The recent RGS Alumni Facebook photos of ex-RGS Head of Design and Technology, David Cotterill, and a band of intrepid pioneer pupils setting up the Dowty Memorial Workshop, led to one of them being identified as John McKenna (1975-80). John left RGS to study at Middlesex Polytechnic Art College before winning a bursary to study at the Sir Henry Doulton School of Sculpture. After working as lecturer he was elected a member of the Royal Society of Sculptors in 1993 and became a full-time sculptor. John relocated to Scotland in 2002 where has developed a workshop that enables him to create large scale public sculptures.
His scupltures can be found across the UK and his most recent insallation was unveiled in February 2022 in Port Glasgow. The sculptures are thought to be the largest of shipbuilders in the UK and one of the biggest in Europe. The two colossal shipbuilders are 33 feet tall and weigh 14 tonnes. They symbolise the proud history the town and Inverclyde has with shipbuilding, dating back to the 18th Century.
When interviewed for Scottish Television, John said: “When my design of the shipbuilders sculpture was overwhelmingly voted for by the people of Port Glasgow I was absolutely thrilled that my vision for the artwork would be realised. It was no easy task to design and complete the sculpture, a complete unique one-off, a dynamic pose, the colossal pair swinging their riveting hammers, trying to evoke working together. To see the pair finished in metal at full-size was fantastic, for so long these complex figures were all ‘in my head’.
That complexity and the size of the work were a huge challenge, not only in the structural design but the faceted plating that is the sculpture surface. Consequently, the artworks took longer than expected but anything worthwhile is worth waiting for. These artworks, made in my studio in Ayrshire, are to celebrate the historical shipbuilding industry of Port Glasgow and the impact ‘Clydebuilt’ had on the whole world."
John has also created works in the West Midlands including: Saltmakers in Droitwich Spa; busts of Basil and Damien D'Oliveira at Worcestershire County Cricket Club; 'Jigger' the 43 foot tall miner in Brownhills commemorating those who died in pit collapse; Dorothy Round, Wimbledon Champion from Dudley; Eof, the visionary swineheard from Evesham.
Football fans visiting Celtic Park, Glasgow, will see John's sculptures of legendary manager Jock Stein holding the European Cup his team won in 1967, along with a statue of his Lisbon Lion captain, Billy McNeill, capturing the moment when Celtic became the first British team to lift the trophy.
Bon Scott, the lead singer of rock band AC/DC, hailed from Kirriemuir before moving to Australia as a boy where he met the Young brothers in 1974. Bon died in 1980 just as the band was becoming a global phemonenon and in 2016 his hometown residents crowdfunded a statue of their most famous son. John was commissioned and his statue is visited by thousands of music fans each year.
John's work also extends to animals and visitors to St Helier on Jersey cannot miss his 'Jersey Cows' installation, while a four metre kestrel hovers 14 metres high at business park in the Midlands.
We are fairly confident in stating that John is the only RGS alumnus (at least to-date that we know of) to be responsible for winning 'Roundabout of the Year'. This unique and niche accolade was bestowed upon the 'Jigger' roundabout located on the A452 in Brownhills in 2021 by the UK Roundabout Appreciation Society.
John's passion and enthusiasm for his art remains as strong as ever. He has followed the path he started on at RGS and has achieved tremendous professional recognition along with commercial success. We look forward to seeing his future installations.
A selection of images of his sculptures can be found in the alumni website photo gallery.
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