I feel like I’ve been hibernating lately, moving through the world softly without making any waves. It can be kind of peaceful, just navigating quietly through the world, not exerting much energy one way or another. For me, work has been stable and life has been… stable enough. I feel as though I’ve been asleep for a while, and only recently have I awoken. There are a couple reasons for this solitude and slumber, but I shan’t go into that now. I will, however, say what’s awoken me.
In the fall of 2003, I went to Rome with a good several score of my cohorts from Iowa State University’s College of Design. We 30-40-odd budding graphic and interior designers and fine artists bedded down in The Eternal City for a semester unlike anything we had experienced or were even prepared to experience. What followed was a whirlwind of art history, whether in lecture, field trips, or just wandering around the city and tripping (sometimes literally) over Roman ruins, Gothic architecture, an Renaissance paintings. Traipsing across the cobblestone streets all over Italy, we engaged our youthful imaginations and desires and lived la vita bella to the best of our ability (and our pocketbooks’). During this time I saw an incredible growth in my classmates: many of them, coming from small-town Iowa, were experiencing the great abroad and navigating through a major city for the first time. Pretty much all of us, regardless of our travel experiences, were actually living in a major world city for the first time.
Before we settled down in Rome for the semester, I traveled through much of Europe for a few weeks with several of my friends from the program. We went to London, Barcelona, Paris, Munich, Stockholm, Geneva, Prague, and possibly others I’ve forgotten over the years. For the majority of these cities, it was not my first visit – I’d traveled through Europe twice before, so in many of these places I was tourguide and translator. I’ll never forget my experience of visiting the Sagrada Família in Barcelona during this trip. It’s an amazing building, even though it is still under construction. As we ascended from the Metro stop, I knew that once we reached street level their first sight would be this amazing church, with its amazing, organic architecture conceived by Antoni Gaudí . As we neared surface level, I turned around on the escalator so I could watch the reactions in the faces of my companions upon laying eyes upon this awesome structure. It remains to this day one of the most rewarding moments of my life: I felt as though I was truly sharing in the first experience they had, and my breath was taken away with theirs as if it was my first time there as well.
Every student in the College of Design at Iowa State University is required to take a component of art history, and it was the rich tapestry of Roman art history that was the main draw for the department to have this Rome program. From its place as the caput mundi of the Roman world to being the center of the Roman Catholic church, the art and architecture of Rome and its surrounding cities is unique to anything found in the entire world. The pure level of saturation of art is phenomenal: turn a corner and you see a church you saw in your Gardner’s Art Through the Ages; turn around again and you see a postcard-worthy view of the Spanish Steps; turn around again and you’re in the Vatican Museum, peering up at the private chapel of the popes, the famed Cappella Sistina (Sistine Chapel).
During our time in Rome, I served as a T.A. for the art history course. Our course was divided into three parts, ranging from ancient history to modern times. During these, I assisted in advancing slides, distributing reading material and, assisted by my knowledge of Italian, mapping out field trip instructions for the rest of the students (the web interface for ATAC Roma in English at the time was still a little shaky.) It was not very glamorous work, but it provided me with a few euros in my pocket and the opportunity to get to know the art history professors a little bit more. And it was this last part that has prompted this memoir.
Terry Kirk was the third and final of our art history professors that semester. His scope was the Counter Reformation Era era ‘till modern. My experience with Terry started off on a non-standard note: my ex Curt, a former student of Terry’s from the same program, came to visit me (and la bella città di Roma) during that time. After my first or second class with Terry, the three of us went to lunch and during that time, teacher became human, humans became art, and art laughed and rejoice in the shared experience of soldiers of light in a tenuous existence between the world’s love and hate.
Terry was amazing and engaging. He was beautiful and vibrant when discussing the art, architecture, history, and philosophy that were his professional life. He was passionate when discussing the books he was writing, the finer points of Baroque architecture versus Renaissance, and hundreds of other points of discussion that arise when art geeks get together.
That third of the semester went swimmingly, for the most part. I was still reeling from the loss of a close family friend towards the beginning of the semester, so my design projects may not have been up to snuff, but I was able to absorb the art history knowledge that was being imparted to me and do well. The details of what I learn escape me, but I recall one thing in particular: when we went to see the Ecstacy of St. Theresa, Terry did what I did at the Sagrada Familia. As we approached the ædicula of the sculpture, Terry turned around so he could see the expression on his students’ faces. Of course, we’d seen the image, perhaps a hundred times before in books and slides, but seeing it in person was… sublime and amazing.
A few years later, Terry was here in Los Angeles for a conference, and we met up for drinks one night. I showed him one of my favorite places and gave him a ride back to the place he was staying that night, where we continued our conversation. The next night, I brought my friend Brad to The Standard Hotel downtown where he was then staying and we enjoyed a great dinner with lively conversation during which Terry tried to make sense in his own way the virtual reality/animation work that Brad does with Terry’s knowledge of art history and human experience. Afterwards, he graciously gave us his two passes to the rooftop bar, a prime spot in L.A., to experience what has been written about in so many travelogues. Though we’d both lived here for a while, neither Brad nor I had experienced the rooftop before.
Terry and I had a few email exchanges afterwards, one of the most memorable being a relation of his time in L.A.: “I enjoyed too just driving on the freeways for hours. That may have been the most authentic experience I had in LA, unique. Except for having spotted a star, of course, Jude Law in all his ferret-like intensity. The most real thing I saw in LA was a person whose profession is creating images of other people. Perfect.”
Then a couple days ago I received quite a shock: I was informed by former classmates that Terry had committed suicide. His lifeless body was discovered, after a friend called the police. His car was found, a note. He had parked, walked for an hour, and then slit his wrists.
That last sentence was one of the hardest I’ve ever had to type. I’d looked forward to seeing Terry perhaps ever few years, whenever he was in L.A. for a conference again. And now I shall never have that experience again. The several times we had lunch while student and teacher, enjoying a small carafe of wine over genuine Italian food at a simple trattoria or a €0.70 cappuccino at a local café, the discussions, the enlightenment… shall never be again.
I try to honor Terry in this memorial essay, but there’s nothing really I can do. It all is the past now, and now I regret not staying in touch more, as we are wont to do when our time with someone is cut short. He was too young, too vibrant, and too caring to have left us so soon, but he must have been in incredible pain to do such a thing. While the idea of suicide is no stranger to me, I’ve never been so far gone as to desire it. Knowing what I’ve experienced in my time, his life must have gotten to an intolerable point where nothing could have resolved it. And this I must understand and accept.
All I can say now is this: Terry, may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.