On a memorable afternoon in September 2019, Michael Wille, director of the Wonsook Kim School of Art, recognized the gravity of the moment he was witnessing.
Internationally acclaimed artist Wonsook Kim ’75, M.A. ’76, M.F.A. ’78, honorary doctorate of arts ’19, along with her husband, Thomas Clement, a medical device inventor, had just committed $12 million to Illinois State University’s College of Fine Arts. The largest single cash gift in the University’s history, Kim was inspired, in part, by her wish to pay tribute to three professors emeriti—Harold Boyd, Harold Gregor, and Ken Holder—who inspired her as a student and artist. Three named professorships were established in their names as part of the gift.
Last fall Jean Miller, dean of the Wonsook Kim College of Fine Arts, announced that Art Professors Ladan Bahmani, Dr. Lea Cline, and Tyler Lotz would be the first of the endowed professors. These two-year positions provide funding for the recipients’ research and teaching. The opportunity, Miller said, not only benefits their own scholarly and creative activities but also honors three influential former faculty members in a lasting way.Appears In
“Wonsook Kim’s naming of the endowed professorships celebrates Professors Harold Boyd, Ken Holder, and Harold Gregor,” Miller said. “As teachers and artists, each of them will now be remembered by faculty and students for generations to come.”
Wille felt fortunate to have joined then-President Larry Dietz, Miller, and Vice President of University Advancement Pat Vickerman behind the scenes to make the request that would lead to the large crowd gathering that day at the Center for the Performing Arts to hear the big news.
“I know that I may never see a moment like this again and that many people go their whole careers and don’t see a moment like this,” Wille said. “At art departments around the country we just don’t have these kind of things happen very often. This is wonderfully uncommon.”
At the announcement event, Vickerman said, “A gift of this magnitude is a historic first for Illinois State, and the University is on the rise.”
Wille, now in his 20th year at the University and seventh in the director’s position, said Vickerman was right and that Kim’s gift, which in her speech she called “money to dream big,” brought the entire institution to a turning point that could inspire other alumni.
“To know that our institution helped this alum so much—which is something we take pride in—and this sense of community that we take pride in, and that she felt so welcomed and grateful that she wanted to honor these three professors who showed her how to be a researcher and how to be an artist, is truly exceptional,” Wille said. “They created a community for her.”
Ladan Bahmani, assistant professor of art in graphic design, is the inaugural Harold Gregor Endowed Professor of Art. She arrived at Illinois State in 2017. To have such an honor come so early in her career means a lot, but the best part, she said, is the professorship will ultimately help her students.
“As a pretenure faculty, this opportunity is invaluable, and it gives me extra motivation and time to continue working on my research and teaching,” she said. “I use every opportunity to share my research with my class and always look for ways to connect students to my research collaborators.”
The gift has helped facilitate those connections through guest lectures and workshops. Her goal is to forge ties between her students and professionals in the greater design community. She hopes this will broaden her students’ ideas about the many options available to them in the graphic design field. Bahmani said the funding has also helped her to start collaborating with colleagues on new projects within their shared research interests.
Bahmani added that she felt a bond with Kim, who arrived at Illinois State as a teenager from her native South Korea.
“As an immigrant myself, her life and education story resonate with me in different ways,” Bahmani said. “So receiving this gift from her is even more special to me.”
To be named the inaugural Harold Gregor Endowed Professor of Art, whom she called a “wonderful educator,” brought her a feeling of encouragement. While she never had the opportunity to meet Gregor, she did meet his wife, Marlene Gregor, virtually.
“We had a great conversation, and I got to know Professor Gregor more through her stories,” Bahmani said. “I hope to follow and honor Professor Gregor’s long-lasting legacy as a professor through my research and teaching.”
Similar to her colleagues, Bahmani was excited for the opportunities such a gift can bring to the college. Even better was the fact that the gesture was coming from one of the University’s own.
“To know that this generous gift was given by a former student and a successful artist made it even more special,” she said.
Dr. Lea Cline
Dr. Lea Cline, associate professor of art history and an archaeologist and art historian, is the inaugural Ken Holder Endowed Professor of Art. She has been at Illinois State since 2012. Receiving this award, she said, made her proud and emotional.
“I teared up because it means a great deal,” Cline said. “I’m a real team player, and this institution has given me a lot. I try to do my part to give back to the institution, and this award reaffirms our reciprocity, so to speak, with each other. They have given me such a wonderful honor.”
Cline’s work involves an archaeological excavation at a Roman imperial period site called Valle Gianni in Central Italy. Her research can’t be done remotely, and the equipment she needs comes at a cost. This professorship means she can purchase that equipment, and it will be used for years to come.
In addition, her students are exposed to world-class researchers as this gift puts Illinois State in an elite group of institutions offering hands-on excavating projects in Italy.
“Most of us who do long-term international research need funding, and we worry about it and spend a lot of time and energy applying for grants,” she said. “To have this two-year stability right now means that I’m not worrying about applying for grants; I’m just doing the work.”
Cline said the professorship brought other surprises. She didn’t know Holder, a Bloomington-Normal-based artist who died in 2018, but she said it was a bonus to get calls from some of his friends.
“I wish I had known him, but I have met his wife and his daughters and to share in their dad’s legacy is special,” Cline said. “That connection that Wonsook has made between me and his friends was something extra that I wasn’t expecting, and I want her to know that. Instead of knowing him, I get relationships with his family and friends.”
Tyler Lotz, professor of art and ceramics, is the inaugural Harold Boyd Endowed Professor of Art. He recalls feeling some initial disbelief about Kim’s gift since such things are rare in the arts.
“Someone bestows that kind of generosity, and you don’t quite believe it,” he said. “Then you hear her story and her connections to the University and the professors, and it starts to make sense.”
Lotz had known of Kim’s work for years, seeing her art at exhibitions, but being able to connect with her, especially in recent years has been special. Her gift, he said, has made buying a hydraulic press possible, which will help in his research and teaching and also allow for increased productivity. Having this new equipment will make it possible for his students to take a new course he has created called, Digital Clay, which takes them to an advanced level in creating pottery and sculpture.
“This is a piece of equipment that I would never have been able to afford,” he said. “I’m excited to add this to our arsenal of equipment in our ceramics program. We’ll pump out 50 pieces a day.”
Lotz recalled Kim’s humility during a Zoom call with himself, Bahmani, and Cline.
“She was very humble and didn’t want any credit,” he said. “But, she was happy and pleased that it was the three of us chosen for the inaugural professorships, and she shared some thoughts and stories about each of the professors she was honoring. It was touching.
“And, to be among the first group of endowed professors feels very special.”
The impact of Kim’s generosity in that moment that so grabbed Wille’s attention back in 2019 continues to spread outward like concentric circles. Ultimately, it creates possibility.
“This really gives us an opportunity to reimagine our future,” Wille said. “What are some of the dreams that we’ve imagined that we can do through this generous gift?
“We get to be creative with what our future can be.”
In addition to Kim, the real stars, he said, are the three professors and how special this is for them. He said each is valuable to their academic field, and he wants them to feel excited to work at an institution that rewards their scholarly efforts. An endowed professorship goes a long way toward fulfilling that wish.