Tuesday, October 27, 2009

In Memorium: Terry Kirk

As a professor I often reflect on the people who inspired me enough to want to become a professor. Obviously, most of those people were professors. I aspire to live up to the qualities of the great professors I had, and I hope never to fall prey to the shortcomings of the professors I loathed. It should come as no surprise that I have kept in contact with most of the professors that have inspired me for the better; they have become part of that group of people that I call friends.

On Sunday, Oct. 18, I learned that one of my friends was gone. The death of a friend is never an easy thing to accept, and it becomes harder still to learn that a friend took his own life.

Terry Rossi Kirk was professor to approximately 500 students a year in Rome, lecturing on the art and architecture of Modern Italy (1600 - present, give or take). Since Rome is a living textbook, lecture classes were not restricted to slide presentations in darkened rooms, they consisted of walking tours throughout the streets of the Eternal City. What made Terry's lectures stand apart was not just the enthusiasm and interest he possessed for his subjects, it came from his ability to perform his lectures.

During the first semester I had Terry for a professor, studying painting in my final semester as an undergraduate at Iowa State University, Terry lectured on the piazza as public theater, comparing most works of Classical and Modern architecture to the stage, scenography, the proscenium arch, and the billowing curtain. The analogy even carried into sculpture of the period, most notably the operatic work of Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Theresa in the Cornaro Chapel of Santa Maria della Vittoria, where onlookers from balconies peer down to see the arrow of the angel plunged into the entrails of the meditating saint. However, instead of simply lecturing about it, Terry went a further step, performing the plunging arrow, discussing - in an enunciated whisper that could be understood by the pope, several miles away in Vatican City - the sexual connotations of the ecstasy, and the penetration of the angels "arrow" into her body. He then moaned, in accordance with the expression on her face. It was not a moan of pain, the moan a mother might make in the midst of labor. It was an orgasm. In a church. In Rome. And students were not the only people in attendance.

We then went for coffee.

Terry bought a painting from me after the completion of that semester. Had it not been for that acquisition, I might have remained one of the hundreds of students he has in a semester. It was a triptych, measuring a total 100cm x 50cm, with the middle measuring 50x50. Considering its size I was a little dumbfounded that he picked it up on his bike with a spool of twine.

Two years later I was getting ready to return to Italy, to a 2 year MFA program through American University in Washington, DC. Prior to applying for the program there was one name on the list of faculty that stood out to me: Terry Kirk. He taught my graduate art history course, and I sat in on an undergraduate architecture of Rome course, from time to time.

I left Italy after a year to finish my degree in DC, and Terry and I kept in touch, bumping into each other at College Art Association conferences. The last time I saw him was in February in Los Angeles, and he suggested I tell whoever I was interviewing with that, if hired, if they wanted to set up a semester long program, he would help me help them; I should be teaching in Rome, after all.

On the afternoon of Oct 18 I learned that Terry's body was found on Saturday in his car on the outskirts of Rome with his wrists slit. He had been missing since Wednesday. While I believed the news, I did not accept it. Terry had e-mailed less than a week earlier, proud to have been mentioned in an article by Susan Spero, writing for the LA Times about her time in Italy and the importance of Fascist architecture.

There was no news on Google searches. Eventually I looked at Terry's page on Facebook. There the reality of his death hit home. Four people I did not know had written their farewells to Terry.

It is interesting that Facebook has given me a better outlet to grieve over his death. On Terry's wall, a small community of people have gathered to say goodbye, to pay respects, to share stories, and to mourn. It is cathartic not only to contribute to that space, but to read the contributions of others, no matter how brief. I doubt Mark Zuckerberg ever thought this might be a use for his social networking creation, and I fear that, if after a certain period of inactivity, Facebook consumes his dormant site; in a way, Terry is still alive on Facebook, and it is the community of friends he made during his membership that continue to post stories and pictures. In a virtual space we gather together to celebrate a life.

