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Art by Adkins: Re-Creations
This article by Pat Summers was published
in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 18, 1998. All rights reserved.
If I were a third grader who didn’t know how to look
at art, I’d want to be in Terry Adkins’ tour group. If I were an adult
who felt uncomfortable talking about art, I’d join the same group.
In fact, that’s exactly what I did.
On Sunday, February 8, Adkins led an ever-growing group of children
and adults through "Distant Mirrors," his new exhibition of
30 sculptures at the New Jersey State Museum. Like the Pied Piper,
he attracted more people as he went along: laughing, inviting
encouraging visitors to touch the works, and generally appearing as
arresting as his work. For more than an hour, some 30 people got up
close and personal with the art he describes as, "found materials
and objects with an African-American presence."
"I take the things that society considers useless and throws away,
and give them a new life by re-creating and re-combining them into
works of art," Adkins tells his group. "So as we walk through
you’ll see things you might see on streets in your cities that would
normally make it to a junkyard or a landfill. I consider what I do
to be rescuing these things, keeping the world a lot less junked-up
so that you won’t inherit this stuff as junk, but in a more
nourishing way as works of art."
The look of the Adkins’ exhibition is starkly spare, in keeping with
the "minimalist" descriptor sometimes applied to his work.
Sculptures, most quite large and many with metallic elements, are
spread out on floor and walls — a dramatic look that also
viewing without crowding. Two pieces that are already part of the
museum’s permanent collection, "Southern Railroad" and
are on view nearby.
Tall, dark, and incontestably cool — starting with a signature
black beret and wire rimmed glasses, and including an unstructured
olive-brown jacket over a turtleneck, black leather vest and wide
wale cords — Adkins made his work accessible, in a comfortable,
Take, for instance, a late-add to the exhibition: "Furn,"
with components listed as "steel, enamel, owl." Intriguing
as its ingredients may sound, they don’t begin to suggest the impact
of this 20-foot long, nearly 8-foot high horizontal piece, which in
its earlier incarnation was a vertical store sign for "Joe’s
at Broad and Perry streets in Trenton.
Adkins spotted it six months ago and intended it to be part of his
state capital show, but it was not until a few days before his gallery
tour that he was able to arrange for its safe removal and
Though it represents a local business where a lot of Trenton’s
residents bought their furniture, or, as Adkins views it, "a place
of dispersal," the erstwhile sign now suggested a long black train
and a steam roller to those in his group.
"All these images are equally valid. I welcome any associations
that anyone might have," says the artist. So from the start of
the walk Adkins first seeks, and then accepts, the impressions of
kids and grown-ups in the group. The white owl, he explains, is
in some cultures as housing the spirit of a dead person — in this
case, that of his family member, Leonard Williams Esq., a native of
Trenton and one of those to whom he has dedicated "Furn."
The group visit to "Furn" typifies the tour: Adkins swings
out ahead, commenting on the piece and asking what it reminds people
of. All the while, he gestures animatedly and laughs easily and
Best of all, he seems wholly unthreatened and un-didactic. He says
he tries to build "many layers of meaning" into each piece.
That way, "there’s an entry door for everyone."
Many of Adkins’ sculptures deal with time and space, as well as light,
sounds in general, and music and musicians in particular. In the
of the walk, he alludes to a diversity of topics — Cain and Abel,
the Underground Railroad, the cotton industry in America, jazz
Thelonious Monk, Persian words for water lilies, be-bop, spirituality,
work songs, the Brotherhood of Pullman Porters. Of his piece
(the title) and "vowels" (the letter "E" which is
part of the same work), he says, "Some words sound the same but
mean different things. I’m a musician too; I play the saxophone, so
I’m very sensitive to the way things sound, particularly the titles
of my works."
