The College of Arts & Letters is saddened by the passing of James E. Fagan, Professor Emeritus of Studio Art, who died on December 7, 2020. He was 90 years old.
A member of the Department of Art, Art History, and Design faculty at Michigan State University for 51 years, Fagan completed his Masters in Fine Arts at the University of Illinois and began working at MSU in September 1967. Quickly working his way up through the ranks, he attained the rank of full professor in 1978 in recognition of his profile as a painter and printmaker.
During his time at MSU, Fagan helped to build essential components of the art department’s curriculum, mentored undergraduate and graduate students, and continued his own art practice in painting and printmaking. He retired from MSU in August 2018.
“Jim Fagan was a humble, generous spirit, dedicated equally to his craft and to helping others develop their own exploration of art,” said longtime colleague and friend, Walter Peebles, Woodshop Technician in the Department of Art, Art History, and Design.
Forging a Strong Art Department
Through his more than 50 years of teaching, Fagan was instrumental in building MSU’s printmaking program, training students in the processes he worked in most frequently — etching, collagraphy, intaglio, and papermaking. In addition to teaching, Fagan was consistently active in the department’s Master of Fine Arts program, mentoring students as they launched their careers as artists.
“Jim would never hesitate in saying ‘yes,’ whether it was taking time to mentor a student or going the extra mile for the department,” said Thomas Berding, Professor of Studio Art. “This came from his passion for growing opportunities for the students, staff, and his colleagues.”
Jim Fagan was a humble, generous spirit, dedicated equally to his craft and to helping others develop their own exploration of art.Walter Peebles, Woodshop Technician
A talented artist and a dedicated faculty member, Fagan was known across the department for engaging with students and staff alike, encouraging their own unique artistic methods, processes, and ways of thinking.
“Jim recognized that great art departments were forged out of a deep respect for the diverse ways of working that faculty and students carry into the studio,” Berding said. “He knew passionately held beliefs were a central part of what makes art and departments of art vital, but he also knew that for a department to thrive, welcoming diverse ways of working was crucial.”
A Rich Career in Studio Art
During his teaching tenure, Fagan ran his own artistic practice for decades. Setting the tone for his career was an early inclusion of his work in the Library of Congress and Smithsonian Institution’s National Exhibition of Prints in 1973. He continued to show his work frequently in the Midwest throughout his career in exhibitions that traced the outlines of a regional art world.
“Keeping a studio practice alive for over 50 years, as he did, is no small feat,” Berding said. “It takes a level of optimism and a view of one’s profession that recognizes the importance of enduring ways of making as well as the possibilities afforded by the new. As a practitioner, he knew the divide between the old and new was not as great as some would purport…and most of all, he knew people were at the heart of it all.”
Keeping a studio practice alive for over 50 years, as he did, is no small feat. It takes a level of optimism and a view of one’s profession that recognizes the importance of enduring ways of making as well as the possibilities afforded by the new.Thomas Berding, Professor of Studio Art
Fagan actively pursued painting alongside printmaking and drawing and his practice was at once broad and idiosyncratic — combining concerns as varied as “the mystery and beauty of peeling paint on decaying walls,” as he put it, with the fundamentals of line, composition, and color.
Storytelling and a Lasting Legacy
“Jim was one of the first people I met when I came to campus in 1993,” said Berding, now in his 28th year at MSU. “Jim exuded a welcoming and warm manner when we first met — and over the next 26 years, that never changed.”
Fagan took great pride in telling often humorous anecdotes about the department and its history. He loved sports, especially football, and art alike, and his chats with faculty and staff would often move fluidly between the feedback on the student galleries and breaking down the previous weekend’s football games.
“Jim’s sociability was a remarkable departmental asset and he thrived on connecting with others, no matter the subject,” Berding said.
Jim’s sociability was a remarkable departmental asset and he thrived on connecting with others, no matter the subject.Thomas Berding, Professor of Studio Art
As the head of the department’s woodshop, Peebles had many opportunities to hear Fagan’s stories and share in his creative processes.
“Often when you were talking with Jim, something would remind him of a story from his childhood and you could count on a well-rounded yarn, usually leading to another one, complete with facial expressions and mannerisms of the characters involved,” said Peebles, who would occasionally assist Fagan if he needed any woodwork for his pieces and would hear these stories.
Peebles says Professor Fagan was “generous almost to a fault with staff for helping him out” and he recalled helping Fagan clean out his office when he retired.
“My fellow tech Michael McCune and I had the privilege to assist Jim with cleaning out his office. What an extraordinary opportunity to see a lifelong passion for art and teaching emerge from what at first glance seemed an almost impenetrable mass of stuff,” said Peebles, who explained that Fagan was famous around the department for having a perpetually full mailbox. “Imagine a whole office…Paintings, drawings, tools, design, student work, a print by his etching professor, handmade paper, a couple five-gallon glass carboys leftover from when he and a colleague made wine.”
Funeral services are Wednesday, December 16, 2020, at 11 a.m. at Gorsline Runciman Funeral Home in East Lansing. There will be a viewing preceding the service from 10-11 a.m. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, attendance is limited per state guidelines. Read the obituary for more information. Friends, family, and colleagues also are encouraged to share memories and photos.