Artist Terry Adkins and the Fisk University Legacy

Hermine Pinson

When she learned about the transition of Terry Adkins, Hermine Pinson recalled their undergraduate years at Fisk University as the basis of a memorial tribute to him.  Terry Adkins (May 9, 1953 – February 8, 2014) was a noted multimedia and performance artist and professor of fine arts in the School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Good night, sweet prince: And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!” — William Shakespeare

This quotation from the final scene of the final act in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet only seems dramatic and culturally inappropriate when applied to Terry Adkins if you don’t understand the juxtapositional impulse of his Afrocentric modernist aesthetic as a confluence of many cultures and histories. I think he would probably respond with something like, “That’s cool,” because Terry was cool, always doing the unexpected thing.  For example, his dynamic installation on notions of identity and genius in his portrait of the iconic composer Beethoven changes before your eyes from the conventional portrait we are accustomed to seeing in history books to that of a black man in short locks.  (Beethoven had some black, Moorish ancestry that had seeped up through Spain.)

Fisk student Terry Adkins. Photo: Fisk University, John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library, Special Collections,Terry always wanted you to look a little deeper. In interviews, Terry described himself as “a sculptor and musician who [was] a latter-day practitioner of the African American tradition of ennobling worthless things.” He used the term “potential disclosure” to describe his creative use of found materials, and in his “recitals,” where he combined music, often of live bands, text, spoken word, and video, among other things.  Ritual.  Ceremony.  Storytelling by emblem, symbol, or gesture.  That was Terry.

We met as freshmen during the first day of class at Fisk University in 1971.  We’d stepped onto the Fisk  “yard” in the footsteps of notable 1960s’ alumni that included John Lewis, Ron Walters, Dianne Nash and Nikki Giovanni. Among a small cohort enrolled in Fisk’s first Freshman Interdisciplinary Program (FIP), Terry and I took classes together for the entire academic year.   Like black and women’s studies, FIP grew out of demands in the late 1960s for more a more inclusive curriculum.  That first year, we were a close-knit group of “crabs”  (Fisk’s moniker for freshmen), before splitting and going into our majors the following year.  Terry Adkins. Photo: Atkins faculty page, Univ. of Penn.

Terry had a ferocious and omnivorous intellect and was eager to share what he knew.  Winona Morrissette-Johnson, our Fisk classmate who had known Terry since childhood, discovered this aspect of his personality when they were in Catholic school together and Adkins was “recruited” to attend a more academically challenging school.  “I remember that in the fifth or sixth grade, Terry and this guy came back  [to our school] one day, and Terry writes this word on the board –antidisestablishmentarianism—Fifth grade!”  Terry also escorted Morrissette-Johnson to her debutante cotillion.  “It was  [remarkable because the ball was] everything he didn’t believe in.”   But that was Terry, committed to friends and family.  

In addition to setting and representing high standards for achievement, Adkins parents also instilled frugality in their children, says Morrissette-Johnson.  This last quality probably accounts for observations that Terry was “a minimalist” in his lifestyle, she says.  

His grandfather was Rev. Andrew Adkins, pastor of the historic Albert Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia.  His father, Robert H. Adkins, a  Korean War veteran, taught chemistry and science and coached track and field at  Parker Gray High School in Alexandria. His aunt, Alexandra Alexander, was a mathematician and NSA code breaker. His uncle, Dr. Rutherford Adkins, former Tuskegee airman with the 100th Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group flew 14 combat missions, and eventually became Fisk University’s 11th president. However Terry looked on to the next generation when, in an interview with an online magazine, he said,  “I am most proud of my . . . what I have partnered in . . . to be my greatest creation, my son, OUR son, Titus and OUR daughter Turiya , Terry’s children with his accomplished wife Merele Williams-Adkins.

James Adams, classmate and close friend of Terry’s echoed Morrissette-Johnson’s characterization of the artist in college as  “real . . . so many people came [to college] with pre-conceived attitudes of who they were and where they came from and Terry was just Terry.  He was a guy from Alexandria . . . witty sharp, kind . . . .We named his son Titus, because we talked about how he wanted him to have a strong name.”   

