February 14, 2006

$1 million donation creates L. Brent Kington chair

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- When L. Brent Kington established a blacksmithing program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale during the late 1960s and early 1970s, such metal working methods were a dying art form.

During the decades that followed, however, Kington led the program to prominence, launching dozens of highly skilled artisans schooled in the art of heating, hammering and twisting metal into works of museum quality and architectural splendor. Along the way, Kington also made a national name for himself both as artist and teacher before retiring in 1997.

Now the local resident's legacy will live on at SIUC in the form of an endowed chairmanship bearing his name.

In recognition of Kington, an artistic foundation is donating $1 million to SIUC to create the L. Brent Kington chair in blacksmithing. Richard E. "Rick" Smith, head of the metalsmithing specialization in the School of Art and Design and a former graduate student of Kington's, will be the first to hold the chair.

"It's a total surprise and very humbling," Kington said from his home south of Carbondale.

Kington joined the SIUC art faculty in 1961, becoming a full professor in 1972. His early work focused on small, ornate "toys," made of silver and other precious metals. At first he made them for his children, but the items soon claimed popular appeal in the art world, and were heavily exhibited.

A trained jeweler and silversmith, Kington's interest in blacksmithing began to grow in 1964 after a trip to New York City where he viewed works of iron at an exhibit there. It would be a turning point for both Kington as an artist and SIUC's art department.

"In New York I saw iron being treated with every bit as much respect as gold or silver," Kington recalled. "My interest grew from that point. I started finding and talking to blacksmiths around Southern Illinois who were in their 70s and 80s. I really liked the directness of the process and my respect for the material just grew immensely."

Throughout the late1960s, Kington added equipment, such as a gas forge at Allen Hall, as he struggled to master the new medium.

By 1970, Kington made a conscious decision to walk away from precious metals and concentrate on blacksmithing. He was a charter organizer of the Artist Blacksmith's Association of North America and helped put on annual gatherings for like-minded artists and craftsman from around the world.

In 1972, the program moved into its current location in the industrial wing at Pulliam Hall and many of Kington's works sprang from the small smithy there, later named in his honor.

In 1976, SIUC played host to a gathering by ABANA at Touch of Nature Environmental Center, attended by some 500 artisans. The event brought national exposure and an exhibition assembled for that event went on tour, making stops at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York (now known as the American Craft Museum) and the Smithsonian Institute.

During the ensuing years the SIUC blacksmithing program became the leading such program at a public university in the nation. Along the way, Kington exhibited his work at hundreds of venues, piling up honors and rave reviews. In 2000, Kington received the gold medal from the American Crafts Council, which it gives selectively and typically to honor career achievement in consummate craftsmanship.

"I think it's the finest honor I've ever received," Kington said.

While the endowment honors Kington's decades of work at SIUC, it was Smith who helped stir the foundation's interest in the SIUC program. Smith, who will start his ninth year at SIUC in September, said he wants to use the endowment for research, travel and materials for both himself and students.

"A lot of my motivation in pursuing these grants is to help create a more secure financial environment so that we can pursue our research in a way that we don't have to worry about money," Smith said. "I have lots of ideas."

Although the donating foundation wishes to remain anonymous, Shirley Clay Scott, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, said Smith has a long association with it, and its members collect pieces of Smith's art.

"Rick trained here. His work draws a lot of attention, including by the donors. They became very interested because of the quality of his work," Scott said. "This foundation is keen on preserving for all time these crafts. They don't want to see them disappear.

"When you have people who are true connoisseurs of this kind of art admiring the work of Brent Kington and Rick Smith enough to honor it in this way, that really says something about or programs and our people," Scott said.

Kington said he is pleased Smith, his former graduate student, will be the first to hold the chair named in his honor.

"Rick is very successful in the field as an artist," Kington said. "Without my input, they thought he was by far the strongest candidate for the position. And I agree."

Along with the endowment, the foundation also is offering the University up to $500,000 in two other matching awards aimed at scholarships and research for graduate and undergraduate metal-working students in the School of Art and Design.

The two, $250,000 "challenge" awards for scholarships and research require the University to match the funds in order to receive them. With the endowed chair and the matching awards, the total value of the package potentially is $2 million.

Scott said the University has up to two years to match the two, $250,000 challenge awards.

"It's a wonderful opportunity for supporting students, and great for the entire School of Art and Design," Scott said. "It will be a lot of hard work raising the matching funds. We're already working hard to identify potential donors."

Scott said SIUC's reputation as a national leader in metalworking will help garner the matching funds.

"We really have a distinguished history that these endowments will help us preserve," Scott said.

In July, Kington will give the keynote speech at the ABANA gathering in Seattle. He also is working with the Illinois State Museum on a series of exhibits showcasing a retrospective of his work. Plans call for its opening in 2008.

Kington is pleased when he looks back on his tenure at SIUC.

"I started at the University in a basement room about 28 by 14 feet, with a buffing machine in the hallway," he said with a chuckle. "I convinced the janitor to share his closet as an office for me.

"Now, there's nothing that will touch our program."

Cultivating resources is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.

$1 million donation creates L. Brent Kington chair

L. Brent Kington
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