Admittedly, I did not know Terry that well. To be in his presence for a semester, to be the student of his lectures, to listen to his enthusiasm and his flamboyant performances, was to know half of the truth. Privately he might be quite and demure, less likely to be on the stage, and more likely to be focused and concentrated on the conversation at hand. As e-mails have passed back and forth between friends and colleagues who knew him, I've been told he suffered from depression and was bipolar. He masked it well and I suspect only those who were closest to him personally and professionally knew of this. I was not a member of that fraternity, nor had I any reason to be.

The first step toward suicide is not simply wanting to die – though that motivation certainly helps – it is having a plan to carry out the mortal act. According to a news story in Il Tempo, wherein a young American was found dead outside Rome, he was found with keys and papers in his pocket. His final act was not impulsive. I wonder how long the plan had been ruminating in his mind. I'm told, a few days before he died, there was a party at his flat. I am wondering now if Terry intended that as his farewell party, and all the guests were oblivious. I also wonder if the final e-mail I received was another goodbye. Better to go out on high notes. Though sad, there is a certain poetry with that.

I still cannot comprehend his suicide. In truth, with grief subsiding, I'm angry about it. And, I'm left with no choice but to forgive his decision.


searching said...

Terry was an amazing proffessor. He really made the history of Rome come alive. I am very sad to hear he passed away... he will be missed.

Brian said...

Thank you for this. I echo the fact that he was an extraordinary professor. He inspired me as well on my path to becoming a professor (I'm a psychologist though so I don't call on Dr. Kirk's technical acumen too often). I didn't know what happened until I just read this. So sad. Such a wonderful and complex man. I'm happy to have known him. He shared his love and passion for art with so many. What a life. What a wonderful thing to do with your life.

lisa said...

Terry was a college friend and later enthusiastically jumped in as part of a skeletal academic support system when I was stuck at the end of a long, draining doctorate. He lent me a hand, shared work, ideas, discussions, and made things better at a low time of my life. I honestly do not know how things would have turned out if we had not encountered each other. I owe a lot to this brilliant, passionate friend. I wish I could have been more present for him in his dark hours as he was, unexpectedly for me in mine. I'll remember to return the favor to the next person, Terry. Thank you.
LK Davis
University of California professor

Anonymous said...

Thanks, John, for writing this. The facebook section is particularly poignant. I agree.

Chuck said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chuck said...

Best professor I ever had. And The Art of Rome was a subject that I barely cared about before I took the class.

John said it very well...Professor Kirk truly performed his lectures. And what a spectacle they were. Spellbinding.

johnjamesanderson said...

Thank you all for leaving your comments on our friend, Terry. I apologize for not having written sooner to express my appreciation.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this moving tribute to Terry, who was a college friend of mine. I only just found out about his death from the Yale Alumni News and am so very sad. His love of architecture was insprirational, sharing his joy with others. How tragic that he killed himself. I wish I could have done something to prevent it. Alison Horne Rona

NĂ©ha said...

Terry Kirk changed my life. Being in Rome while all of this was going on was the most difficult thing I have experienced but his memorial was inspiring, just as he was in life and I owe him more than I can put into words...

Emilie said...

I knew Terry both in school and in college. Although we had fallen out of touch recently, I can vouch for his extraordinary verve and creativity. I will not soon forget winning the dance contest with him in high school in Geneva (!); or his fabulous parties at Yale. He was able to convey this unusual energy and creativity in his scholarship and teaching. His death is a great loss to us all.

Pontifica said...

Terry moved to my hometown at the end of junior high and literally lit up our world with his infectious sense of joy, creativity and fun. He was my first boyfriend; he got me through Chemistry; he opened a window on the colorful world beyond my provincial suburb. We all loved him; he was musical, theatrical brilliant and effervescent. Over the years, of course, communication has been intermittent, but hearing of his death cut me to the quick as if I had just seen him yesterday. That is how strong an impression he made on my life.

Michael Basile said...

I had professor Kirk for "Art of Rome" in the spring 2006 semester! Terrific professor that taught in a way that inspired pupil to want to learn! I sorry to learn of his passing and sad that many more generations of students will be deprived of his vivacious teachings. RIP Professor Kirk!

-Mike Basile
Pittsburgh, PA