Obituary: Ira Michael DeKoven
Published November 16, 2016
Mar 8, 1947 – Nov 15, 2016
Ira Michael DeKoven, lived in many worlds. Born in Chicago in 1947, seven minutes before his twin sister Mona, he grew up in Highland Park, IL. As a teenager, he took up guitar and gravitated back to the city, a vibrant metropolitan center in the 1960s of jazz, folk, blues, and daring new forms of art and theatre. Soon after graduating from Antioch College, where he had studied art engineering, Ira became fascinated by the hard materials of the earth and the power of fire and the human hand to shape them. He learned welding at the Hobart Welding School in Ohio and blacksmithing in Santa Fe, New Mexico with master craftsman Frank Turley. Of all his mentors, however, the person who most personified the kind of blacksmith Ira aspired to become was Philip Simmons, a renowned African-American blacksmith who helped give Ira his start in Charleston. Simmons would be inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame and given the South Carolina Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Ira lived in Yonges Island, SC, before moving with his wife Jane and their infant son Jesse to Walkertown, North Carolina. On a spacious, tree-filled plot of land, they made a home in a small cabin and Ira set up the forge he would use for the next thirty years. Ira and Jane divorced in 1987 and Jane and Jesse moved to California. Ira continued to live in that cabin until his death from ALS on November 15, 2016.
Ira remained a student all his life, even as he in turn passed on his knowledge and techniques to younger apprentices. He earned an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan in 1996. Over the years he became a cherished member of the local crafts community, appeared as the “village blacksmith” in Middleton Place Gardens in Charleston, SC, and in numerous craft shows and reconstructed 19th century towns. He has been featured prominently for decades in the shops and fairs of the Piedmont Craftsmen.
Ira was also a regular performer at open mics and ensembles throughout the Winston-Salem area. His guitar and harmonica created renditions of many of the folk and blues tunes he had heard in Chicago and others he had perfected along the way. Mississippi John Hurt would provide the kind of musical inspiration for him that Philip Simmons provided in iron. Ira serenaded his son, his friends, and his many nephews and niecesand then grand-nieces and grand-nephews–as they moved from infancy through young adulthood.
A newspaper article about Ira in 1982 began: “When Ira DeKoven works, Ira DeKoven sweats.” The sweat and muscles produced works of iron that grace public and private spaces throughout the Winston-Salem area and beyond: gates, balconies, screens, railings, sculptures, fountains, tables, fire tools rendered in iron, bronze, copper, aluminum and enamel are regular features of the local landscape. Ira’s designs range from classical and intricate to whimsical and idiosyncratic. (Although he was an old-style blacksmith, the only horseshoes in his inventory are actually belt-buckles.) Typically, he would ask a client what his/her ‘talisman’ was, some element of nature or art that would symbolize their inner soul, and would try to incorporate that into his designs.
He perfected the finishes on his metal sculptures with both scientific and artistic sophistication. Donkey-headed hooks adorn many walls; lizards, animated ‘happy franks’ and dolphins seem about to leap out of fire-screens; iron-forged vines with enameled flowers seem as fragile and delicate as they are hard and indestructible; vulnerable iron birds are perched just inches away from their water bowl on cocktail tables; heart-shaped trivets carry such expression that it appears that even iron can reflect a broken heart. Ira received the George Black Award from the Community Appearance Commission of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County in 1992 for his “career perfecting a craft which has contributed to the betterment of community appearance.”
The disease that was to take Ira’s life may already have manifested itself during his last four years, when he experienced weakness in his limbs and left the forge to set up a jewelry-making workshop in his basement. His work in enamel, copper, brass and finally silver produced some unique items of jewelry that are also featured in the Piedmont Craftsmen store and adorn the necks, hands and ears of family, friends and strangers.
Ira is survived by his son Jesse, his sisters Mona and Sidra, his faithful dogs Bozo and Lightnin’ Bug, and his adoring cousins, nieces, nephews, grand-nieces and grand-nephews on two continents–and by his many friends, neighbors, fellow-forgers of steel, of silver, and of music, and grateful clients across the globe. And also by the amazing caregivers, those “sisters of mercy” who made his last months not only bearable but as comfortable as possible, who offered companionship and love along with their practical and nursing skills.
Ira DeKoven’s funeral will take place at the Salem Funeral Chapel in Winston-Salem, 120 S. Main, at 2:00 P.M. Thursday, November 17, 2016. Online condolences may be sent to www.salemfh.com.