Labor of love: Alum's artist work is a tribute to ISU campus and friend
by Kristen Wegrzyn '11
When Doug Johnson '87, M.S. '91, was given the opportunity to paint a mural in honor of the rededication of the Eleanor Kong Conference Room in the Vrooman Center, he agreed without hesitation. He had several reasons for enthusiastically creating the painting in celebration of the 1997 graduate.
"I wanted to honor Eleanor's memory, our friendship, and her dedication to Illinois State. She was such a giving person and so committed to the success of others," Johnson said. "She is and remains an inspiration for all students to succeed in student leadership, to take chances and dedicate their efforts for our community."
Kong was an elementary education alum, a Walker hall residence coordinator, cofounder and past president of the Asian Pacific American coalition, and an executive board member of the Minority Retention program for Future Teachers. Johnson was a residence hall coordinator for five years. He worked in that position with Kong prior to her death on September 8, 1999. She passed away at the young age of 24, shortly after being diagnosed with Lupus.
The conference room named in her honor was established in 2001 in Walker Hall and included a mural created by Johnson and Associate Dean Rick Lewis, M.S. '87, of the Dean of Students office.. The building was decommissioned and the new Student Fitness Center and McCormick Hall constructed, forcing a relocation of the conference room.
Kong's picture in Vrooman Center now joins photographs of other Asian Americans who have made great contributions to society. Along with her photo, a five-and-a-half foot tall portrait of Kong hangs above the doors of the conference room in the Hewett and Manchester halls complex. Johnson, executive director of the McLean County Arts Center, worked on the painting for about six weeks. He compared the effort to building a boat in his basement.
"This was not just due to the large scale of the painting, but more from the emotional weight of creating a memorial portrait of a dear friend. The vast majority of individuals that utilize this meeting space will not know more of Eleanor Kong than a brief biography, a few dates, and this image. Having the opportunity to present her, to articulate her legacy, in a single handmade image, was daunting," Johnson said.
A pallbearer at her funeral, he remains connected with her family members, who were happy with the painting. Pleasing them was Johnson's first priority.
"Next, it was rewarding to have ISU staff members, who had known her, come to me with appreciation for the work and the likeness. Oscar Wilde said, 'A portrait is a picture of someone with something wrong with one of the eyes.' I hope I got the eyes right," Johnson said.
He counts the work as a unique way to contribute to the campus community, which nurtured him as a student. While an undergraduate, Johnson was a student government leader. The mentoring he received from faculty and staff members had a great deal to do with his own personal growth and success.
"The opportunity to give back and enrich the lives of current and future students by evidencing the legacy of past student leaders, especially those from my own time at the university, was a small way to acknowledge my own appreciation," said Johnson, who was honored as a distinguished alumnus by the College of Fine Arts in 2011.
"I, and my fellow honorees, gave a lecture to current students at the University Gallery. It was rewarding to share my experience with those young artists," he said. Johnson shared how happy he is to serve as a mentor for ISU interns as they "begin the process of learning the business of art making and start the process of synthesizing their academic pursuits into marketable experiences."
He recalls the benefit of making a number of lasting relationships with fellow students, faculty, and staff at the University, as well as how many of those people were able to build their career thanks to ISU.
"I believe that people don't give to institutions. People give to people. They give to their memory, their achievements, and their aspirations. I invested time in this artwork for ISU because so many people from ISU have invested in me," Johnson said. "Anyone who pledges their support to Illinois State University is also reciprocating their own respect and appreciation to a terrific school."