Our tour group arrives at "Play Heavy:" "An
octopus — right. Tires — right! Car wash — right. shower
head — right. Keep it comin’," says Adkins. "Spider,
jellyfish — right! right! I’m happy you have so many associations
for this. That’s the first way that you can enter into something —
construct meaning out of it for yourself. There is no wrong
Discussing the value of his art to urban kids, Adkins says, "I
hope it helps them look at their surroundings differently and see
(besides consumerism and decay) the beauty in ordinary things. It’s
a very direct, tactile experience, even though it’s cerebral too.
And who knows, it may prompt a couple of them to pursue art as a
Often, the artist talks about how he arrived at a finished piece.
"That’s what I was thinking of when I made it, but everything
you said is OK too. Whatever you see in it is just as right as
I see in it," he repeatedly says, and seems to mean it. This a
far cry from classroom analysis of literature — not to mention
much writing about art. Those in his entourage feel more and more
comfortable, free to look at the works freshly and respond honestly:
"Now doesn’t this look like a heavy [punching] bag that boxers
train with?" asks Adkins. "Noooope!" says a little girl
who’s been gaining confidence. (The work is "Baritone
and it’s dedicated to Jack Johnson, who early in this century became
the first black heavyweight champion.)
What turns found metal, wood, glass, and other materials into
How did "Nun," for instance, emerge from what may originally
have been a ship’s smokestack? Adkins cites two requirements for
he picks up: it must be something he can carry, and it must be able
to be transformed into something else. "I always try to keep some
part of a thing’s original function to keep it alive and speaking
about part of its history."
Describing his studio as "a big think tank," he says it’s
full of found objects waiting to be made into works of art. More
about a third of its space is taken up with "found
Another third is his work space, and the last part houses finished
And no, all space considerations to the contrary, Adkins says he
ever" recycles finished pieces into new sculptures. "Once
they get a title, they’re like members of my family. To make them
into something else would violate them." So, although it’s no
dainty little thing, "Furn" will go back to his studio and
probably be stored in the hall, where Adkins just hopes "no
with spray cans get to it."
Adkins’ first teachers were nuns who still wore traditional habits.
He remembers, not-too-regretfully, that he "was always giving
them trouble." He says his first sight of the arched black
reminded him of a nun’s headgear, and then, in turn, he recalled the
stiff bib that was also part of traditional dress.
North Carolina and New York State have been the chief sources of
sculpture materials, with many pieces in this show originally coming
from New York’s Forst meat-packing plant. Glass paperweights that
once promoted "Forst Foremost Smoked Turkey" figure
in "Hosts." "Forst Mosaic" is comprised wholly of
Forst labels, thickly bunched in a big circle and looking from a
just like the shag carpet one child suggested during the tour. Most
macabre is "Fall Mute," a giant steel rack with rows of iron
meat hooks, each one spearing an apple. "I wanted to suggest
to slaughtering animals," Adkins told the group. Then he adds,
"Some of these apples are ready to be replaced," and he turns
one fruit to hide its soft spot.
The "wedding of piano insides and organ insides
in a vertical format," is the way Adkins describes one
sculpture. Named (and colored) for "Crepuscle," or twilight,
the piece is dedicated to jazz composer Thelonious Monk, who has used
that word in one of his own titles. "Perpetual Choir," a round
wooden piece riddled with holes and mounted perpendicular to the wall,
is a dodecagon, or polygon with 12 equal sides. You could make your
own dodecagon by connecting the 12 numbers on a clock face, he tells
his companions. This work has to do with water, music, and time.
Born in Washington, D.C., 45 years ago, Adkins says he knew he showed
artistic talent when on gift occasions, "I got `Da Vinci’s Last
Supper’ to paint by number and they [his four siblings] got
He earned degrees at Fisk University (BS), Illinois University (MS),
and University of Kentucky (MFA). Though he began as a printmaker,
he has largely moved away from that field and has exhibited his
since 1980. With his wife, Merele, and three-year-old son, Titus,
he lives and works in Brooklyn, and teaches undergraduate and graduate
sculpture studio courses at SUNY/New Paltz.
