James McKenna Sculptor
1933 - 2000

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

James McKenna Sculptor, Playwright and Poet

Aidan Dunne, Art Critic, The Irish Times,
Saturday, Ocober 14, 2000


A scholarship enabled him to spend six months in Italy but, on his return to Ireland, with no real economic outlet for his work, he went to London. There, for much of the time, he shared a flat with the painter Brian Bourke and "soldiered at various Paddy in the Smoke jobs". His experiences included tunnelling for the London Underground, and he would often emerge at the end of the day with a small horse modelled in clay. James exhibited work with the Irish Exhibition of Living Art in 1957 and the following year with the Sculptors' Institute Exhibition. In 1960, he exhibited with Noel Sheridan, Patrick McElroy, Patrick Pye, Elizabeth Rivers and others He was a founder member of Independent Artists, a major force in Irish art well into the 1970s. The Group's first exhibition featured a virtual show within a show of his work.

His interest in theatre developed in tandem with his interest in art. In 1959 he wrote his first and most successful play, The Scatterin', about emigration in the teddy boy era. This became one of the hits of the 1960 Dublin Theatre Festival. The play was later staged in the West End where it ran for five weeks. It has been revived in several productions since.

In 1969, McKenna established his own Rising Ground Drama Group, dedicated to theatre of "the mask, verse speech and dance dialogue", in which he functioned as writer, director, designer and mask maker. Productions included Citizen's Tree, Hotep Comes from the River, Ulster Lies Bleeding, People' Without Fame and At Bantry, set during the 1798 Rising, which was staged at The Peacock Theatre. Much of this theatrical work was overtly agitprop in nature, but all of his artistic endeavour were bound up with his role as a vocal, fiercely idealistic critic of the then Arts Council and what he perceived as a corrupt, moribund political order. In art he was an opponent of abstraction and a committed champion of figuration.

James McKenna believed art should be accessible, and function as a progressive, egalitarian force in society. His unapologetically combative stance may explain why it was 1977 before he received his first commission for a sculpture.

Major commissions included the 1977 granite Female Figure and Tree which he sculpted for the Central Bank mint in Sandyford and, perhaps his most ambitious work, the multi-figure limestone monument Resurgence at the University of Limerick, begun in 1979 and completed in 1983.

Notoriously unworldly, he ploughed any money he managed to make back into his work, surviving for long periods on a diet of bread and jam. "He was," a friend recalls, "the most unworldly person I've ever known, completely and utterly committed to art."

As a sculptor McKenna eschewed the use of power tools, preferring laborious manual techniques in carving stone or wood, which meant that the creation of his often monumental horses and figures was hugely labour intensive and uneconomic. A natural carver, his pieces have a rough-hewn, rugged quality but also a gracefulness to them. Horses remained one of his favourite subjects. His enormous composite horses, ingeniously constructed from several discrete blocks of stone or wood, became something of a trademark. Like many fine equine statues, they possess something of the formality and dignity of classical Greek sculpture.

Achievement of James McKenna sculptor

James McKenna dramatist

James McKenna -European Perspective

Oisin Caught in a Timewarp

James McKenna playwright and poet

Sad Tale of Hazelwood