On a Saturday night at least once a month in Fallon, patrons of the arts from far and near climbed wooden stairs of the Churchill Arts Center — formerly the Oats Park School toward the Barkley Theatre’s first-floor entrance. The first person many visitors saw stood in the hallway, maybe a drink in his hand, but with a sparkle in his eye as he greeted them.
The tall Texan-born, mustachioed figure strolled over to the evening’s guests and made conversation. Within seconds, they were immersed in talking about the arts and the night’s performance.
In a few minutes, though, the curtain danced open to welcome a new performer to the Barkley Theater.
Such a local ambassador of the arts was Kirk Robertson, a longtime and well-known prolific literary writer, poet, columnist and conversationalist who died from complications of a stroke on May 1. Friends and colleagues gathered on Sunday at the Oats Park Art Center to pay their respects.
ON THE TRAIL TO NEVADA
The 70-year-old Robertson grew up in Southern California and earned a degree in Language and Literature from California State University, Long Beach, where he studied with well-known poet Gerald Locklin. Robertson discovered his way to the Silver State more than 40 years ago and eventually Fallon, where he settled down, met the love of his life — Valerie Serpa — and between them they made the Oasis of Nevada more like the Jewel for the Arts.
Longtime friend John Shelton expressed his sorrow within hours of Robertson’s unexpected death:
“I cannot fathom a world without Kirk, or without you and him together. As my time has always been moving from state to state, changing jobs between arts councils, performance centers, consulting, and now photography, your solid presence together in Fallon has always been a constant for me,” wrote Shelton on Serpa’s Facebook page.
“Among the many things Kirk was, he certainly was a gifted poet who lived and worked in Fallon. But his power really came from the two of you together, building an arts center and cultural oasis side by side. It’s a fitting plus that he also married and got to travel with one of the most beautiful women on Earth. I am thankful that none of that really changed much for nearly three decades.
“All of this provided, for me, a sense of safety in a changing arts world — a haven against bad arts politics and funding and a growing populist society — a sort of barometer by which I was able to assess what was working, pretty much by seeing what you and Kirk were up to, making the Oats Park Center and its programming among the best in the state, and making your life a journey of good souls. It was a mark of fantastic perseverance and achievement that you both should be doing this successfully in Fallon.”
BUILDING A DREAM
The Churchill Arts Council and Barkley Theater culminated a dream for both Robertson and Serpa in bringing the arts to Fallon. Their vision resulted in a mix of old meeting new when they sought to transform the old Oats Park School, which was built in 1914 and designed by Reno architect Frederick DeLongchamps, into a centerpiece for arts in rural Nevada. As they looked around the Fallon area for a venue suitable for bringing class acts to the area, the school stood out as perfect location.
As reported in a previous LVN story, “the arts council raised $10 million to transform the school from a crumbling relic into a state-of-the-art facility with three aft galleries, a 350-seat theater and an Old West-meets-urban-café-style bar” — still a popular gathering place before and after performances.
After years of hard work, setbacks, determination and success, the Churchill Arts Council opened the restored school on Valentine’s Day 2003 — a very fitting day for Robertson and Serpa — and three years later the galleries offered their first shows. Through the years, though, Bill and Harriet Barkley donated thousands of dollars to the arts council and its projects, and after Bill died days before the opening, Harriet continued to donate generously until she passed way in July 2010.
Two years before the theater opened, however, the Churchill Arts Council received the 2001 Governor’s Art Award for the Barkleys’ contributions.
“She was here all the time, if she could,” Serpa said at the time of their benefactor’s death. “She liked the performances.”
Robertson added her contribution “got the project off the ground.”
Once the theater was finished, Fallon earned raves for its newly completed project.
“We were known as having the finest small performing house in Nevada where you could see good performers in an environment like this,” he said.
Because of her love for the arts, Barkley’s contributions would have a lasting impact on future generations.
Both Robertson and Serpa saw the roller coaster effect of available funding for the arts during the Great Recession that began in late 2008 and continued for years. During that time the arts council lacked donations and saw fewer people attending the performances that hurt the Churchill Arts Council. For the past four years though, the arts have rebounded magnificently not only in many communities in the United States but also Fallon. The crowds came back in record numbers and funding and grants returned to previous levels.
A MAN OF THE ARTS
University of Nevada, Reno art instructor and former television movie critic Howard Rosenberg is still stunned with Robertson’s death, seeing him a day before his stroke. Rosenberg had a photograph taken with Robertson and Serpa at the American Association of University Women’s annual film festival where Rosenberg led discussion on the featured film.
“He was calm … slightly mischievous but deliberately heartfelt,” Rosenberg said of his longtime friend. “He had limitless patience and was a wonderful, wonderful guy.”
What struck Rosenberg, though, was Robertson’s ability to say the right thing at the right time.
Fallon Mayor Ken Tedford said the City Council approved Robertson and Serpa as the cultural attachés of the city where others would seek them out for suggestions and to help the council’s vision throughout the year. Tedford cited their involvement with establishing the Concert in the Park in June and August and sprucing up the city by recommending an artist to paint the corner electrical boxes.
