Kenny Munro on our right with fellow artist Mike Greenlaw at Newcraighall
Kenny Munro on sculpting for Scotland
Saturday 7 February
Forty years of sculpting have enabled Kenny Munro to raise the profiles of several under-celebrated Scots. Film-maker Bill Douglas is commemorated by a Centre bearing his name at Exeter University for which Kenny is devising a sculpture Reflected Vision, in mirrored stainless steel, three-and-a-half metres tall that evokes Bill's passion for pre-cinematic optical developments. Kenny worked with veteran BBC documentary-maker Jim Wilson to recall Robert Louis Stevenson’s life in Samoa to which the author took his magic lantern and camera so is imagined using the newly-invented telephone to put in a call to the inventors of cinema in California! An eclectic career of keeping the bank-manager at bay has seen Kenny accepting a diversity of commissions ranging from poetry in public places – including Poetry Paths, with Duncan Glen's Stanes poem in Ravenscraig Park and one of Rabindranath Tagore's haiku poems, celebrating trees, forming a ring of large recycled stone at Beveridge Park - to statues at railway stations : a stainless steel sculpture entitled A Place of Dreams remembers film-maker Bill Douglas again at Newcraighall, and there are sculpture portraits of John Buchan at Perth, which was his birthplace but his family home awaits conversion to a museum, and of John Grierson at Stirling where the station has provided a setting for the bust formerly in the National Library.
On a roundabout at Newhailes Kenny placed horses – Tempus Fugit - that pre-dated The Kelpies and recall not only the nearby Musselburgh Racecourse but also a Roman hippodrome and are set amid wild-flowers. At Braehead Shopping Centre near the Clyde he created ten bronze and stone pillars; one commemorating the early female pilot Winnie Drinkwater despite difficulty in getting agreement on the accompanying text. Churchill Theatre, Edinburgh has two granite and bronze pillars from 1996 reflecting on local culture – Muriel Spark and Napier are referenced. A particular personal favourite is Sir Patrick Geddes (1854-1932), remembered by the four-metre Evergreen sculpture pillar in Riverside Gardens in Perth. Kenny's association with Geddes has prompted several visits to India : too often represented as a hoary old scientist, Geddes enhanced the sense of Edinburgh as an international hub, but was too close to anarchist geographers and Darwin's theory of Evolution to find favour with the Churches and academics who thwarted his bid for a professorship at Edinburgh University. However his passions for international ecology, horticultural gardening and pageantry saw him save much of Edinburgh’s Old Town and survey over 50 cities in India and other locations, concluding with the creation of the Scots College at Montpelier. Leonard Maguire played Geddes in Jim Wilson's film; ‘An Eye for the Future’ – (currently the Geddes Trust is Lobbying BBC to have it restored and a new film realised about Geddes) and the College is adorned with over twenty bas-relief sculptures by son Arthur, but recent years have seen him slightly eclipsed by John Muir and a loss of confidence in the future with the University of Montpelier wanting to demolish the adjoining Indian College created with Tagore and sell the site for redevelopment, so a campaign has developed for its reactivation as an educational centre. He is a subject requiring much more political and cultural debate, and the current publication ‘Saving the Scots College’ and the Walter Stephen - Geddes Trust one ‘Learning from the Lassies’ offer a unique insight into the many facet of Geddes and Geddesians.
Back in Scotland enlightened policies on a percentage for art by local authorities such as East Lothian have provided opportunities to create in consultation with the community sculptures that may also offer meeting places/seating, and at Saltersgate near Dalkeith he developed with metalworkers David Hastings and Gavin Smith gates, seats and pergolas. A seat on Canna is a memorial to sailing companions,. A bronze cast of Kenny's friend and mentor George Wyllie was bought by the Portrait Gallery, while a head of Robbie Coltrane from the time of the Tutti Frutti series is now in private hands. In 1988 Kenny created one of saxophonist Tommy Smith which is now with the Royal Conservatoire where it has helped the recognition of jazz.
A wooden Bengali boat brought to Scotland in 2004 to commemorate Geddes also embraces the link to the Golden Boat poem by Tagore. This appeared in St Andrews for the StAnZa poetry Festival in 2009, and also at the innovative outdoor exhibition Heartwood Blairgowrie. Sadly the Scottish Museums were not prepared to accept the donation of the unique boat and it has ‘weathered badly’ albeit appreciated at Kinghorn Loch, in contrast to the upfront regard for the arts found in India. At Ballater, Geddes's birthplace, a gate for a primary school commemorated his 150th birthday in 2004, and the same Bengal boat was put into water for the first time on Loch Kinord and had to be bailed out. The story of the international exchanges can been seen on You-tube in the film Bengal Boats & Rickshaw Roads
A clear perspex arts cabinet inspired by the Geddes Thinking Machine grids was gifted by Edinburgh City Council to its twin city Munich in 1994. A second perspex arts cabinet donated to the Scots College in 1998 earned the comment by a French critic that it was "better than I had thought", but a board-game suffered theft of its bronze ‘pawns’ – replaced by pebbles. The Stones of Scotland exhibition developed with Lesley-May Miller and George Wyllie contains stones from all 32 local authority areas of the country : overlooking Salisbury Crags and the Scottish Parliament, it has a verse from a Hugh McDiarmid poem Scotland also commemorating Iceland's Althing, the world's oldest parliament, and was inspired by Wyllie's trip round Ireland in 1994 which was filmed by Murray Grigor. Other collaborations include various bronzes and aluminium figures of Apollo and Daphne with Ian Hamilton Findlay.
Kenny made a replica of the 7-metre canoe Forerunner which took Francis Cadell seven hundred miles down the Murray River in 1852 in order to prove the viability of the paddle-steamer trade. The Scottish replica was to convey folk, on Gala Days between the harbours of Cockenzie and Port Seton. The first trip it filled with water until half the passengers got out and the others sat at the back. Aussies in Goolwa made their own version, and Kenny was able to join them in 2001 as part of the Source to Sea celebrations.
In 1996 a dumped supermarket trolley provided an artistic vehicle when placed by the Society of Scottish Artists in front of a Communist era giant bronze sculpture that it would probably outlast in Berlin. The Niches Project in 1990 by the Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop with over ten outdoor sculpture exhibition cabinets in Waterloo Place close by the Calton Cemetery shared the courage of the brazier-and-cabin vigil for a Scottish Parliament across the road but an extension of its three-month duration was declined.
These and other adventures may seem far-removed from Kenny's first creation, a large metal feature inspired by the skeleton of a whale, which struck a telegraph pole en route to installation at the Royal High School in Barnton where it was tweaked into shape with block and tackle, then sadly it cut head art teacher’s Nigel MacIssac's head and duly disappeared without trace. However Kenny’s family of artists and musicians have provided great encouragement for him and his brother Gordon, and they were so very proud when Quartet a solid polished stainless steel sculpture that won a prize at the Royal Scottish Academy in 1979 for their father Jim Munro, who was equally passionate about jazz, was accepted for display in 2012 at an upper plaza area frequented by performers and by MSPs at Holyrood.