as the Rome Prize and had consistently been championed by some of the best smaller museums, including his recent solo exhibition at the Tang Museum and Radical Presence organized by the Contemporary Art Museum Houston and the Studio Museum in Harlem, many of his peers felt that Terry deserved more recognition. In 2013, Terry gained representation at Studio 94, his first New York gallery in 10 years. He was also notified that he would be included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial.
Artist and Whitney Biennial co-curator Michelle Grabner shared why her curatorial team thought it was important to include Terry in the Whitney Biennial, “He was one of only a few artists that we all had on our artist-lists as we began the process of developing our exhibitions. This was not a surprise. Terry was not only a compelling visual artist; he was also a consummate teacher and role model… And he also understood that, influence—one that impacts the developing ideas of emerging artists, is far more respectable than the ever-roving limelight.” Taking a break from installing, Whitney Biennial co-curator, Anthony Elms, fondly reflected upon his many conversations with Terry about music. He ended with a note of humor as he returned to the task at hand, “We deserved the difficult commentary Terry gave us. I wish he was around to give me some more trouble. I could use it right about now.”
When asked about Terry’s legacy, Charles Gaines concluded, “His loss is tremendous because of the artist that he was. Not only was he a great artist, but he was the conscience of the community—very clear and very demanding. Then there is the personal loss. There is not a day that I do not think of him."
Sarah Goffstein is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.