Artist David Barr passed away today.
He was my mentor, my friend, and really a father to me.
I cannot possibly put into words what David Barr means to my life.
I was David’s studio assistant for 14 years. When I graduated from High school, I was lost. My parents wanted me to simply get a job and leave home. They did not believe I should pursue art nor even go to school. These were simply not the sort of things discussed in my upbringing. But then, due to overhearing a remark in a local diner from two students sitting within earshot, in which they discussed two great teachers at a local college, Jim Pallas and David Barr, I made the decision to go to college. After first taking a class from Pallas, I took another with David. From that moment forward, he invited me into the life of he and his wife Beth. At first, we collaborated on creating a documentary on a project of his, realized in the former Soviet Union.
Soon after, I became his assistant. Painting and installing large steel sculptures at his remarkable Modernist home in Novi, to building large scale installations in the Michigan Legacy Art Park at Crystal Mountain. Throughout all of this, my real education took place. From David, I learned about modern design, furniture and architecture, as he introduced me to Noguchi, Mies and Eames; he gave me recordings of Bach played by Glenn Gould and taught me about minimalist music, playing “Einstein On The Beach” for me on one of our several long road trips; he taught me everything about the political beliefs I still hold dear to this day; he introduced me to so much cinema—from the Marx Brothers to Godard (he had a particular fondness for discussing the virtues of Westerns directed by Budd Boetticher); we spent a number of evenings watching videos of the "Ernie Kovacs Show" from the 50's and early 60's; David gave me my first book on Samuel Beckett, and steered me towards my first experience of “Waiting For Godot;” we discussed at great length the preferred virtues of Camus over the work of Sartre. He and Beth took me on my first trip to Chicago, to see a massive exhibition of Magritte along with a visit to many of the city’s galleries. The list, alas, goes on and on.
And yet, such a list can never convey the humor, warmth and total engagement with which his almost constant companionship for many years, steered me toward a life in art and teaching. Without David, I would have remained lost. Without David, I would not have had a chance. He taught me the importance of “paying it forward” in the classroom; of the real reasons for choosing a life in art and academia. He introduced me to other teachers and many other artists. What I saw as a hopeless future for myself, transformed into a need to engage in ideas and a way of living that I owe every second of to him. He always believed in something bigger, and I am grateful that he believed in me.
We had drifted apart for about five years until he called me while I was on my way to an on-campus job interview at a university in Chicago this past February. I was nervous about my prospects. I answered his call after pulling off to the side of the expressway. He noted that it was time for us to see each other again. And in the span of a short conversation, he instilled hope in me again, and I went into that interview fully charged (turned out I did not get the job, but I gave it my best, with David on my mind). I visited him after I returned from Chicago, at his home. We picked up talking about art and music and film and literature and politics as if we had never stopped. He gave me much wisdom and a helpful perspective about the rut I was in, with regard to my career in academia. He spoke to me honestly and gave me a greater sense of clarity. We parted with the promise to see each other again. I said we would after my travels this summer and after I sorted out my life post-Wayne State University, seeking new teaching positions. I did not know that this one visit in February would be the last time I’d ever see him again.
A day has not passed since my first meeting with David, that his voice has not occupied my mind. Words can never express the full spirit of this man, who so fully integrated his art and his life into a whole. I lost a friend today, and so much more. And yet, he will always be with me in every way. I loved David greatly, for his guidance and all that he represented and am grateful for what he shared with me. I will miss his laughter and his ability to set me straight.