Author: Kris A. Patzlaff
Society of North American Goldsmiths has awarded the 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award to Brent Kington, and honored him at the SNAG conference in Seattle, WA. Kington is being recognized for more than 40 years of significant contributions to the field as an educator, as well as his lifelong commitment to professional organizations and the art of blacksmithing.
Brent Kington was born in Topeka, Kansas in 1934. In high school he excelled in art and was encouraged to attend the University of Kansas, where he studied with Carlyle Smith and Robert Montgomery. Graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1957, he continued his study at Cranbrook Academy of Art under Richard Thomas. During his years at Cranbrook, his peers included Stanley Letchzin, Heikki Seppa, Fred Fenster and Michael Jerry.
Immediately after receiving his MFA from Cranbrook in 1961 Kington began the odyssey of resurrecting a failing metalsmithing program at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. Equipment was sparse, but with little more than a few hammers, stakes and a buffing machine, Kington created a program that would become one of the most important metal programs in the country, most notably for blacksmithing.
During his early years in Carbondale, Kington’s work revolved around creating small, whimsical sculptures and toys cast in silver. Reflecting his early interest in cartoon drawings, his toys were humorous, playful and kinetic. The importance of movement and implied movement continues to be an element in his work.
It was in 1964, while attending the first World of Craft Council in New York, that Kington visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The visit to the arms and armory galleries of the museum would send him on a path that would forever change the direction of his work, the program at SIUC and the practice of blacksmithing in the country.
Kington was inspired by the work, noting the technical detail, rich surfaces and forms produced in iron that were as accomplished and thoughtful as works in silver and gold. Upon returning home, he collected as much information, books and tools as he could on blacksmithing. With very little written on the subject, Kington sought out local southern Illinois blacksmiths, including Ben and Jim Deal, in order to acquire information. From 1964 through 1969, he continued to learn about blacksmithing, devoting a week or two each month to this new skill, while creating other work for exhibitions.
In 1970, Kington and his students hosted a blacksmithing workshop at Southern Illinois University with Alex Bealer, author of The Art of Blacksmithing. Although it was expected to be primarily for his students, over 60 people attended, bringing together educators and craftspeople from all over the country. Attendees included Michael Croft, Stanley Letchzin, Nilda Getty, Richard Mawdsley, Garrett DeRuiter, Robert Ebendorf, Ronald Pearson and Bill Furhman, among others. This conference is considered seminal in bringing blacksmithing and iron into the arena as a viable material and process for contemporary expression. A number of conferences followed at different venues, with greater attendance, leading to the formation of ABANA, the Artist-Blacksmiths Association of America.
By 1976, the conference returned to SIU, bringing 490 attendees from across the U.S, Italy, England and Canada. Kington and graduate students Jim Wallace, Daryl Meier and Joel Schwartz, along with the Director of Art and Exhibits at the SIUC University Museums, organized an unprecedented exhibition of contemporary and historical ironwork, Iron Solid Wrought/USA, which later traveled to the Museum of Crafts in New York and the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian. It was also during this time that Kington and his students were exploring and conducting research on pattern welded steel and mokume-gane.
By 1972, the first university-taught blacksmithing classes were offered at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, which offers the only MFA in Blacksmithing in the country. The blacksmiths studio was designated the “L. Brent Kington Smithy” in 2003.
Kington was now committed to his ferrous metal work, sharing information in the University smithy and working in his studio, leaving his cast silver toys and objects behind. Creating a series of works, including weathervanes, the Icarus series (early 80s) and the Croziers, Crescents and Spires series (mid 80’s to the present), Kington pushed the art of blacksmithing as a sculptural medium, exploring alternative surface treatments and elements of movement or implied movement.
Kington’s extensive exhibition record includes venues across the country and abroad. Most recently, a retrospective exhibition entitled L. Brent Kington, Mythic Metalsmith opened in 2007 at Southern Illinois Art Gallery in Whittington, Illinois. The exhibition, curated by Debra K. Tayes, traveled to the Illinois State Museum, Chicago Art Gallery in Chicago, the Southern Illinois University Museum in Carbondale, the National Ornamental Museum in Memphis, TN, the Illinois State Museum in Lockport, and ended its tour in 2011 at the Illinois State Museum in Springfield. This retrospective featuring more than 45 years of work, brings together pieces from private and permanent collections for the first time. Kington worked closely with Tayes for two years, with support from the National Endowment for the Arts American Masterpieces Initiative. A beautiful catalog accompanied the exhibition.
His work is in many permanent collections, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, The National Ornamental Museum, Society of Contemporary Crafts, Friendship Hall in Nakjo, Japan, and the Mint Museum of Art + Design, among others.
A major contributor to the American Studio Crafts Movement, Brent Kington received the prestigious “Gold Metal” from the American Art Council in 2000. He has been honored with the Outstanding Artist Educator Award in 2009 by Penland School of Crafts, the Lifetime Member Award in 2006 by the Artist–Blacksmiths Association of North America, and awarded the American Craft Council Trustee Emeriti in 1994. Other honors include: Artist-Blacksmiths Association of North America’s Bealer Award for Distinguished Service in 1983, the National Endowment for the Arts’ Craftsmen Fellowship in 1982, the American Craft Council’s Academy of Fellows in 1978, and the National Endowment for the Crafts’ Craftsmen Fellowship in 1975.
In recognition of Kington’s contributions to blacksmithing and as an educator, an anonymous artistic foundation donated $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, was the first to hold the Chair. This endowment supports research, travel and materials.
Kington’s long-term commitment to professional organizations in the field began as a founding member of the Society of North American Goldsmiths. Serving from 1970-1973, he was the first President and served as Director from 1973-1977. The many organizations in which he has served include the National Ornamental Museum as a trustee from 1987-1997, the Artist-Blacksmiths Association of North America as Director from 1976-79, and the American Craft Council as Trustee from 1976-1980. He currently serves on the Resource Committee for the National Ornamental Museum and the Program Advisory Committee at the Kentucky School of Craft in Hindeman, KY.
The list of Kington’s students who have become successful metalsmiths and blacksmiths, whether owning their own business or becoming educators themselves in universities, craft programs and museums across the country, is enormous. Leading by example, Brent Kington’s service to SNAG, ABANA and the metals community at large was an inspiration to those who studied with him. Many have chosen to serve SNAG and other professional organizations through committee and board service. Graduates of SIUC Michael Croft, Mary Lee Hu, Harlan Butt, and Kris Patzlaff have all served as Presidents of SNAG.
Brent Kington’s life story is engaging. To gain an in-depth appreciation for the magnitude of his contributions to the field I suggest reading the transcript of an interview conducted by Mary Douglas for the Archives of American Art, Nanette L. Laitman Documentation Project for Craft and Decorative Arts in America, for the Smithsonian Institution.
The catalog of photographs and essays from the retrospective exhibition L. Brent Kington, Mythic Metalsmith is available through SNAG.
Brent Kington retired from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale in 1996. He continues to have an active studio practice in Mikanda, Illinois where he lives with his wife, Diane.