Adkins credits Karen Cummins, curator of education at the State
for these weekend gigs: three consecutive Sundays of walks and talks
and workshops for kids (or in the case of the walking tour, "young
people" of all ages). The idea is exemplary and to all
its execution is a success. (Next, please, how about a free handout
— even a leaflet with a couple of pictures and some text —
that young visitors can take away as a memento of the museum show.)
At his final session, Sunday, February 22, Adkins will teach children
to make a "bull roarer," a musical instrument with visual
appeal that is indigenous to Africa, Australia, and South America.
"Thanks for coming! Come back next week," Adkins calls
to his departing audience.
— Pat Summers
205 West State Street, Trenton, 609-292-6464. Exhibition continues
to March 22. Museum hours are Tuesday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4:45
p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Free.
205 West State Street, Trenton, 609-292-6464. The artist and jazz
musician helps kids make a Bull Roarer. Preregister. Free. Sunday,
February 22, 1 to 3 p.m.
Wood-fired figurative ceramic sculpture by Jim Jansma. To February
609-799-6706. "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" a group show
featuring paintings by David E. Gordon, Ed Hicks, Sydney Neuwirth,
and Virginia Wise, with sculpture by Doug McIlvaine. To March 18.
Gallery hours are Tuesdays to Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
609-452-7800. "Purely Abstract," an exhibition of abstract
watercolors, by Pat San Soucie. To March 14. Gallery hours are 10
a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
"Scenes from Israel" by photographers Gilda Aronovic, Robert
Garber, Jerry Kurshan, Maia Reim, Aviva Reim, and Robin Wallach. To
609-497-7330. "The Enchanted Forest," paintings and drawings
by Polish-born Elzbieta Sikorska. Her lush compositions portray an
exotic, dreamlike world of stately trees and quiet streams in an
filled with the sense of a life force that is both ancient and
To March 1. Gallery hours are Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.;
Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.; and by appointment.
Beth Parsell and Carlene Kuhn. To March 19. Show is open daily, 8
a.m. to 7 p.m.
609-921-2330. "Outputting," an exhibition of student art made
on computers, with video and movie clips made with Hyper Studio.
is not about itself, it’s about other things," says gallery
Madelaine Shelleby, "it’s about bringing things together, making
connections." To March 1. Gallery hours are Monday to Friday,
8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Abstract works in acrylic on wood by Kate Hammett. To March 30.
Gowin: Aerial Photographs," 30 images of the American West. Also
"Photographs by Robert Adams" and "Photographs by Thomas
Joshua Cooper." All three shows by masters of the contemporary
landscape continue to March 22. Free.
The permanent collection features a strong representation of Western
European paintings, old master prints, and original photographs.
of Chinese, Pre-Columbian Mayan, and African art are considered among
the museum’s most impressive. Open Tuesday through Saturday from 10
a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. Free tours are given every
Saturday at 2 p.m. Free.
Not housed in the museum but part of the collection is the John B.
Putnam Jr. Memorial Collection of 20th-century sculpture, with works
by such modern masters as Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, Pablo Picasso
and George Segal located throughout the campus.
609-258-4790. Bill Gregory, an exhibition of 40 photographs including
portraiture and works made during travels in this country and abroad.
To February 28.
"The Search for Latin America: Sources at Princeton," an
exhibition of 200 items ranging from original manuscripts, rare books,
maps, photographs, correspondence, coins, and artifacts traces a
history of the region from Pre-Columbian times to the 20th century.
To April 13. Gallery hours are weekdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; weekends
noon to 5 p.m.
Among the treasures of the library’s special collections is a Mayan
conch shell with inscribed hieroglyphic text that constitutes its
earliest dated American manuscript. Also in the show, the first Latin
edition of Columbus’s letter announcing his discover, dated 1493,
as well as the only copy in America of Vespucci’s letter to the King
of Spain. One case of items come from Indian sources, and another
deals with contemporary Latin American organizations and the struggle
for human rights.