Aaron Douglas at Fisk. Nashville Banner newspaperAs an art major at Fisk, Adkins was mentored by the Harlem Renaissance luminary and still active Aaron Douglas who had come to Fisk in 1930 to paint the now renowned murals expressing an African American spiritual mystique Aaron Douglas obituary, Nashville Banner newspaperin the campus library and had moved to Nashville in 1940 and founded the art department.   After retiring in 1966, Douglas remained active as a professor emeritus.   Terry’s major study at Fisk was with Martin Puryear who went on to become a celebrated sculptor. 

Terry credited Douglas and Puryear with instilling in him a strong sense of the African American/ African diasporic tradition and the conviction that art “was a force for change.”  (Journal of Black Studies; full citation below)

Terry wrote a magnificent account of Aaron Douglas’ work and associations at Fisk for the American Studies journal which included recollections about his own relationship with the elder artist: “I always pestered him (Douglas) with a flurry of questions at every occasional art opening in the Van Vechten Gallery or at chance encounters on campus and public buses that he often took to downtown Nashville via Jefferson Street. When I enthusiastically blurted out to him my aforementioned theory about the cosmic nature of his concentric circles, he merely replied, ‘Yes, they have that effect, yes.’ ”

Terry’s entire essay on Aaron Douglas at Fisk, “The Vigilant Torch of an Olympian Painter” can be read here.

David Driskell at Fisk. Fisk University, John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library, Special Collections,Now considered “the Dean” of African American art, David Driskell joined the Fisk art faculty the year after we graduated.  Terry and Driskell developed an association that perhaps stemmed from Fisk connections.  David Driskell collected Terry’s art works, two of which were shown in a 1998 exhibition of works from his collection, Narratives of African American Art and Identity: The David C. Driskell Collection

The musical heroes and heroines of our Fisk class were Miles Davis, Chaka Khan, Gil Scott Heron and Jimi Hendrix.   Former classmate Rev. John “Tank” Winston recalled often hearing Jimi Hendrix recordings blasting from Terry’s dorm room.   Years later, Adkins’ homage to Hendrix, The Principalities, was presented at the Galerie Zidoun in Luxembourg.  The show focused on Hendrix in 1961 as a paratrooper in the 101stAirborne Division at Fort Campbell, KY:  “Adkins casts Hendrix as an angel descending to earth described by Dionysius the Areopagite in his celestial hierarchy as being from the sacred order of the Principalities, who are princely angelic soldiers who govern the earthly realm of generative ideas,” explained a news release about the show.Terry Adkins performance art piece. Photo: Adkins faculty page, Univ. of Penn

The music evoked in Terry’s “sculptural events” and recitals came from the his attempt to conjoin the “ethereal” and the “transient” in his creations. Terry drew on multiple traditions from various eras — folk, modernist, post-modernist — in the spirit of  Douglas,  Hendrix, trumpeter, Miles Davis and Martin Puryear, visual artist who painted in figurative abstract style. 

In his own words, Terry Adkins saw himself as one of the “precious few” of a generation of male artists born between 1953 and 1955, who had “all been born into a segregated America . . . and were now poised to become professional artists, men whose work took up the torch that Aaron Douglass and others passed [them] at places like Fisk University.”   Adkins goes on to say:  “We wanted our creative efforts to reflect the tenor of the times, to be instruments of change. Some of the music we were listening to then was successfully doing just that. Marvin Gaye's ‘What's Going On?’  topped the charts in those early college years.”  (Journal of Black Studies; full citation below)

One spring day, perhaps during our sophomore year, passing the Chapel, I heard a saxophone sounding as if it were wildly communing with God and all of nature. I thought it was a music major friend and Coltrane devotee, but it turned out to be Terry, standing on stage riffing for his life, eyes closed to all but this moment.  I climbed up on stage and stood to the side, watching him play and admiring the way he looked like he belonged up there.  He opened his eyes and just smiled.    

