Master Metalsmith Robert Montgomery

Robert Montgomery surrounds himself in a silent optimism that does not simply ignore adversity, but rises above it. His generous spirit has turned blight to bounty and earned him untold respect and admiration. He is an accomplished artist, a renowned educator and most certainly a remarkable human being. At 60 years of age, Monty has more than mastered the art of metalsmithing, he has mastered the art of living.

Robert “Monty” Montgomery

Monty was drafted in February, 1943. He served briefly in the pack artillery and the air cadets before his final transfer to the 63rd infantry, just prior to D-Day. The 63rd was thrust into the very heart of the war in Europe, carrying their charge “Blood and Fire,” through the Belgian Bulge, the Colmar Pocket and the Allied advance on Heidelburg. On February 27, 1945, Monty found himself in command of the 14 surviving members of a company that had once numbered 187. As midnight approached, 100 recruits reached the 63rd with orders to secure a hill overlooking Setteswaler Germany.

As they dug in, a Nazi Panzer division advanced to challenge; the ensuing barrage of heavy artillery lasted into the morning. Throughout the assault Monty moved from foxhole to foxhole attending the wounded. He recalls with great clarity, “Some of the men, the recruits especially, would scream so that you couldn’t tell if they were wounded . . . or just frightened . . . . To avoid getting hit we’d always time the sequence from muzzle blast to explosion. This way we always knew how long we had to take cover I remember, that night they were coming eight seconds apart. I was between two foxholes when I saw the blast from a Tiger tank. I ran until the count of seven and then just hit the ground.” A shell exploded 10 feet away, sending shards of searing shrapnel through his legs and face. Monty lay with his legs paralyzed and his jaw shattered in seven places, unable to move or speak. More devastating still was the realization that he was left totally blind.

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He was found and rushed to an army field hospital; commencing a five-year ordeal that would take him through six major hospitals and 182 operations. With modern reconstructive surgery still in its infancy, the repairing was slow and arduous. Still, the day came, three years later, when the bandages were removed from his eyes and Monty could again see. Within the year he was walking and soon set to the task of rebuilding his life.

Necklace, gold, silver, 1978 Rings, 14k gold, 1982

His discharge from both the army and Valley Forge General Hospital came in December, 1949. Though he lacked formal training, his interest in the arts prompted him to enroll at the Kansas City Art Institute on the G.I. Bill. Monty recalls this first encounter as one of total bewilderment. “This was my first art class since the fourth grade . . . I was terribly naive, I simply didn’t know how to see. . . I still think back to that first day each time I get a new group of freshmen and remember what a shock it was.” Monty received his B.F.A. from the Art Institute and, in 1953, enrolled at Wichita State University to pursue his B.S. in Art Education. It was here that he took his first course in metalsmithing.

Years of design training had proved especially suited to the medium of enameling, and the following year Monty entered the Kansas Designer/Craftsman Show at the University of Kansas. He was present to see his enameled neckpiece win a purchase award. Carlyle Smith, professor of metalsmithing at the University of Kansas, was also present at the show and recalls, “l cannot remember who introduced us, but Monty and I began a serious conversation about jewelry and silversmithing. The more we talked, the more interested Monty became about metalsmithing.” Smith offered Monty a graduate assistantship that would enable him to pursue his masters in silversmithing at the University of Kansas.

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Chalice, silver, rosewood, amber, approx.. 5″ h., 1979

In the autumn of 1955 Monty enrolled in the M.F.A. program at KU, with the opportunity to develop as both an artist and an educator. “Cadyle (Smith),” Monty recalls, “was a tremendous technician. My design sense was pretty strong by this time, but Carlyle gave me the technical control that brought it all together.” With these ripening years of study came the formidable task of teaching 24 contact hours of design, metals and color theory. Monty took the task to heart, earning the respect and admiration of his peers and instructors alike. Smith recollects, “Monty was every instructor’s dream of what a student should be. I will always remember him as a fine student, an untiring worker and an excellent instructor.” Monty so impressed the faculty at KU that he was retained after graduation as a fulltime instructor in metals and design. Monty’s spirit and enthusiasm for teaching was, albeit unknown to anyone, already helping to shape the future of contemporary metalsmithing in America. His impact upon his students was so profound that many still regard him as the principal influence in their creative development.

One young (and admittedly rebellious) student Brent Kington would later say, “His influence on my development as a student and his contribution to my professional and creative life was so very important. He gave stimulus and support that continue to be of value and benefit to this day. At a time when I most desperately needed direction, confidence and challenge, he was there for me.” Similarly, another former student from KU, Robert Ebendorf, remembers, “As I think back on my experiences as a young artist, Monty’s influence comes most to mind. One thing I remember well was his total concern for his students. He took the risk of stepping outside the classroom . . . he even held open forums on Sunday nights . . . a gathering for artists, musicians and intellectuals. He always pushed the ‘thinking process,’ reminding us that artists are part of a larger community . . . that we had to be aware of goings-on in the world around us. He also brought a great sense of style and taste to the department. I’m sure it was a sad day for the University when he left.”