An exhibit on the career of Aris Konstantinidis (1913-1993), one of
the most significant figures in postwar Greek architecture. To March
Second Floor, West Windsor, 609-586-4800, extension 3588. "James
J. Colavita Retrospective," one of five area shows celebrating
the late sculptor’s work. To February 26. Gallery hours are Monday
through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; and Wednesday and Thursday
"James J. Colavita Retrospective," celebrating the life and
work of the late sculptor, a Lawrenceville native and professor of
sculpture and ceramics. Each of the shows highlights a different facet
of the artist’s career. To March 8. Gallery hours are Monday to
2 to 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 2 to 5 p.m.
609-298-6970. Showing works by Boris Vujovich, Kathy Shumway-Tunney,
Eric Sparre, and Dan Finaldi through February. Gallery hours are
Friday, Saturday, noon to 9 p.m.
Bronze sculptures, paintings, and porcelain by Hungary’s Laszlo
whose works can be found in the Vatican, the Smithsonian, and the
White House. Also bronzes by Charles McCollough, and paintings by
Malcolm Kornegay. Hours are Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m,
Sundays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Krista Van Ness, mixed-media assemblages by the Pennington artist.
Van Ness explores the possibilities of illusion by placing common
objects in exaggerated and provocative situations. Her glass,
set" environments show scenes of insects and small animals
in fantastical rituals. To February 27.
Road, 609-921-3272. A a group show by 13 artists of the Watchung Arts
Center who call themselves the New Art Group. Their name is taken
from the turn-of-the-century Viennese group that included Egon
Their works range from photography to surrealistic tableaux. In the
Upstairs Gallery, a multimedia group show by the 1860 House
Artists Group. Both shows to February 28. Gallery hours are Tuesday
through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2
Road, 609-275-2897. Seow-Chu See, an exhibit of calligraphy,
and Chinese brush painting. To February 26.
A woman of many interests — biology, physics, mathematics, and
Buddhism to name a few — See works for Merrill Lynch in Plainsboro
and lives in West Windsor. A graduate of London’s Imperial College
of Science and Technology, she has been winning prizes in Chinese
arts since childhood. She learned the Lin-Nan style of painting from
Madam Chiang Chao-Mei and contemporary Chinese painting from Wu Yi
908-725-2110. Birds of a Feather, a collaborative book project by
39 artist members of the printmaking council featuring wood block
prints, etchings, photographs, serigraphs, and computer-generated
images. To March 14. Gallery hours are Wednesday to Friday, 11 a.m.
to 4 p.m.; and Saturday, 1 to 4 p.m.
Pennington, 609-737-7592. "A Celebration of Open Space," a
juried group theme show. To March 21. Located in the Watershed’s
Nature Center, gallery hours are Wednesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 5
p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
215-340-9800. "Masterpieces of Photography from the Merrill Lynch
Collection," an exhibition of 50 photographs from masters of the
late 19th and 20th centuries including Ansel Adams, Margaret
Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz, and Paul Strand.
To March 8. Also featured, "Creative Bucks County: A Celebration
of Art and Artists," an interactive exhibit honoring 12 maverick
Bucks County figures that include Oscar Hammerstein, Pearl Buck, and
Dorothy Parker. Hours are Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.,
Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Mondays. Adults $5;
students $1.50; children free.
J. Colavita Retrospective," one of five area exhibitions
the life and work of the late sculptor, a Lawrenceville native and
MCCC professor of sculpture and ceramics. To February 28.
Center) , 446 Bellevue Avenue, Trenton, 609-394-4095. "Ten From
Bordentown," featuring Al Barker, Michael Bergman, Michael Budden,
Juanita Crosby, Eva Palfalvi, Louis Panagini, Don Poinsett, Jack
Kathy Shumway-Tunney, and Claudia Teal. Watercolor, pastel, oil,
and photography. To February 27.
