Monthaven Art and Cultural Center

Monthaven Arts and Cultural Center
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Drew Kirk, the MACC’s Director of Arts Education and Outreach. Photo by Darrell Sheffield

You can think of James “Drew” Kirk as the Lieutenant Dan of Monthaven Arts and Cultural Center. Like the fictional character from the movie Forrest Gump, Kirk boasts a distinguished military lineage. At least one member of his family fought in just about every American war.

“Well, I’m not exactly like Lieutenant Dan,” insists Kirk, the MACC’s newly hired education director. “People in my family didn’t actually die in every war.” Good thing, since, as Forrest Gump might say, that would be hard to live up to.

Kirk, a U.S Navy veteran who holds a bachelor of fine arts degree from Austin Peay State University, joined Monthaven’s staff in January 2024. In his new role as Director of Arts Education and Outreach, he will oversee the development and implementation of the MACC’s educational programs and its arts outreach initiatives. Without question, the MACC couldn’t have found a more natural artist and teacher.

A Tennessee native, Kirk grew up in Clarksville, and he apparently began sketching as soon as he could hold a pencil. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been attracted to art,” he says. “As a little kid, I’d spend my time doodling, drawing on walls, and getting myself into trouble. Later, I played trumpet and percussion in my school band. I just loved creativity of every kind.”

You might expect that someone with such a knack for creativity would want to get a collegiate art degree. But at the time, Kirk didn’t see college as a possibility. His family lacked the money to send him. Moreover, his father, a tough-minded former U.S. Army paratrooper who later worked as a truck driver, wasn’t encouraging.”

No matter, since Kirk was apparently destined to become an artist anyway. Following high school graduation, he enlisted in the Navy, serving from 2003 to 2008. Kirk initially intended to become a helicopter mechanic. He had just started boot camp when one of the petty officers asked if any of the recruits knew how to draw. Kirk raised his hand.

As a general rule, it’s never a good idea to volunteer for anything in the Navy. Indeed, sailors worthy of their sea salt will tell you the Navy is not just a branch of the armed forces. It’s an acronym – NAVY (Never Again Volunteer Yourself!)

But Kirk’s talent and esprit de corps quickly brought him to the attention of the Command Master Chief of the Helicopter Atlantic Fleet, one of the Navy’s highest ranking enlisted men. The chief needed someone to paint a mural of the MH-60 Seahawk helicopter, one of the legendary workhorses of the fleet. The job also included painting the emblems of all the fleet’s squadrons.

Kirk created his artwork, and for his efforts he was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal. “That’s the highest award I received during my service,” he says.

LCDR “Spock” Barcomb, left, with James “Drew” Kirk aboard the USS Debuque during the 2004 RIMPAC naval war exercises.

After boot camp, Kirk became an aviation machinist, working on the gear helicopters use to destroy mines. Luckily, he was never deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. His service, however, was not without trauma. In 2005, he was detailed to Panama aboard the USS Bataan, an amphibious assault ship. One day, the crew was called to battle stations, and in a moment of confusion a pair of sailors were operating a forklift recklessly. One of the sailors became pinned between the forklift and the bulkhead and was crushed. Kirk was assigned to the morgue watch.

Later, three Panamanian sailors drowned after their inflatable boat capsized. Kirk stood on deck and watched as their bodies, wrapped in sheets, slid off boards in a ceremonial burial at sea.

“These were all traumatic events, and I definitely left the Navy with some PTSD,” Kirk says.

The Navy didn’t promote therapy during Kirk’s time in service. But after a five-year enlistment, it did provide Kirk with a generous Post-9/11 GI Bill, which allowed him to pursue a bachelor’s degree in art at Austin Peay.

For Kirk, art became his therapy, his coping mechanism, and he pursued it with alacrity. While at Austin Peay, he made two trips to Italy, where he immersed himself in ceramics, pottery, photography and metal work. All of these disciplines have become integral to his current creative practice and teaching.

After graduation, Kirk landed a job as a behavioral assistant with Sumner County Schools. His job was to work with special needs students. Some of these students had been diagnosed with autism, others with schizophrenia, fetal alcohol syndrome and other disabilities.