Terry Adkins assemblage. Photo: Atkins faculty page, Univ. of Penn.Recalling Terry standing before the Chapel’s massive organ spires (as had Dr. Martin Luther King and the Fisk Jubilee Singers), I imagine super-imposed on that image the mature artist standing among his own fantastic creations from The Last Trumpet, four brass musical instruments, 216 × 24 inches each.  I imagine Terry blowing in the spirit of John Coltrane‘s “A Love Supreme” and conducting the students of Skidmore College on his amazing horns.  He was committed to making art that, in the words of another classmate and musical collaborator, Tschaka Tonge, “did not compromise his values.”  

Throughout our college years and into his maturity as a man and an artist, Terry never wavered in his commitment to recuperating traditions and artifacts of black and shamanic cultures and transforming them into art, through the requirements of his own vision and craft.  He honed his craft as he continued his education at State University (MS 1977) and the University of Kentucky (MFA 1979) and as he travelled the world, observing other makers.

In showing a pod-like, wooden construction at the Pillar to Post exhibition at  Kenkeleba Gallery, New York, in 1989,  Terry said that his art was chiefly informed by other pursuits: “In researching the cultures of the world, I have been inspired by the tools people use for survival: the tools of the shaman’s ministration, the implements of the fishermen and hunters and gatherers, the resonant bodies of the world’s sound instruments.”

He had previously shown at Kenkeleba — a 1981 water color, Zion Hill, in the Just Jass, Correlations of  Paintings and Afro-American Classical Music – and  explained how music is central to his art:  “I consider most of the things I make to be detached musical autographs.  I am currently using repetition as a metaphor for time and auditory perception.  Earlier work took the form of tribute, as Zion Hill is to Albert Ayler.  As an artist/musician, I have found that performance art offers the ideal area for a concrete synthesis of both disciplines.”

After we graduated, I didn’t see Terry much, but I would hear about his achievements through other Fiskites or mutual friends in the art world, and in this age of social Terry Adkins, Sanctuary. Photo: Atkins faculty page, Univ. of, I “shared” one of his literal other worldly Facebook posts.  It was like Terry to bring to us earthlings sounds of Saturn’s radio emissions, music of the spheres that only Terry Adkins and probably Sun Ra,  John and Alice Coltrane, Cecil Taylor,  Tschaka Tonge and  a handful of others could have translated, because Sun Ra and the Coltranes “was probably sendin’ ‘em, ‘yo’!” In all seriousness, Terry was a gifted and committed artist, dignified in his carriage, calm in his composure, but strong in his convictions. 

Terry Adkins in Nome, Alaska, 2011. Photo: Rasmuson FoundationIn an interview at the Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College, Terry talked about one of his most recent works. He wanted to create an “iconic sculptural embodiment of Matthew Henson’s experiences in the Arctic, which for Terry were “grand” and “purposeful.”  Toward the end of last year when I checked to see what Terry was doing lately, I saw photos of his own trip to the North Pole.  He was standing in the snowy environs, wearing goggles, gloves, and snowsuit similar to earlier explorers but with addition of African bells and drums hanging from his neck — the accouterments of the seer, the shaman.  Standing there in his goggles in a pose of solemnity and prescience, you got the sense that he was gazing past the camera at you, the past, the present and finally the future.  


Hermine Pinson, Ph.D., is a poet and professor of English and Africana Studies at the College of William and Mary.

Thanks to Corrine Jennings, director, Kenkeleba Gallery, and Aisha Johnson, archivist, Special Collections, Fisk University, for their generous assistance with this article.


Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 35, No. 2, Special Issue: Back to the Future of Civilization: Celebrating 30 Years of African American Studies (Nov., 2004), pp. 224-23

Terry Adkins , “The Vigilant Torch of an Olympian Painter,” American Studies, 49:1/2 (Spring/Summer 2008): 37-43

Artist statement in Just Jass,  Correlations of  Paintings and Afro-American Classical Music catalog, Kenkeleba Gallery, 1983.

Artist statement in Pillar to Post exhibition catalog, Kenkeleba Gallery, 1989.