Good Bye My Good Friend and Teacher
I first met Karl Stirner when I decided to take extra courses for credit at Temple University. Karl was my teacher and we bonded. We remained friends until his death a few months ago. We watched his talent grow and mature. We purchased a Karl Collection in the year 2000 that remain with us. We will greatly miss him as we do his young wife Gay who died a few years ago.
Karl Stirner, the visionary artist whose admiration for Easton sparked an arts renaissance in his adopted hometown, died Thursday. He was 92.
Stirner, an internationally acclaimed sculptor, inspired dozens of artists with his friendship, honesty and passion for the truth, friends said.
"He wasn't just bending metal," said Easton artist Berrisford Boothe, a longtime friend. "He understood the role of the artist.
"The reasons people make art is because their life has exposed them to experiences and phenomena that they have to translate," Boothe said. "Karl collected all this work but he also knelt in front of it every day. He was the highest-order artist in town."
Mayor Sal Panto Jr. confirmed Stirner's death early Friday afternoon.
"He was a dear friend to many and a favorite son of our city who will be greatly missed," Panto said in a statement.
In tribute to Stirner's contributions, Panto said, the Easton flag in Centre Square will be lowered to half-staff until Monday afternoon. The American flag already is at half-staff due to the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
Stirner is memorialized in Easton by the Karl Stirner Arts Trail that opened along the Bushkill Creek in 2011. The 2.5-mile-long trail connects Third Street with the Simon Silk Mill redevelopment project along 13th Street.
He was among a few well-traveled artists who discovered Easton years ago, made it his home and encouraged others to follow. His wife, Easton District Judge Gay Elwell, died in December 2012.
Jim Toia, director of community-based teaching at Lafayette College's School of Visual Arts, said Stirner's advocacy and passion for Easton served to attract artists from multiple disciplines.
"Karl is and always will be an icon in this community as a true artist and staunch supporter of the arts in general," said Toia, who joined Lafayette in 1997 and is chairman of the Karl Stirner Arts Trail.
"He was a believer in Easton as an exceptionally rich arts community and he had everything to do with making it as rich as it is today."
Arrival in Easton
Stirner's main medium was iron. He maintained a Ferry Street studio that became a haven for other artists and hummed with the work of Stirner's grinders, drills and torches.
He came to Easton in 1983
Born in Germany, his family immigrated to the U.S. in 1927 and settled in Philadelphia. He left school at age 17 to master blacksmithing and metalworking and became a self-taught
He taught at the Tyler School of Fine Art at Temple University, the Moore College of Art, Philadelphia College of Art and Swarthmore College.
Friends said it was only natural that Stirner would become a teacher -- something that stuck with him until the very end.
"In the beginning I had to work my ass off. I had to stay one step ahead of the students," he said in a 2000 interview. "I taught sculpture, jewelry making, painting. Being in charge is a responsibility. I was a teacher then but I've always been a doer."
Stirner was a World War II veteran, serving with the U.S. Army in New Guinea and the Philippines.
In Easton, he transformed an old warehouse and sewing factory at 230 Ferry St. into the Easton Arts Building -- a studio, gallery and living space that became a new beacon in an industrial city whose heyday had passed.
Stirner pioneered the growth of an arts enclave. In the mid-1980s, it was Stirner who approached Easton officials with the idea of holding an artists' loft seminar to promote the city's inexpensive real estate, large open studio spaces and architecture. It attracted more than 100 suitors, Panto said.
"There were other artists who came before him, but Karl stepped it up about five rungs on the ladder," Panto said. "Today we are truly a blossoming artists' community thanks to people like Karl."
A humble man
His three children recalled him as a strict but loving patriarch.
"We were very lucky to be raised by this very rare individual," said Heather Stirner Nutting, who moved back to Easton six months ago to be near her father.
Noelle Stirner said her father blew away his cardiologist's expectation by living and working into his 90s. She said her father was passionate about showcasing the city to other artists but humble about taking the credit for the city's turnaround.
Stirner is also survived by a son, Jonas Stirner.
Anthony Marraccini, who has co-run Connexions Gallery since 2003, said Stirner's influence was enormous. He took an interest in Marraccini's career even though he had a world-class reputation and Marraccini was just a young man with dreams.
"He could have been anywhere else in the world but he chose here," Marraccini said.
"He was a major force for developing the arts in Easton," said city artist Isadore Laduca, who teaches at Northampton Community College. Laduca was also taken under Stirner's wing. He noted Stirner's productivity even into his 90s.
Stirner's legacy is evident in the multiple galleries and art-friendly businesses in the Downtown.
"For a town of 27,000 people, there's a ton of art," Marraccini said.
Ashton Funeral Home is handling funeral arrangements, which were incomplete Friday. Family members said they expect a memorial will be held next week.
Boothe, a painter and digital artist who teaches at Lehigh University, recalled Stirner as a towering figure who was unpretentious and warm. He met Stirner in the 1980s after graduating from Lafayette College and they became close friends.
Other artists joked that Stirner was the "art pope" of Easton as they sought out his blessings and advice in their personal and professional lives, Boothe said.
His presence was powerful yet he maintained a humility that invited people, he said.
"You could always be exactly who you needed to be with him," Boothe said. "I have never met anyone else in my life who could occupy space and at the same time -- out of his grace and kindness of heart -- both be there and disappear so you could see yourself."
Supervising reporter Rudy Miller contributed to this article.