' The Gerard Manley Hopkins Summer School has made a brave effort to include a visual element in its programme only appropriate . . .'
'One of Europe's most exciting cultural forums'
' one of the best literary festivals in Ireland '
James McKenna, Sculptor and creator of the GM Hopkins monument in Monasterevin died on October 10, 2000. Visitors to the Hopkins Summer School since its inception in 1987 were privileged, like all of us, to hav known James, his compassion, his creative energy, his great sense of humour. Here we have added clippings from the newspapers recording his passing. (See also the Hopkins Society tribute to James)
McKenna Sculptor, playwright and poet with a total commitment to the arts
James McKenna, who died 3, on October 10th aged 67, was a genuine Renaissance man. A highly regarded sculptor, he was also a noted playwright, poet and occasional polemicist, and was a candidate in the June 1977 General Election, campaigning on the slogan ÔArt for the peopleÕ.
Born in Dublin, he was fostered and brought up by a farming family near Delgany, Co Wicklow, attending Kilcool National School and Bray Technical School. Interested in art from an early age, he went on to study at the National College of Art and Design, graduating with a diploma in sculpture in 1955.
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, 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, and in 1959 he wrote his first and most successful play, The Scatterin', about emigration in the teddy boy era, which became one of the hits of the 1960 Dublin Theatre Festival, and was later staged in the West End where it ran for five weeks. It has been revived in several productions since. In 1969 he 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.
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. He 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 he 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.
Copyright The GM Hopkins Society 2000