Man of science left an artistic legacy

Article by Trisha Fielding

What began as a hobby for a biological scientist named Ron Kenny grew into a lifelong love of painting and sketching that later led to the establishment of the James Cook University Art Collection.

Ronald Patrick Kenny spent 26 years as a lecturer and Associate Professor with James Cook University, where his research interests focused on the ecology and physiology of the tropics, but it is his contribution to the cultural life of Townsville that Kenny is most fondly remembered for.

An early foray into the world of art came during Kenny’s time as a member of the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition, which visited Heard, Macquarie and Kerguelen Islands, between 1947 and 1951. Kenny, who was 24 years old at the time, spent fourteen months on Macquarie Island studying the seals and penguins that were numerous on the island. During his time there he discovered a colony of Australian fur seals, which at that time were thought to have been extinct for 40 years.

Macquarie Island is situated about 1,600km southeast of Tasmania. The temperature averaged around 5 degrees Celsius during Kenny’s stay on the sub-arctic island, but it was the wind, rather than the cold, that the research team found it most difficult to contend with. For some weeks, the wind regularly reached speeds of up to 100 km/h, and on one occasion, gale force winds of 200 km/h damaged some of the huts in the settlement.

In a 1949 interview with a Perth newspaper, the Western Mail, Kenny told of his time on Macquarie Island, recalling how the team took sufficient stores with them to last for two years, including an ample supply of tinned fruits.

“Mr Kenny related with a grin how the men stacked up cases and cases of tinned fruit, all neatly labelled as apples, pears, pineapple, plums, and so on. However, the labels were a snare and delusion, for almost without exception the tins contained tropical fruit salad,” the report said.

The research team had also been amused to find when they arrived on the island, that the chairs they had been supplied with were all canvas deck chairs, which must have been quite useless in the windy conditions that prevailed.

But it was the sub-arctic conditions, in particular the bracing winds, that provided Kenny with inspiration for his hobbies of painting and sketching and by the time he returned to his hometown of Perth, in Western Australia, he had amassed between thirty and forty canvasses. His works illustrated scenes among the wind-swept hills and bays of Macquarie Island, and depicted everyday life in the research camp.

In 1961, Ron Kenny moved to north Queensland to join the staff of the University College in Townsville (which later became James Cook University) as a lecturer in the Department of Zoology. Kenny soon set about convincing Professor Ken Back, the then University College Warden, to agree to an active policy of collecting works of established and emerging Australian artists.

Under Ron Kenny’s guidance as Honorary Curator from 1964 and up until his death in 1987, the JCU Art Collection grew steadily, with works purchased from commercial galleries and artists, particularly emerging north Queensland artists. The collection now contains over 600 artworks, which include prints, paintings, ceramics and sculptures.

Notable artists with works in the collection include Arthur Boyd, Brett Whiteley, Lloyd Rees, Roland Wakelin, Thea Proctor, Richard Larter, John Coburn, Sam Fullbrook, Ray Crooke, Judy Watson, Donald Friend, Lionel Lindsay, Judy Cassab, Francis Lymburner, and Grace Cossington-Smith.

A number of Ron Kenny’s works are also in the collection, which seems only fitting, given that he was instrumental in the early development of Townsville as a cultural centre, being a driving force for the establishment of the JCU Art Collection and a founding member of the Townsville Art Society.

In addition, the JCU Art Collection contains works by many past JCU art lecturers, such as James Brown, Edward Cowie, John Eveleigh, Jane Hawkins, Anne Lord, Ron McBurnie, Bob Preston, and Anneke Silver. The work of these artists showcase the important role JCU played in the development of contemporary visual arts in north Queensland during this period.

Note: This article was commissioned in support of the JCU Library T150 Townsville Past & Present project. To access more information resources go to the Celebrating Artists Guide.