Cadwalader Park, Trenton, 609-989-3632. "James J. Colavita
Housed in the former "Monkey House," this show highlights
the artist’s animal sculpture. To March 1. Hours are Tuesday to
11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Sunday, 2 to 4 p.m.
"Consumed," recent works by Matthew C. Reiley. Opening
is February 14 for the show that runs to March 5.
609-586-0616. Fall/Winter Exhibition on view in the museum and newly
renovated Domestic Arts buildings: "Stone: a Group
featuring works by Paul Bloch, Michael Braden, Susan Crowder, Horace
Farlowe, Yongjin Han, and Jill Sablosky. To February 28. Gallery and
outdoor hours are Friday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
609-292-6464. "Terry Adkins: Distant Mirrors," a sculpture
show by the artist and jazz musician who uses found materials and
objects to create installations with an African-American presence.
To March 22. "James J. Colavita Retrospective," March 15.
"Nikon Small World," winners of the 1997 international Small
World competition of photographs taken through light microscopes.
To February 22.
Also, "The Glitter and the Gold: Fashioning America’s
the story of Newark’s jewelry industry resplendent with more than
300 pieces of jewelry. To April 5. From collar buttons to lorgnettes,
from lace pins to gold brooches, jewelry made in Newark between 1850
and 1950 was sold in virtually every jewelry store in America. By
1890, nearly 100 jewelry manufacturers were operating there, employing
3,000 workers, with $8 million in annual revenues.
Newark’s specialty was "fine jewelry" in 14-carat gold, set
with seed pearls, diamonds, and colored gemstones. Such items
jewelry-wearing in America from a privilege of the elite to a
flourish to the appearance of the growing middle class. Organized
by the Newark Museum, items have been drawn from museum and private
collections, arranged thematically to trace the stylistic changes
over the course of a century. Museum hours are Tuesday to Saturday,
9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Free.
609-599-5659. "Western Scenics" by Evan G. Lindner, black
and white photographs of the American West. To April 10.
609-397-2226. Wildlife paintings in watercolor and gouache by Beatrice
Bork. Her work is featured in the recent book, "The Best of
Art." To March 14.
The 18th Annual Juried Exhibition of the Lambertville Historical
Artists awarded cash and purchase prizes include J. Ken Spencer,
Van Emmerik-Finn, Joahn Sacalis, Josef Barrett, Helen Gallagher, Ron
Lent, Robert Sakson, and Vincent Caglia. To March 15.
Line Road, 609-252-6275. "Off to the Cinema," a show of 45
original poster paintings created by Batiste Madalena, from 1924 to
1928, for George Eastman’s Rochester movie palace. The one-of-a-kind
gouaches feature such silent movie greats as "The Road to
"Ben Hur," and "The Ten Commandments." To February
609-895-7307. "Flowers: Views from the Garden," a group show
featuring paintings by Mark Davis, Thomas George, Lucy McVicker, Paul
Resika, Ralph Rosenborg, and others. To April 10. Gallery hours are
Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
streets, New Brunswick, 908-932-7237. "The Great American Pop
Art Store: Multiples of the ’60s," to February 22. "Word and
Image: Contemporary Prints, Portfolios, and Artists’ Books," to
March 1. "Riding the Wave: The Japanese Influence on the Depiction
of the Sea and Water in Western Art," to July 5. "Drawn from
Memory: Kisses from Rosa by Petra Mathers," to March 1.
as Seen by Foreign Travelers" to July 31, 1998.
Museum hours are Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday
and Sunday, Noon to 5 p.m. Closed Mondays and major holidays.
$3 adults; free for members, children under 18, and Rutgers students,
faculty, and staff. Free on the first Sunday of each month.
On exhibit through January, toys from the collection of Tom and Marion
McCandless, including seven toys made in Hopewell by the short-lived
Hoproco Toy Company, located on Burton Avenue from 1925 to ’27. Also
on exhibit, a dozen miniatures including doll houses, churches, and
barns. Free. Museum hours are Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays from
2 to 5 p.m.
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