Pitcher, silver, rosewood, 1978

Monty’s years at KU may long be remembered as the birthplace of a legacy that, to this day, shows no sign of diminishing. His story would, however, have to continue elsewhere. “The plain truth is,” Monty recalls, “my salary was barely enough to live on.” In 1964 Monty left KU to head the graphic design program it Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Indiana. Despite Monty’s persistence, it was three years before ISU would commit to a metals program. The beginnings were humble indeed. As Monty recalls, “We had one buffer, one sake, one hammer and 18 hand drills . . . I must admit, after the splendid facilities at KU this was all rather horrifying.” Yet, in four short years the program had grown with such intensity that he could no longer divide his time between graphics and metal. “We had a new Chairman . . . and he asked me to choose between the two . . . it was really no contest; of course I chose metals.”

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Chalice, silver, rosewood, amber, approx. 7″ h., 1979

Twenty years later, Monty remains a distinguished and influential member of the ISU faculty. He continues to provide the personal and thought-provoking instruction that has characterized his many years of teaching. Considering this, it is not surprising that Monty has developed some vigorous opinions about this field. He insists, “Overspecialization is killing us! Metalsmiths, and artists in general, are so often just educated clods in this very narrow field. My best students have always been those who’ve studied literature, art history, drawing and painting . . . but always with a commitment to metals. Too many curriculums don’t allow the student to become more versatile in the arts. We need this well-rounded education, especially the hands-on experience . . . it’s the most important part of learning.”

It is this immediate and tangible encounter that Monty regards as so significant. Yet, he acknowledges as a distinct difference between “hands-on” education and purely technical training. “Too often techniques dominate the creative process. This is not to say that techniques aren’t important, but I do feel that innovations in the technical aspect of making objects are not as great as the creative energies that exist in our young students today.” While he finds function for function’s sake disturbing, Monty recognizes the integrity of the functional tradition in metalsmithing: “I look for that creative form that does not alienate function, but exists with it in a balanced harmony. To achieve this our students must learn form, form, form! Only with such a constant exposure and awareness can we escape from this thing of obvious function.”

Chalice, silver, rosewood, ivory, approx. 6″ h., 1979

Monty rarely speaks of his own work. Always quick to change the subject to the accomplishments of his students, his modesty does not lessen the significance of his own production. His commissioned pieces can be found in private and public collections, churches and sovereign households throughout the United States and abroad. One of his first patrons King ‘lbn Sa’ud of Saudi Arabia commissioned a sterling coffee service in 1958. Monty was, by this time, already gaining considerable recognition in the United States. In entering nearly every competition and exhibition available to him, he had amassed countless awards and honors. By the mid 1960s the process had become so routine, in fact, that he suddenly made a transition of thought and purpose. “I realized that producing pieces for shows had become almost automatic . . . lacking the excitement that it once held. It somehow became more exciting to see my students getting into, and sometimes winning, exhibitions and competitions.”

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Chalice, silver, rosewood, approx.. 6″ h., 1979

It has long been Monty’s charge to elevate his students work from a mere exercise in technique to an expression of the creative individual. Similarly, Monty recognizes no clear dichotomy between craftsmanship and creative self-expression. He feels instead that techniques are an outgrowth of creative necessity and, likewise, concepts exist to lend substance to man’s almost instinctive need to create, to leave a mark. In retrospect, one thing is clear: Monty holds a deep respect for the hand-wrought object, and his own work stands in praise of this tradition. The bane of all artists, perhaps, is that their work will never live up to their personal ideals and lofty aspirations, for concepts and attitudes grow far quicker than a body of work. Yet, if we turn a sympathetic eye to the work at hand we can glimpse a measure of these ideals in the creative growth that led to their formulation. Monty’s work supports this notion with sterling clarity.

While he chooses to work in the traditional idiom of the functional object, both practical and symbolic, his work possesses a physical integrity that seems to laud the very nature of the medium and processes used in shaping it. The sculptural grace of his cast rings derive their strength from the unmistakable ebb and flow of molten wax. They seem to characterize Monty’s contention that materials are to be guided, never forced, that a material should express its inherent qualities. This attitude is evident in all of Monty’s work. His fabricated pieces are straightforward and elegant, proudly constructed and direct in their use of line, form and texture. Although his work appears candid and unlabored, Monty takes great care in composing each piece. He brings to his work an almost classical monumentality that owes more to sublime proportion than to ornamental extravagance. Monty has always stressed that “to understand why an object looks good is to understand proportion.” Indeed, he has applied this understanding with a resolution that has escaped the inevitable obsolescence of fleeting fashion.

Chalice, silver, rosewood, amber, approx. 6½ h., 1979

Throughout his years of production, one result has remained ever-present: the quality student. With great skill and humanity he has crafted artists and educators who have, in turn, enriched the field with their talents. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to list here all who have benefitted from Monty’s guidance. Suffice it to say that his former students are ranked among the nation’s leaders in education, metalsmithing and graphic design. A triple by-pass operation six years ago, chronic diabetes and two heart attacks have done little to dissolve the spirit and selfless energy of this great man. Brent Kington adds, “I have never known a teacher who was so consistently concerned with his students, inside as well as outside the classroom. He has, for so many years, put forth untold energy, investment of personal time and concern for their growth and development.” Monty deserves the deepest respect for all that he has given to the field of metalsmithing, and unbridled admiration for all that he has overcome to do so.

Indiana State University honored Monty with a major exhibition, featuring the work of his most accomplished former metals students, in the University’s Turman Gallery, March 23 to April 14, 1985.

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David Peterson’s association with Robert Montgomery began in 1980 during graduate studies at ISU. Peterson now teaches metals at Purdue University, where he is an assistant professor of art and designs.

By David Peterson
Metalsmith Magazine - 1986 Spring
In association with SNAG's
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.
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