Robert J. Wirth

[ Age 83 ] Baltimore teacher, artist and graphic designer made the environment the focus of his eclectic body of work

January 22, 2007|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,sun reporter

Robert J. Wirth, a retired teacher, artist and graphic designer who made the environment the focus of much of his work, died of a stroke Tuesday at his Woodberry home. He was 83.

Born in Bayonne, N.J., he attended the New York University School of Architecture and the Drexel Institute of Technology before enlisting in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II. He designed airfields on Okinawa, Guam and the Philippines.

"His times of combat haunted him throughout his life," said his daughter Susan Wirth of Baltimore. Mr. Wirth contracted malaria while in military service and was subject to recurrence of the disease.

After the war, and after additional study in industrial design at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art, he moved to Baltimore and earned a fine arts degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art, He was the Baltimore Museum of Art's curator of art education in the mid-1950s. He joined the MICA faculty, initially as a night school drawing instructor; he later taught graphic design and the aesthetic principles of print.

"He was helpful and encouraging," said Robert J. Helsley, a former student who teaches at the School of Art and Design at Montgomery College. "He created wonderful collages of paper and mixed media. His work was very intriguing."

Mr. Wirth, who filled his home with antiques and primitive pieces, also collected specimens of old typefaces that he showed to his graphic design students. When teaching, however, he often recommended using the newest modern typefaces.

"He pushed the Swiss school of design," Mr. Helsley said. "He liked Helvetica - a widely used typeface that had universal appeal - it was a new, clean mid-20th-century font."

Students called his classes Fort Wirth and recalled him as a teacher of strong opinions who set high standards for achieving a top grade.

George Theofiles, a former student who now teaches at York College, said, "He was the first guy to make me aware as a sophomore that art has rules. He was a pragmatic, meticulous man who rarely, if ever, lost his temper."

Mr. Wirth joined the Sierra Club and became involved with environmental causes in the 1950s. He was an early advocate of protecting Assateague Island from development. When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation creating Assateague Island National Seashore at the White House in 1965, Mr. Wirth was present at a ceremony.

He often rose early in the morning and took walks through Robert E. Lee Park at Lake Roland. For many years, Mr. Wirth visited the Cornwall coast of England. He also walked portions of the Appalachian Trail.

"His mentor was Henry Thoreau," his daughter said. "My father strove to emulate Thoreau's values of simplicity."

Mr. Wirth's art was displayed at the old Peale Museum, the Baltimore Museum of Art and at MICA.

"An artist must be bold to make art in as many ways as does Robert Wirth," said a 1995 Sun review of his works at the Baltimore Life Gallery. "Judging by what's here, he's versatile enough to get away with spreading his talent around. Wirth's love is nature, so naturally he makes the landscape his subject." The reviewer noted Mr. Wirth's "stern integrity," as if the artist were saying, "Well, there it is. I've reproduced it as well as I can, without embellishment."

William Steinmetz, a longtime friend of Mr. Wirth, recalled that his favorite color was blue. "He had piercing blue eyes," Mr. Steinmetz said, and he often wore a blue cap, blue deck shoes, a blue shirt and jeans.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at St. John's Episcopal Church, 1700 South Road in Mount Washington.

In addition to his daughter, survivors include a son, Timothy Wirth of Front Royal Va.; another daughter, Leigh Wirth of Bellingham, Wash.; and five grandchildren. His 1947 marriage to the former Emily Kerr Billingsea ended in divorce.

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