“They were the driving force of the Oats Park renovation, and made this the crown jewel of Nevada. It became a place where people in the arts world could have pride,” Tedford said.
Tedford pointed out that both Robertson and Serpa became key figures in advancing the cultural arts in Fallon. Tedford said each brought a certain talent to developing the arts programs for the past 30 years. The mayor considered Robertson, for example, as a talented and innovative literary artist who was quiet.
“There was no arrogance to who he was and what he was about,” Tedford explained. “Why are so many people celebrating his life? He was a special person, and his writings were a wonderful thing he did. That’s who he was.”
Robertson’s stage also included the entire state of Nevada where he served on the Nevada Arts Council as both director of Individual & Community Programs and Projects from 1984-1992.
A GIFTED TEACHER
Although many Nevadans know of Robertson’s work with the Churchill Arts Council and some writing, many from his inner circle are familiar with the different plateaus Robertson achieved in the literary world, He was awarded the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in 1981, and the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame inducted him in 1994.
According to Serpa, Robertson was particularly fond of his Wormwood Award for the Most Overlooked Book of Note. His most recent book, though, was How the Light Gets In: New and Collected Poems 1969-2014 that allows his readers to hold the essence of this brilliant man in their hands.
Robertson’s awards during the past four decades show the breadth of a writer devoted to his passion.
Robertson had a keen eye for other writers and was founder of Scree magazine and Duckdown Press; he wrote for Yellowstone Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sheppard Gallery at the University of Nevada, Reno, Artweek, the Reno News & Review and his weekly column, “Soundings,” for the Lahontan Valley News. He edited Neon, the journal of the Nevada Arts Council and the only state arts publication of its kind and quality in the United States.
In his weekly LVN columns, Robertson reviewed upcoming performances, discussed artists and writers who came to Fallon for discussions and turned readers on to literature. He also inspired future teachers and university professors to develop a love for the arts and then share their knowledge with their students.
“He had a very serious high regard for contemporary arts, not exclusive for genre art,” said Maryann Bonjorni, a professor of drawing at the University of Montana who knew Robertson for 32 years.
Having met Robertson when she was a graduate student at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Bonjorni had spent most of her earlier life in rural Nevada and received a Nevada Arts Council 1989 Artist Fellowship in painting. Her friendship with both Robertson and Serpa flourished during the years.
Like Bonjorni, Gailmarie Palmeier’s friendship with Robertson extended almost 33 years when she met him after moving to Reno. She shared many stories including the first time she met him when he was the director of arts programs for the Nevada Arts Council.
“I showed up asking for a job,” she recalled, explaining she took a bus across Reno to see him.
Palmeier said he asked to see samples of her poetry, and he would call her back. That in itself was exciting for Palmeier since she was familiar with Robertson’s legendary background in literature.
“I had read his work in grad school,” she said at Sunday’s reception.
After perusing her literary samples, Robertson called Palmeier and offered her a position that launched her career in Reno.
For the past 32 years she has taught literature at the University of Nevada, Reno and said she still enjoys working with young writers, much like in the same mold of Robertson.
“He has spoken to my classes many times,” she said. “When he walked into my room, he commanded their (students’) attention.”
Throughout the decades Robertson supported Palmeier and attended a book-signing for her at Reno’s Sundance Books in 2014. Likewise, she supported Robertson, Serpa and Fallon’s love for the arts.
“My last book is dedicated to the people of Fallon,” she said, voice hesitating. “My heart is in Fallon — the people come out to celebrate the arts.”
In one of his late-March columns, Robertson discussed collage and a reception the arts council was having:
“Collage and assemblage were two of the most important creative strategies in twentieth century art. The works created were compositions made out of various seemingly unrelated materials which were juxtaposed to generate new and unanticipated meanings. Many well-known artists frequently used collage and assemblage methods in their works including Pablo Picasso, Joseph Cornell, Kurt Schwitters, Robert Rauschenberg, Hannah Hoch, John Heartfeld and many, many others.
The invitational show explores how these traditions have been translated into new twenty-first century expressions and presents selected works by 36 artists — from California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Montana — who work in the media of collage and assemblage.”
In another column, Robertson described author Lee Child’s character, Jack Reacher, a protagonist from many of the author’s books:
“Our hero finds himself in some place called Mother’s Rest somewhere in the middle of nowhere, not much other than wheat fields, a railroad crossing (from which Reacher de-trains) and a mysterious woman named Chang, Michelle Chang, and off we go.”
Robertson was very much a connoisseur of the literary world.
Val McFarlane began her remembrance with a quote from author John Steinbeck: “It’s so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.”
McFarlane called Robertson an incredible man who was taken far too soon and very unexpectedly.
“My uncle was a man of great talents ... an amazing poet, intelligent beyond words, read every book published (I believe), loved great wine and good beer, and had a fantastic eye for incredible art and ear for great music,” she posted on Facebook. “He taught me so much and I always loved how he told it exactly how it is.”