It was demanding and often stressful work. Looking back on this job a decade later, Kirk expresses feelings that are unfailingly positive. “I loved every minute of it,” he says. “Some of these kids still reach out to me.”

After several years in the trenches, Kirk became a visual art teacher at Station Camp Middle School. For the next six years, he honed his teaching skills while instructing his students in the art of painting, sketching, designing and sculpting.

Drew Kirk with Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Nick Ut.

The bearded, tattooed and soft-spoken Navy veteran might still be teaching middle school were it not for the arrival at Monthaven of a legendary Vietnam War photographer. In August 2023, Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Nick Ut was the featured artist at the MACC’s Fifth Annual Veterans Art Exhibition. Kirk, himself a skilled photographer, arrived at the MACC, eager to meet the journalism icon. As Kirk toured Monthaven’s galleries and classrooms, he began to see a role for himself at the organization.

“It wasn’t long before I was on the phone, bugging [MACC Executive Director] Cheryl Strichik for a job,” says Kirk with a hint of playful mischief.

Timing is everything, and as 2023 was drawing to a close, the MACC was searching for a new arts education director. Kirk, a military veteran with an expansive art background, proved to be the ideal candidate. The MACC needed an artist-teacher skilled at working with under-resourced youth and military veterans suffering from PTSD. Kirk fit the bill exactly.

“Drew brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to his new post” says Tonya Mirtes, the MACC’s deputy director. “His background as an artist and military veteran provides our school with a strong foundation, one that will foster continuous learning and innovation.”

Kirk, for his part, believes he can make a real difference in the quality of art education in Middle Tennessee. The MACC is a relatively new organization, so the programming decisions Kirk makes today will likely guide the organization’s direction for many years to come. He’s especially glad to be back in the trenches, working with disadvantaged youth, military veterans and first responders suffering from trauma.

“The MACC’s arts outreach and healing arts programs are what get me up in the mornings,” says Kirk. “They feed my soul.”



3 Responses

  1. Congratulations Drew! He is a wonderful young man who will bring heart and passion to Monthaven. I was privileged to get to teach next door to him at Station Camp Middle School and witnessed his passion for teaching art and being an inspiration to young artists.

  2. Congrats on the new job ! I’m so proud of you ! You have done well for yourself. Love ya!1 Pop’s

Kaylin Warden

External Affairs Coordinator

Kaylin Warden joined the Monthaven Arts and Cultural Center staff in 2024 as External Affairs Coordinator. In this post, she organizes special off-site events and manages the organization’s external communications. She also works with the development department by updating the MACC’s customer relations database, and she assists the executive director in setting up exhibitions. Above all else, Kaylin is passionate about the arts. It comes as no surprise, then, that she is now pursuing a master’s degree in art history. When she’s not at the MACC, you can find her reading her favorite books (especially ones dealing with maritime mysteries), cooking, gardening, playing with her cat and two dogs, and cheering for the Nashville Predators.

Ruth Chase

Regional Arts Director
Ruth Chase is the Regional Arts Director of Monthaven Arts and Cultural Center, joining the team in 2023. For Ruth, the job is all about community, bringing people together to uplift and educate artists and art lovers alike. Her role at Monthaven is to strengthen the local artist community and build connections that will enrich Hendersonville and our surrounding communities through art exhibitions, art education, and opportunities for regional artists.
Prior to joining Monthaven, Ruth worked in the arts for over 30 years and is a multimedia artist and graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute. Her artistic practice is inquiry-based and engages in community bridge-building. She was awarded a Certificate of Appreciation from the City of Los Angeles, curated and juried exhibitions, and has taught at the Crocker Art Museum.
Ruth was awarded an Artist-in-Residence for Artist Activating Communities through a grant from the California Arts Council for three consecutive years. Her film Belonging screened at both the 18th Annual Nevada City Film Festival and Wild & Scenic Film Festival. She has received the Legendary Female Artist of Venice award, and she has exhibited in The Crocker Kingsley, the Museum of Northern California Art, and the Diego Rivera Gallery at the San Francisco Art Institute. Ruth also continues her work as a Curatorial Consultant and Art director for the Californian Indigenous Research Project, where she has worked with the local tribe since 2018.